The Prayer Liturgy of the High Holy Days

Characterized by a sense of awe, these prayers are a constant reminder that we are standing before the King of the Universe.

A section of a stamp released in Israel in 2010 commemorating the festivals. (Image © Bigstock/irisphoto3)

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Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holidays for which intense and lengthy liturgical prayers have been written. These days (and the days in between) are known as the High Holy Days. In Hebrew, they are called Yamim Nora'im, which means "Fearsome Days" or "Days of Awe."

While the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) are characterized by great rejoicing, the High Holy Days carry a very different range of emotion. Beginning on Rosh Hashanah, solemn introspection is combined with resolve and hopefulness; by Yom Kippur, the mood has turned to penitence and utter dependence upon God.

These ten days are traditionally characterized by a sense of awe and trepidation—a constant acknowledgment that we are standing before the King of the Universe. This time is understood as a time of judgment for the coming year.

The High Holy Day prayers follow the same Jewish liturgical structure as weekday, Sabbath and festival prayers. However, there are many significant features of and additions to these prayers, which will be examined in this article.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the holiday prayers that sets them apart from those prayed the rest of the year is that they contain piyyutim, which are liturgical poems meant to embellish these prayers. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, piyyutim constitute very substantial portions of the daily prayer services.

Let us look at some of the unique stanzas and thoughts behind the High Holy Day prayers.

Rosh Hashanah

The Hebrew name Rosh Hashanah literally means "head of the year," but is known in the Torah as Yom Teru'ah1 ("A Day of Blasting") and Zikaron Teru'ah2 ("A Remembrance of Blasting").

The predominant message of the Rosh Hashanah prayers is the acknowledgment and acceptance of God as King over the entire world. A secondary theme is the inception of a new year, with the hope and plea that it will bring blessing, goodness and peace. Regret over misdeeds is more felt than expressed on this day, and we often find it difficult to understand why we should be judged favorably and rewarded with another good year.

The Book of Life and the Ten Days of Awe

Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, O Living God...

Throughout the Days of Awe, supplementary lines are inserted in several of the blessings in the Amidah,3 sometimes making reference to inscription in the Book of Life. In fact, the concept of the Book of Life appears in several places in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. This is often startling for people from a Christian background, who are familiar only with the phrase as coming from the book of Revelation. However, the phrase also appears in Psalm 69:29[28], and similar ideas are found elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.4

Unetaneh Tokef ("Let Us Describe the Power")

Let us describe the power of the holiness of this day, for it is awesome and fearsome...You will open the Book of Remembrances, and it will be read by itself, and the signature of every person is within it...On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed, and on the day of the fast of Yom Kippur, it will be sealed how many will pass away, and how many will be created, who will live, and who will die...but repentance, prayer and charity nullify the harsh sentence...

The prayer known as Unetaneh Tokef was originally written for Rosh Hashanah around one thousand years ago, but because of its dramatic and moving imagery it came to be included during Yom Kippur as well. It is intended to evoke a sense of trepidation as one stands before the throne of God's judgment. It speaks of mankind passing before God like sheep beneath the staff of a shepherd, which bears similarity with Yeshua's parable of the sheep and the goats.5

While the prayer describes the utter frailty and transience of man—and the fear one in judgment should feel—it also acknowledges God's supreme mercy, stating that a change of heart and life will overturn even the most severe decree of punishment.

Uvechen ("And Thus")

And thus, bring dread, O Lord, our God, upon all of Your works, and terror upon all that You have created. May all works fear You, and all created things bow in worship to You...

On Rosh Hashanah, the particular blessing of the Amidah that acknowledges God's holiness is expanded with an additional prayer that brings the era of redemption in successive stages: a) acknowledgement and fear of God's sovereignty; b) fulfillment of the redemptive promises, including the restoration of Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah, and; c) the gladdening of the righteous, as evil is eliminated from the earth. At this time, God's kingship will be fully manifest.

The prayer repeats the phrase uvechen (ובכן), meaning "and thus," several times, which is an allusion to Esther 4:16: "And thus, I will come before the king..." Queen Esther came before the king to plead for the salvation of her people, even though she had no legal right to do so. Likewise, Israel boldly prays to God for salvation, relying only upon God's mercy.

The Nine Blessing Amidah

And may the binding appear before You, when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac on top of the altar, and suppressed his [paternal] compassion in order to fulfill Your will wholeheartedly. So may Your compassion suppress Your anger...

On weekly Sabbaths and other holidays, the Amidah normally consists of seven blessings, in which the central blessing focuses on the sanctity of that particular time. During the mussaf 6 service of Rosh Hashanah; however, there are three central blessings instead of one, increasing the total number of blessings to nine.

The three blessings are "Kingdoms," "Remembrances" and "Shofars." Each blessing contains a sequence of ten verses that focus on the theme of the blessing: three from the Torah, three from the Writings, three from the Prophets, and an additional final verse from the Torah. At the end of each blessing, the shofar is blasted a number of times.

The "Kingdoms" blessing is an expanded edition of the Aleinu prayer, which declares the supremacy of God's kingship and the eventual elimination of idolatry from the earth.

The "Remembrances" blessing requests that God remember the covenants that He has made, and focus on the faithfulness of Abraham in offering his son Isaac to God.

The "Shofars" blessing begins by describing the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by the blast of a loud shofar. It concludes by describing the blast of the Great Shofar at the Messiah's coming, when Israel will be gathered back to the land.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is recorded in Hebrew in the Torah as Yom Hakippurim, "the Day of the Atonements." While the ancient Temple services focused on the intercession of the high priest on behalf of the entire nation, the synagogue prayers are more focused on the individual as a member of Israel. Repentance is the central focus as worshipers confess their sins to God and ask for forgiveness with contrition and urgency.

Baruch Shem Kevod—Said Aloud!

Blessed is the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.

On all other days of the year, this inserted second line of the Shema is read quietly. However, on Yom Kippur, this line is proclaimed aloud!

The Mishnah records that in the days of the Second Temple, the High Priest would actually pronounce the sacred name of God when he confessed sins in the hearing of the people on Yom Kippur. (This name of God is usually not pronounced as it is written because of its holiness.) Upon hearing that name aloud, all worshipers present fell on their faces, proclaiming "Blessed is the name..." in response to the extreme sanctity of that moment.

In the world today, God's kingship is not readily apparent. This corresponds with the daily recital of this line in a hushed tone. Yom Kippur reminds us of the day to come when God's sovereignty is unmistakable, and so we recite the line aloud.

Vidui ("Confession")

And do not disregard our offering, since we are not so obstinate or stiff-necked to say before You, "O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned, but we and our fathers have sinned."

One of the significant features of Yom Kippur prayers is the recital of Vidui following the Amidah during each one of the services. Vidui means "confession," and its origin is in the Torah's command that the high priest confess the sins of Israel as he lays his hand upon the head of the scapegoat.7

When reciting Vidui, one praying strikes his chest with his fist as an expression of sorrow each time a sin is mentioned. Yeshua refers to this gesture of repentance in a parable.8

Ne'ilah ("Closing")

The Lord, He is God!

Yom Kippur prayers are further unique because, in addition to the prayer services found on every Sabbath and holiday (ma'ariv, shacharit, mussaf and minchah), a fifth and final prayer time is added at the last moment before Yom Kippur ends.

This final service is called the Ne'ilah, which means "closing," and it is said to correspond with both the closing of the Temple gates in the evening and the closing of the gates of heaven as Yom Kippur draws to an end. A final, long blast of the shofar signals that the Day of Atonement is over.

The traditional solemn and desperate nature of the High Holy Days can be mistaken for uncertainty about whether or not one can be made right with God. On the contrary, this day is meant to bring mere recognition that in order to maintain a healthy relationship with our Father in Heaven, mankind must feel sincere regret over our sins and take initiative to confess our wrongdoing and make changes. Furthermore, repentance, confession of sins and prayer for forgiveness are completely consistent with the message of the Gospel—they are at its very core.

Endnotes
  1. Numbers 29:1.
  2. Leviticus 23:24.
  3. The Amidah prayer is known as the "Standing Prayer" and is prayed traditionally prayed three times a day by the devout Jew. The Amidah is comprised of various stanzas of blessing, thanks and petition.
  4. Compare Exodus 32:32-33 and Isaiah 4:3.
  5. Matthew 25:32-33.
  6. The mussaf service usually follows the regular prayer services, but offers extra prayers for those who desire to continue praying for a longer period of time. Mussaf is a Hebrew word derived from the root, "to add."
  7. Leviticus 16:21.
  8. Luke 18:13.

Adapted from: Messiah Magazine #97, written by Aaron Eby.

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About the Author: Aaron Eby is the Vine of David Director and an author and translator for FFOZ. He was the chief translator of The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels and works to develop liturgical resources that will strengthen Messianic Judaism. More articles by Aaron Eby

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