The Rosh HaShanah Amidah
by Dr. Richard Sarason
The basic Rosh HaShanah Amidah is an elaboration of that for the Festivals. Both have seven benedictions, as on Shabbat—the first three and last three of the daily Amidah, with the Kedushat hayom (“Sanctity of the Day”) benediction in the middle.1 On both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Kedushat hayom benediction builds on the text for the Festivals:
1. The first portion of the benediction, beginning Attah v’chartanu, celebrates the gift of the festival calendar—which is understood to enact the true, cosmic calendar—as a mark of God’s special love for the Jewish people. The distinctive theme of each occasion is inserted into this paragraph. Rosh HaShanah is referred to as yom hazikaron hazeh, yom t’ru’ah, “this day of remembrance, a day of blasts” (making use of the biblical language of Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1). This refers to the fact that, in biblical times, as the critical season of the ingathering of the fall harvest and the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel approached, the community would “sound the alarm” to invoke God’s providential attention/remembrance and blessing.
2. The benediction’s second paragraph, beginning with the words Ya’aleh v’yavo, is a petition for God’s providential attention, blessing, and restoration at this crucial time of the year. (The text is the same on all Festivals, High Holy Days, and Rosh Chodesh.)
3. The third paragraph of the benediction takes a unique form on Rosh Hashanah. It begins with the words Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu m’loch al kol ha’olam kulo bichvodecha, “Our God and God of our ancestors, reign in glory over the entire world.” This articulates the Rosh Hashanah Malchiyot theme: the renewal of God’s sovereignty over all Creation on the New Year, and the fervent messianic hope that, in the near future, all peoples will come to recognize and acknowledge that sovereignty.
4. The fourth and final paragraph is the invariant core of the benediction, which is familiar from Shabbat as well as the other Festivals: Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu kadsheinu b’mitzvotecha, “Our God and God of our ancestors, sanctify us with your mitzvot.” This is an invocation of God’s blessing on the Sabbath/Festival/High Holy Day. It concludes with the chatimah (“seal,” summary), Baruch attah Adonai, m’kadesh (hashabbat v’) yisra’el v’haz’manim/yom hazikaron/yom hakippurim ,“Praised be You, O God, who sanctifies [the Sabbath] and Israel and the Festivals/the Day of Remembrance/the Day of Atonement”—depending on the occasion. The rabbinic norms of liturgical rhetoric require that the final phrase of a benediction immediately before the chatimah must transition into it thematically. So the final phrase before the chatimah on Rosh HaShanahrecapitulates the theme of God’s remembrance/judgment at the New Year: ki attah elohim emet ud’varcha emet v’kayyam la’ad, “For you are the God of truth/faithfulness, and your word is true and endures forever.” (The “true words of God” here likely refer as well to God’s promises of redemption.) The chatimah then includes the words melech al kol ha’aretz, “Sovereign over all the earth,” on both Rosh HaShanahand Yom Kippur.
There are also insertions into the first three benedictions and the last two benedictions on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.2 Except for the lengthy insertion into the third benediction, all of these are recited during the entire ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. These insertions are as follows:
1. In the Avot (“Ancestors”) benediction, the following short poem precedes the transition to the chatimah:
Zochreinu l’chayim/ Melech chafeitz bachayim
V’chotveinu sefer chayim/ L’ma’ancha elohim chayim.
Remember us for life/ O Sovereign who delights in life,
And inscribe us in the Book of Life/ For Your own sake, O God of life.
The theme of the poem is indicated by the repeated “rhyming” word at the end of each phrase: “life.” The Rosh Hashanah themes of God’s Remembrance and Sovereignty are also stressed through the use of these words. The poem is linked to the wording of the benediction in which it appears through the use of these same words: the immediately preceding sentence of the regular text begins, v’zocheir chasdei avot (“[God Who] remembers the loyal deeds of the ancestors”), while the line following the insertion begins, melech ozeir umoshi’a umagein (“Sovereign, Helper, Savior, and Shield/Protector”).
2. The Gevurot (“God’s Might”) benediction includes the following poetic insertion:
Mi chamocha ba’al harachamim/ Zocheir y’tsurav l’hayyim b’rachamim.
Who is like You, Master of compassion / Who remembers His creatures for life in compassion?
The poem repeats the Remembrance theme, while appealing to God’s compassion. It begins with the language of the benediction’s immediately preceding sentence: Mi chamocha ba’al gevurot (“Who is like You, Master of mighty deeds?”).
3. In the Kedushat hashem (“God’s Sanctity”) benediction, the wording of the chatimah is changed during the Ten Days of Repentance from ha’el hakadosh (“the holy God”) to hamelech hakadosh (“the holy Sovereign”), emphasizing the Sovereignty theme.
On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a series of four paragraphs beginning with the words Uv’chein tein (“Therefore grant”) are inserted into this benediction. They articulate the Sovereignty theme: the wish that the divine Majesty might speedily be revealed over all the earth so that all peoples will come to acknowledge the true God, the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked punished, Israel will be restored to their land, and God’s Sovereignty will be established on earth.3
There is no High Holy Day insertion into the Avodah (“Divine Service”) benediction (and it is not entirely clear why this is the case), but there are brief insertions into the final two benedictions:
1. The phrase, uch’tov l’chayim tovim et kol b’nei vritecha (“And inscribe all the people of Your covenant for a good life”), sounding the Remembrance theme, appears before the transition to the chatimah of the Hoda’ah (“Thanksgiving”) benediction. The verbal link to the main text is the word chayim that begins the next line, v’chol hachayim yoducha sela (“And may all living creatures give thanks to You forever”).
2. Finally, the petition, Beseifer chayim, b’rachah v’shalom ufarnasah tovah nizacheir vnikateiv l’fanecha anachnu v’chol am’cha beit yisra’el l’chayim tovim ul’shalom (“May we and all Your people the household of Israel be remembered and inscribed for a good life and wellbeing in the book of life, blessing, wellbeing, and prosperity”) is inserted at the very end of the last benediction, Shalom (“Peace/Wellbeing”). It again sounds the Remembrance theme, in a final appeal to be judged worthy of a year of life and blessing—its last word, shalom, is also the key word of this blessing’s chatimah.
In sum, the Amidah for Rosh HaShanah sounds all of the themes of the occasion—God’s Sovereignty, divine judgment and providence—multiple times through a series of insertions into virtually each of the blessings. This is a parade example of how Jewish liturgy retains its core structure throughout the year while adjusting to include the themes of each occasion.
- In the traditional liturgy, the Musaf Amidah on Rosh HaShanah has nine benedictions—the regular seven plus Zichronot (“God’s Remembrance”) and Shofarot, both accompanied by shofar blasts. Since most North American Reform prayer books historically have omitted the Musaf service, they generally treat Zichronot and Shofarot, together with Malchiyot (“God’s Sovereignty”), which traditionally is part of the Kedushat hayom benediction, as a separate entity, renamed “The Shofar Service.” More on this in weeks to come.
- The custom of inserting text on special occasions (Shabbat, Festivals, High Holy Days)—either phrases or short poems—into prayers whose wording otherwise was fixed is characteristic of Babylonian liturgy. In the land of Israel, it was more common to create new poetic forms of the prayers that wove the theme of the special occasion into the standard theme of the prayer. The Babylonians found this too cumbersome: harder to memorize and harder to teach to “non-specialists.”
- It is possible that the presence of this extended Malchiyot text in the third benediction reflects an old rabbinic dispute (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 4:5) over where the Malchiyot theme should properly be inserted in the Amidah: in the third blessing, dealing with God’s sanctity, or in the fourth, dealing with the sacred occasion. The Mishnah rules in favor of the latter—but, to this day, the former still contains this version of the theme!
Dr. Richard Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.