Ask The Rabbis | What Is the Most Important High Holidays Prayer?
Master of the Universe! We are entering that very special time when Noah opened the window of his ark (Genesis 8:6), a daring act of faith against the tragic reality of a collapsed world. “This is Yom Kippur,” our ancients taught us, “for the ark of Noah, she is Mother of Above, and the window of the ark is the Central Column through which the light of the Torah, the hidden light, is illuminated” (Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 39). Give us then the strength and the courage to fling open that window so that your light may shine more brilliantly, as when it shone through the window of Noah’s Ark when he dared to open it and envision Genesis in the face of Nemesis. Carry us across the chasm between what once was and what we hope can be. Grant us the wisdom and inspiration to do what we must here in the realm of the Created to empower the potency of the Divine Light so that it may shatter the impediments and illuminate the beauty of your Creation.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
Humanistic Jews greet the High Holidays with optimism and purpose. For us, these are not days of dread and awe, but opportunities for renewal and rededication to bettering our own lives and the world around us. This year, we will have in our minds the death of Heather Heyer and the blatant display of racism, neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville. We will be thinking of the lack of moral leadership coming from the White House, the stripping away of rights and voting access, and more.
To this end, on Rosh Hashanah we will say, “Where there are prejudice and hatred, let there be acceptance and love. Where there are tyranny and oppression, let there be freedom and justice. Where there are strife and discord, let there be harmony and peace.” And on Yom Kippur we will acknowledge that “we have acted wrongly by hardening our hearts, by shirking duty, by keeping the poor in the chains of poverty and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed, by failing to work for peace, by keeping silent in the face of injustice.”
But we will also take encouragement from each other and say, “May our hearts not despair of human good. May no trial, however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust. May we too find strength to meet adversity with quiet courage and unshaken will.”
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
In many synagogues the last phrase before we start the Shacharit (morning) prayers on Shabbat is, “The King is enthroned on high in majesty.” On the High Holy Days, we also chant this phrase in the morning, but the music is quite grand—it is meant to stand out. The High Holy Days emphasize our need to crown God as king. We are reminding ourselves that not everything (and perhaps nothing) is in our power. As much as we think we can control what’s happening in our world, in our country, in our own lives, we must count on God. It doesn’t mean that we stop doing the hard work, but it does mean that we humble ourselves. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, sung on Rosh Hashanah, also embraces God as Sovereign and takes it further. It tells us that God counts each of us as a shepherd counts his sheep. We all matter. Each one of us is seen, watched, judged and cared for. And there is a shepherd, there is a king, there is a Great Power, if we would only open our hearts.
Rabbi Elyssa Joy Austerklein
Beth El Congregation
The most iconic prayer is Unetaneh Tokef, which asks “who shall live and who shall die.” This piyut (pietistic poem) reaches every high note: the metaphorical book of remembrances, bearing our signature, signaling that we’re judged by our actions alone; the true and scary unknowns of the year ahead, such as “who’ll be humbled, and who uplifted”; and the clarity that though we’re not in control, three of our actions—repentance, prayer and righteousness—temper the severity of God’s (or fate’s) decree.
An especially insightful prayer is Hayom Harat Olam, said after the shofar is blown at the Rosh Hashanah Musaf (afternoon) service: “Today the world is conceived.” It’s a liturgical call to stay open to the pregnant possibilities in this world—to practice gratitude, transcend inertia and habits and see the possibilities around us. It insists that Creation itself matters, with our own existence utterly intertwined with the lives of all people and all species.
But the most important prayer? Whatever moves you! What sends you out of shul, ready to make amends? Soothes the troubled soul? Punctures smugness to truly trouble us? Sticks in our heart and our kishkes, pushing us to be better people through next Rosh Hashanah? That’s the most important prayer.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Is the most important prayer the one that is most evocative of the holiday, such as Kol Nidre? Chanted on Yom Kippur evening, the Kol Nidre prayer asks God to absolve any oaths or vows we have made in the past year, effectively wiping the slate clean. Or is it the prayer most often repeated, such as Avinu Malkeinu? One of the oldest prayers in the High Holy Day prayer book, recited throughout the Ten Days of Repentance and during the morning and evening services, this prayer pleads to God for the year ahead. Or is the most important prayer the one most tied to our process of teshuvah (repentance)? As we recite the Vidui, the litany of confessions in the first person plural, on Yom Kippur, we stand together as a community of support, recognizing that while we may not have individually committed any one of these sins, we surely have done so collectively.
Any one of these prayers recited during this season could be considered the most important. But it doesn’t matter what I suggest. The better question is, “What is the most important prayer for you at this time and in this season?”
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
I sense from the question that you are wondering whether there are particular High Holy Day prayers that bring light or meaning especially to these challenging political times. So many of us have little or no confidence in the president of the United States, and we worry that the very soul of this country is under siege.
The prayers that speak to these times and these issues are not unique to the High Holy Days but are recited each Shabbat morning. The prayer for our country, the prayer for Israel and the prayer for peace resonate more now than ever. Each of these prayers speaks to the important issues so many of us worry about. In addition, in the Conservative movement’s new siddur Lev Shalem, there is a beautiful prayer about the environment, which seems particularly meaningful now.
I think that the High Holy Day liturgy serves a different purpose. The High Holy Days are about individual reflection and introspection. As a result, the prayers that are especially important for one individual may not be especially relevant for another. While we come together as a community and recite much of the liturgy as one, the days are about our individual lives and personal relationships. The High Holy Days challenge us to ensure that our personal values are aligned with our behavior.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Sadly, most of the prayers we will say on the High Holy Days will be verbal exercises. They will have no effect on our heart. A friend once compared uttering these words to drinking distilled water, which goes through the system but leaves nothing behind.
The most important prayer, the prayer that brings a moment of ignition of the heart, is unpredictable in advance. From year to year, different prayers have touched me. A lot depends on your readiness to be inspired. One prayer has touched me more often than others. It is found at the end of the Neilah (closing) prayer of Yom Kippur in the traditional liturgy: “O Lord our God, out of love, You have given us this Yom Kippur to end it in forgiveness of all our sins in order that we cease all acts of exploitation or oppression and turn to You to fulfill your gracious laws with our whole heart.”
This passage reminds me that the amazing blessing of being forgiven for wrong behaviors is predicated on our desisting from ongoing acts that harm, exploit or oppress others. I always stop and review what acts I am doing that fit this description, and I promise myself to cease and desist. Some years, it works.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
The single most important line of the prayers we say is in Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur. Near the end of the Amidah, we return once more to the Vidui, or confession, as we have done throughout the day, but this time it’s truncated. We say the one-paragraph alphabetical list of sins, the Ashamnu, but we leave out the long laundry list of failings that is usually included and replace it with one line, “L’maan nechdal me-oshek yadenu,” which means, “so we may withdraw our hands from oshek.” The prayer book usually translates oshek as “oppression,” but rabbinically it can also be understood as “theft.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik says that after we spend the entire month of Elul repenting and ten days living on a spiritual high, after five repetitions of the Amidah and 25 hours of fasting, it all comes down to this one line: If we don’t recognize that life is not random, that we were given the gift of life with a set of expectations, we’re not just sinning, we are stealing life itself. When we fail in our commitment to God, our fellow man or ourselves, we essentially are misappropriating our very lives—not using them for the purpose for which they were given.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
The most important prayer of Rosh Hashanah is: “May everything that was made know that you made it; may everything that was formed understand that you formed it, and may everyone with breath in his nostrils proclaim, ‘The Lord, G-d of Israel, is king.’”
Beseeching G-d for our needs is a big part of our daily prayers. Yet, on Rosh Hashanah, when the fate of our year hangs in the balance, our prayers are virtually silent on our own needs. Instead they focus on our allegiance to G-d. Why?
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of mankind. On this day, Adam proclaimed G-d king of the universe and G-d accepted the title. Ever since, on this day, we too crown G-d. But though G-d asked nothing of Adam in return, He asks something of us. He will be our king, if we pledge our obedience. On Rosh Hashanah, we pledge our fidelity to G-d, and He, as our king, pledges to provide for our needs. We don’t need to pray for our needs on this day because G-d pledges to take care of them. Instead we pray for the greatest gift of all: The gift of a relationship with G-d.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Congregation Beth Tefilah
Before blowing the shofar, the Sephardic custom is to chant the poem Oked VeHaneekad, by Rabbi Yehuda ben Shmuel ibn Abbas. It is a powerful and penetrating criticism of the Binding of Isaac, one that gives no answers and raises many questions. At the heart of the poem is a dialogue between Isaac and Abraham, in which the son tells his father to wrap the remnants of his ashes and take them home to Sarah. “Tell her,” he says, “this is Isaac’s fragrance.” Lest the reader think that Isaac glorifies the sacrifice, the author puts in his mouth these words “I feel for my mother! She will cry and mourn! How can I comfort her?” Isaac tells Abraham that whereas his own ordeal will end with his death on the altar, Abraham will have to live with the consequences. He asks his father if he has considered his actions, if he feels that his love of God is greater than his love for his wife and son and if he did right by not telling Sarah his true intentions. This call for balancing religious zeal with compassion, and for understanding that human emotions are part of God’s world, is one of the most important messages of the High Holidays.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation