Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, New Year Section, 9 September 1977.
The Machzor for the Days of Awe (all the page references in this article are to the Routledge edition) is not, of course, the product of a single mind, but contains elements from the biblical and rabbinic periods to which were added over the centuries hymns, prayers and liturgical poems of various types, none of which was adopted by any kind of official and central authority—there was, in fact, no such authority to do the adopting—and some of which, it must be admitted, owe more to the whim of the publicist than to the spiritual inspiration of the authors. For all that, certain themes recur consistently to provide what amounts to a theological statement of what Judaism is about.
As Jews prayed throughout the ages and in many lands on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it was these themes, briefly to be noted, that helped mould the Jewish mind and heart in thinking and feeling about religion. Adapting the words of Samson Raphael Hirsch, one might say that the catechism of the Jew is his Machzor—not that it was intended to be such, but its influence was so great that it became such.
The motif of God as King appears throughout: in the cantonal flourish “Thou are the King,” with which the Shacharit service begins (R.H. 80), in “The Lord is King” hymn (R.H. 105); in the prayer “Reign over the whole universe in Thy glory” (R.H. 93); in Vechol Ma’aminim (R.H. 149-151), and in many other places, especially in the Malchuyot verses (R.H. 135-136). Psalm 47, recited before the sounding of the shofar (R.H. 126), was, according to many biblical scholars, originally one of the so-called royal psalms, sung during the New Year festival in ancient Israel to celebrate the re-enactment of the earthly king’s coronation as symbolic of the divine King’s victory over chaos.
Be that as it may, it is clear that in the Jewish tradition generally Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the world, on which day God is haled once again as Creator and Ruler. The kingly metaphor—less forceful, nowadays, when the monarchy is not what it used to be—was intended to denote God’s power, majesty and splendor, with the corollary that his loyal subjects must be ready to do his biding unquestioningly, serving him without reservation.
Yet the rigours of this conception have been softened by the genius of Jewish understanding God is, in the words of the famous prayer, Avinu as well as Malkenu, loving Father as well as stem Master. The complementary idea of the loving and compassionate Creator “occurs again and again in the Machzor; in the biblical narratives about the care of fathers and mothers for their offspring (R.H. 117-8; 121-2; 216-8; 219-220); in the book of Jonah (Y.K. 201-204); in the many references to God’s mercy (e.g., Y.K 82; 251; 263), and in the references to God as he who “remembers.”
Another central theme of the Machzor is that of the Book of Life. In addition to the supplementary passages to the Amidah, such as “Remember us unto life” (R.H. 91 and frequently), this is found on numerous pages. The Unetaneh Tokef (R.H. 146-7, Y.K. 149-150) is the best-known of these, giving poignant expression to the idea of man’s life being weighed in the balance on the day when even the angels in Heaven are in fear and trembling.
A good deal depends on how all this is understood. Few would wish to interpret it literally in terms of divine book-keeping by an undecided Deity. It should rather be seen as a necessary reminder of the frailty of human existence and its dependence on God; of the need for repentance, prayer and charity to help us overcome the darker forces within our own being which threaten to destroy us, and the brave affirmation, typical of Judaism, that, for all its frustrations, sorrow and anguish, life is good and a precious gift of the Creator.
The Machzor is particularly rich in hymns of adoration: Adon Olam (R.H. 26-27) at the beginning of each rooming service and at the end of the Kol Nidre service; Shir Hayichud Y.K. Part I, 60-74), full of mystic fervour and the heart’s yearning for God as the great Unknown who is yet so near; “Thou art our God” (R.H. 98); Melech Elyon (R.H. 145-6); “Praise give to God” (Y.K. 144-9), and many others.
These should not be seen as attempts at telling God how wonderful he is. There is even a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud which declares it an offence to try to “flatter” God. He does not need our praise and worship, but we need them. There is a deep need in the human breast to worship. Religion in its most intense form does seem to consist of man expressing in words of poetry his sense of awe and wonder at the manifestations of the Creator in his creation and his sheer delight at being able—for all his consciousness that he is a puny being inhabiting a tiny speck amid the vastness of space—to address the source of all being as an intimate Thou. Buber was right when he suggested that man finds it much easier to speak to God than to speak about Him.
Sin, confession and pardon are the special themes of Yom Kippur. To be sure, Rosh Hashana, too, is Yom Hadin, “Day of Judgement,” but, surprisingly enough, there are few references to these ideas in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, apart from such passages as “Unto God who ordereth judgement” (R.H. 106). Tradition has it that “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before Thee” and “Our Father, our King, be gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! we are destitute of works” (R.H. 111 and 113) be recited under one’s breath.
One of the reasons given for this comparative silence on Rosh Hashana is that it is in order not to move Satan to prosecute, which, when demythologised, surely means that at the beginning of the year a fresh start towards living a better life is made more effectively by dwelling on man’s spiritual potentialities rather than on his past failure. But on Yom Kippur these tremendous themes occur on practically every page of the Machzor.
Critics of some of these passages in the Machzor have tended to see them as pandering to morbid guilt feelings, in so far as guilt feelings are morbid, they should, indeed, be rejected, but this should not mean that it is unhealthy ever to feel guilty. The truth of the matter is that to feel blameworthy when we have committed a wrong, and to resolve to put it right, is the healthy response, bringing about a realistic assessment of our nature and enabling us to discover the secret of a tranquility that is not based on self-delusion.
In the liturgy of Yom Kippur man abases himself before his Maker, ruthlessly honest with himself in exposing his faults, experiencing his remoteness from God, aware of his weakness and the temptations which beset him. And yet the note of hope and pardon is never absent. Implicitly, the whole of the Yom Kippur Machzor suggests that there is joy in forgiveness, by God to man, by man to his neighbour, by man to himself.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are, after all, festivals. When the High Priest came forth from the Holy of Holies in perfect peace he made a “festive day” (Yom Tov) for all his friends (Y.K. 166). A Chasidic master said that we sing the Ashamnu confession (Y.K. Part I, 46 and frequently) with a tuneful, joyous melody just as the charwomen whose job it was to clean the marble floors of the king’s splendid palace sang as they worked.
Kol Nidre is in a category of its own, neither prayer nor hymn but, because of its position at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service and especially because of its melody, it has all the features of hymns and prayers, expressing, albeit incidentally and yet all the more effectively for this very reason, hope and yearning, grief and sorrow, vacillation ending in conviction, recoil leading to triumphant acceptance.
Originally a bare legal formula and therefore in Aramaic—the language understood by the people far better than Hebrew at the time when it was composed—its very language now has become so unusual that it succeeds in transporting us beyond the lime barrier to link us with the unknown as well as with the generations that have gone, never to return. Something of this was, no doubt, behind the folk legend that the dead return in spirit to the synagogue when Kol Nidre is recited.
History enters the Machzor with the Avodah (Y.K. 159-167), the account of the ritual in the Temple, and the martyrologies (167-181) which follow this. Whatever the difficulties, and they are many, with regard to the whole system of animal sacrifices, the Avodah, when telling of the High Priest’s offerings and the people’s response in the Temple courtyard, dwells far less on the details of the sacrifices than on the numinous quality of the great day in those far-off times.
The climax of the recital is reached when the High Priest pronounces in holiness and purity the ineffable divine name, on hearing which the people bow the knee, prostrate themselves and fall on their faces. Nowadays, in many congregations, the falling on the face is practised not alone by the reader, but by the congregants as well, as did the prophets when confronted with the direct apprehension of the divine communication. The people of Israel, grandsons of the prophets, come into contact for a brief moment with the unseen world from which this world receives its energy and vitality.
As for the martyrologies, these are, alas, no longer a mere re-telling ancient tragedies, but a calling to mind of the searing experience of contemporary Jewry when the six million were murdered by beasts in human form. Many congregations, conscious of the fact that the reality is so enormous that none of the ancient words can express our feelings, here introduce readings from the Holocaust literature, but even those which have not done so now recite the old texts with a new and terrible meaning.
Together with reflection on the past and present awareness, the Machzor contains a third strand, hope for the future of Jewry and of all mankind. For, although the emphasis during the Days of Awe is undoubtedly on individual self-examination and repentance, Judaism does not permit the individual to live in isolation either from his own people or from the rest of humanity.
The Messianic hope is expressed in the Machzor in the sublime Veyetayu hymn (R.H. 151-2, Y.K. 154-5), in the Zichronot and Shofarot texts (R.H. 158-162); and in the magnificent Uvechen ten pachdecha (R.H. 15-16 and frequently) in which God is entreated to impose his awe on all his creatures that they may all unite to form one band to do His will with a perfect heart.
All three strands, past, present and future, are brought together at the end of the Yom Kippur service, when congregation recites the Shema, Baruch Shem and “The Lord, he is God.” These take us back to the biblical period, to Moses and his leadership and to Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, when the wavering people eventually saw the truth and cried out that God alone is and deserves and demands our worship.
But they are more than an attempt to recall past glories. This is the great affirmation of the truth that Judaism teaches as binding upon us in the here and now. And the service ends with a single blast of the shofar, said to symbolise the announcement that will be made to herald the advent of Messiah. The Machzor ends, as it began, with Israel seeking its God and being found by him.