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What You Need to Know About Rosh Hashanah Services

What You Need to Know About Rosh Hashanah Services

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Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie
Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie

Welcome

Welcome to the Rosh Hashanah services. If this is your first time, or if you have not been to synagogue too often, no need to worry; many other people in the room are in the same boat.1 Plus, most of the natives are friendly and will be more than happy to help you out.

As you enter, make sure that you are appropriately dressed. For women, this means wearing a longish skirt and a conservative top. If you are married, you will want to cover your hair as well.

For men, make sure that you have your head covered. Most synagogues have a basket with kippahs at the door.

If you are attending morning services, you will notice that most of the men are wearing a prayer shawl called a tallit (or tallis) draped over their shoulders. In most Ashkenazic communities, we start wearing them only after marriage. In all likelihood, the synagogue has a rack with some spares that you can use.

Now that you are all dressed up, you need a book. The Rosh Hashanah prayerbook—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. If you are attending services at Chabad, chances are that the congregation will be using the red-bound machzorpublished by Kehot Publication Society. It has the Hebrew text on the right and the English translation on the left. Pick one up and make your way to your seat. Remember, in traditional Jewish services men and women sit separately.

Now that you’re sitting, let me tell you what you can expect. For your convenience, I will be pointing out the prayers as they appear in the Chabad machzor. If you’re using another edition, don’t worry; the pages may be different, but most of the prayers are the same.

In the front of the sanctuary, you will notice a large cabinet with a curtain draped over the front. Called an ark (or aron hakodesh), it contains the Torah scrolls, which are read during the services. We will be opening and closing it quite a lot. It is customary for people to stand whenever the ark is open. However, if you’re not feeling up to it, you may sit as long as the Torahs have not been removed from the ark.

Opening the synagogue ark.
Opening the synagogue ark.

The prayers will be led by the cantor, also known as the chazzan. He will begin and end each paragraph in Hebrew out loud. There will be some parts of the services that only he will say, with everyone else responding as indicated in the machzor. The rabbi will also be speaking from time to time (exactly how much varies). In some congregations, the rabbi will announce the pages. In others, there will be a board with page numbers that will be updated as you go along.

If you are more comfortable in English, then go ahead and say the prayers in English. After all, prayer is a conversation between you and G‑d, and you need to know what you’re saying.

The linchpin of the Rosh Hashanah morning services is the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), so even if you cannot attend all services, shofar-blowing is the one thing you do not want to miss.

Now, we attend services five times during the course of the two days of Rosh Hashanah:

  • The eve leading into Rosh Hashanah
  • First day of Rosh Hashanah in the morning
  • First day of Rosh Hashanah in the evening
  • Second day of Rosh Hashanah in the morning
  • Second day of Rosh Hashanah in the evening

Much of what we do on the second day is a repeat of day one, so I will only point out the new stuff, sending you back to day one for things that are the same.

Rosh Hashanah Eve

Minchah (p. 11): Before Rosh Hashanah technically begins, we hold the last prayer service of the outgoing year. It consists mostly of the Amidah, the Silent Prayer (pp. 12-19). We stand facing the front of the synagogue with our feet together and say the words quietly, in a whisper that only we can hear.

Once we’ve all said it, the chazzan will repeat it and the congregation will chime in with “amen” and other responses where appropriate.

Kabbalat Shabbat (p. 23): If Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, we begin the evening services with a collection of Psalms to welcome the “Shabbat queen.” They frame a special hymn called Lecha Dodi (“Come My Beloved”), which is often sung.

On all other days of the week, skip directly to Maariv (p. 28), the evening prayer, which we recite on a daily basis. However, in honor of Rosh Hashanah there are several important additions and modifications,

Shema (p. 30): As usual, the Maariv service begins with the Shema and its accompanying blessings. The Shema, in which we declare G‑d’s unity and our fidelity to Him, is perhaps the most central of all Jewish prayers. It is framed by blessings before and after it.

Amidah (p. 33): The Shema is followed by the Silent Prayer, known as the Amidah (“standing”), since we say it standing up. This one has special inserts for Rosh Hashanah.

Just a few paragraphs after the Amidah, we conclude the services. Once the prayers are over, it is customary to turn to your neighbors and wish them a good, sweet year.

You now go home to enjoy your evening meal, which includes challah dipped in honey, apples in honey, the head of a fish and other Rosh Hashanah specials (read about it here).

Morning Services

Good morning and welcome back. As mentioned above, you’ll notice that most of the men are wearing a prayer shawl called a tallit (or tallis). Now is the time to put yours on. If you don’t have one, the synagogue probably has some spares.

Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie
Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie

The morning service (called Shacharit) starts off pretty much the way it does every Sabbath, and can be divided as follows:

  • Introductory Hymns
  • The Shema and Its Blessings
  • Amidah and Repetition
  • Torah Reading and Haftorah

Introductory Hymns (p. 79): A selection of Psalms and other praises to G‑d, you can think of these as a “warmup” for the long run ahead. Look out for the words Hamelech yoshev” (“The King sits,” p. 99). The chazzan introduces these words with an ancient melody, and chants them loudly with a touch of trepidation.

Shema (p. 105): Like last night, it is framed by blessings.

Amidah and Chazzan’s Repetition (p. 109): Like yesterday afternoon, after we say the Silent Prayer during the daytime, the chazzan will repeat it out loud. The chazzan’s repetition is peppered with many additions, some of which are only said on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and some of which are reserved for the second day.

Thus, the two repetitions actually appear separately in the machzor (day one is on page 115, and day two follows on page 132). You will notice that for certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, we open the ark. Many of the additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the chazzan and the congregation.

If it is not Shabbat, the chazzan’s repetition segues into Avinu Malkeinu (p. 152), in which we address G‑d in a series of verses, each one beginning with “Our Father our King.”

Torah Reading (p. 160): All stand as two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and brought to the bimah (raised table) in the middle of the sanctuary to be read.

On the first day, we read from the book of Genesis, where we are told of Isaac’s miraculous birth to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. On the next day, we read how Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac to G‑d, substituting him with a ram at the last minute at G‑d’s command.

During the reading, a series of men are called up to say blessings over the Torah. This honor is known as having an aliyah. When the reading is over, the Torah is hoisted high in the air for all to see. We then take out a second scroll and read another small section of the Torah, where the day’s sacrificial order is mandated.

Haftorah (p. 170): The Torah reading is followed by the haftorah, a selection from the Prophets. On the first day we read of the miraculous birth of Samuel, and on the second day we read an uplifting selection of Isaiah.

Shofar-Blowing

A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).
A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).

We have now reached the apex of the Rosh Hashanah service, the blowing of the shofar (except when day one is Shabbat, in which case, we only blow the shofar on the following day). Every man, woman and child gathers in the sanctuary for this special mitzvah.

Standing at the bimah, on which the Torahs were read, the rabbi (or another respected member of the community) recites a collection of verses from the Psalms followed by two blessings: The first blesses G‑d, “who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar.” The second is Shehecheyanu, thanking G‑d for granting us yet another year of life, allowing us to blow shofar once again. You should answer each blessing with “amen.”

The shofar-blowing contains a series of three types of blasts: tekiah, a long sob-like blast; shevarim, a series of three short wails; and teruah, at least nine piercing staccato bursts.

The primary shofar-blowing consists of the following 30 blasts:

Tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah
Tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah
Tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah

Tekiah-shevarim-tekiah
Tekiah-shevarim-tekiah
Tekiah-shevarim- tekiah

Tekiah-teruah-tekiah
Tekiah-teruah-tekiah
Tekiah-teruah-tekiah gedolah (extra long blast)

This is one of the most sacred moments of the year. Let the sounds of the shofar wash over you, arousing your soul to come closer to G‑d. Be sure to be silent, so that you (and those around you) can hear the voice of the shofar.

Even after shofar-blowing, there are many people who will remain silent (only saying the words of the prayers) until the last of the shofar blasts are complete (we’ll get to that later).

Musaf (p. 215)

We are now about to start the second Silent Prayer of the day. By now you know the drill. We face the front with our feet together and read from pages 180 to 192.

But there is something different. The heart of this Amidah contains three blessings, each one focusing on another one of the three themes of Rosh Hashanah: crowning G‑d as king, praying that we be “remembered” for good, and the blowing of the shofar.

After each of these blessings is said, the following 10 blasts are blown:

Tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah
Tekiah-shevarim-tekiah
Tekiah-teruah-tekiah

Pause and wait for shofar-blowing at the appropriate spot on pages 186, 188 and 190, resuming the prayer after the shofar has been sounded.

Again, the reader will repeat the Silent Prayer with significant additions, with different tracks for day one (p. 193) and day two (p. 221).

One noted landmark is the Unetaneh Tokef (pp. 200 and 223), which contains the chilling description of G‑d’s decrees for those who will not survive the year: who will perish by “water, who by fire, who by sword, who by hunger . . .” After those sobering pronouncements, we declare loudly (and, as you can imagine, with great sincerity) that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah (commonly translated as “repentance,” “prayer” and “charity”) avert the worst decree. (View a printable PDF of Unetaneh Tokef excerpted from the Kehot machzor.)

As in your Silent Prayer, 10 blasts of the shofar will be blown following the three central blessings.

Near the end of the repetition, we have the Priestly Blessing (pp. 218 and 241). Known as Birkat Kohanim, this blessing can be given only by descendants of Aaron, the high priest. They bless the congregation with prosperity, divine favor and peace, using an ancient formula written in the Torah. You will notice the kohanim exit the synagogue to wash their hands before performing the blessing. During the actual blessing, they cover their upper bodies with their prayer shawls. It’s customary for men to cover their heads with their prayer shawls, and for small children to stand underneath their father’s tallit during the blessing.

This is followed by yet another round of 10 shofar blasts, bringing us to a grand total of 100 blasts.

The service is nearing its end, but don’t leave yet. The Chabad custom is to blow an additional sequence of 30 blasts after Musaf has concluded.

By now it’s already early afternoon, and it’s time for your holiday meal. Kiddush and challah dipped in honey are to be followed by holiday delicacies, celebrating the divine favor we are confident we have been granted.

Minchah—Afternoon Service

The afternoon service (p. 272) consists primarily of the Amidah and the repetition (on Shabbat it is preceded by Torah reading on page 275). This is significantly shorter than the two Amidahs you’ve said this morning. Like this morning, if it is not Friday or Shabbat, the chazzan’s repetition is followed by Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our King”).

Tashlich—Casting Away the Sins

Credit: Collection of Yeshiva University Museum
Credit: Collection of Yeshiva University Museum

After Minchah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (or on the second day, if the first day was Shabbat), it is customary to walk to a body of natural water (ideally with fish in it), for a quick ceremony called Tashlich (p. 291), in which we ask G‑d to “cast [our] sins into the sea.” If you cannot make it out on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, you can do this for the next three weeks, until Hoshana Rabbah.

Day Two

Evening services of the second night are a repeat of what we said the previous night (p. 28). The most important thing to remember is that in your meal, you eat a new fruit following Kiddush, instead of apple in honey and fish head, etc., after challah.

Day two is also a repeat, except that the chazzan’s repetition of the two morning Amidahs varies, as you know by now, and there is no Tashlich (unless day one was Shabbat).

After night has fallen and Rosh Hashanah has ended, we conclude with weekday Maariv (p. 293), which consists of Shema (and its blessings) and the Amidah.

Keep It Going!

Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year,” so make sure not to decapitate your year. Instead, take the inspiration that you’ve gleaned from the spiritual high of these two days and channel it into increased Jewish involvement, next week on Yom Kippur, and then into the rest of the year.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

Footnotes
1.
Maybe you should worry. But now is not the time. There is plenty of time during the High Holidays for introspection. For now, just settle into your seat and get into your Rosh Hashanah groove.
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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