While similar in style to the prayers on Shabbos and Yom Tov throughout the year, Shacharis on Rosh Hashana has some significant differences. First, we insert a lot of piyutim, which are special liturgical poems that are not part of the original davening. Second, the tune used by the Chazzan is unique to the high holidays.
The Chazzan begins Shacharis by chanting “Hamelech” in a haunting tune. After singing the first stanza, he makes his way to the Amud and carries on. Upon concluding the Yishtabach prayer, but before beginning the Kadish prior to Barichu, the Ark is opened and Psalm 130 is read. Typically, this psalm is recited responsively, each verse read aloud first by the Chazzan and then repeated by the congregation.
Upon concluding Chazaras Hashatz, the Ark is opened and Avinu Malekeinu – which is reserved for fast days and the Ten Days of Repentance – is recited. It includes multiple pleas to G-d for a good year, forgiveness, good health, redemption, sustenance, and a lot more. A few of the stanzas are slightly altered during the Ten Days of Repentance. For example, we say “Our Father, Our King, inscribe us in the book of life”, while on fast days during the year we read “Our Father, Our King, remember us for good life”. The difference is because we are being judged on Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance. As such, we pray for an inscription in the book of the righteous.
The Torah readings on Rosh Hashana pertain to ideas that are integral to the day. Because Rosh Hashana is a holiday, five people are called up to the Torah, which includes one Cohen and one Levi. If Rosh Hashana falls out on a Shabbos, seven are called up, as is the custom throughout the year. This does not include Maftir, which is the final portion read on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and is not included in the count of five or seven.
The Torah reading on the first day recalls how G-d remembers Sarah and she begets a child after waiting for many years. With time Sarah becomes worried that her son might be influenced by Yishmael’s bad behavior. Avraham banishes him and his mother Hagar from their home. When out in the wilderness their water supply runs dry, Yishmael becomes gravely ill and Hagar abandons Yishmael because she can’t bear to see him die. Hashem hears Yishmael’s cry and an angel instructs Hagar not to fear but to lift the boy because “shama Elokim el kol ha’na’ar ba’asher hoo sham” – G-d heard the voice of the lad in his present state. Now G-d allows Hagar to see a well, whereupon she draws water and saves her son’s life.
The concept of “ba’asher hoo sham” – the present state of the lad, ties into the theme of Rosh Hashana. Like Yishmael who sinned prior to his suffering, we too make mistakes. On Rosh Hashana day we come before our Creator to request mercy. If we are now sincere, then G-d looks not at our past or future. Rather, He focuses on our present state. While Yishmael’s descendants would cause the Jewish nation to suffer greatly, Yishmael himself was judged solely on his own merit at that point in time.
The reading on the second day is about the Akaida. Avraham was tested by G-d to see if his love for Him would transcend all else. Despite the staggering pain of slaughtering an only child, Avraham persevered. Every bone in Avraham’s body rebelled, yet his love for Hashem transcended all else. At the last second, an angel intervened and prevented Avraham from slaughtering his son. At that time, the angel of Hashem swore a mighty oath that Avraham’s progeny would become very great and would inherit the gate of its enemy. We learn from this story about the intense love we ought to have for G-d, as well as G-d’s everlasting love for the Jewish nation, which are descendants of Avraham.
Shofar Blowing is the highlight of Rosh Hashana, and the biblical command that is unique to the day. While the custom is to sound one hundred blasts, the first thirty are the main ones. These are sounded now, after the Torah reading but before Mussaf. The exception to this is if the first day of Rosh Hashana falls out on a Shabbos, in which case the shofar is not sounded at all. In those years, we blow the Shofar only on the second day of Rosh Hashana.
The Shofar blowing ceremony begins with Psalm 47 which is read seven times. Then, the Tokea (Shofar blower) recites a prayer silently, entreating G-d for help. After that, the Tokea recites specific verses aloud, followed by the congregation. The first letters of six of these stanazas reads “kra satan” which means destroy the adversary. It is a prayer that Hashem not allow the Satan to accuse.
The Tokea now recites two blessings, and the congregation responds Amen. The blowing starts immediately, and includes various styles of blasts, all of which are made up of Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah sounds.
Before the Tokea blows, the Makrei calls out the type of blast so that he knows which one to blow. If the Chazzan fails to make the right sound, the Makrei will tell him to go back and redo it until he gets it right. After the Tokea blows all thirty sounds, the congregation recites a short prayer and a few more verses are read aloud. Then, the congregation continues with Ashrei and the Mussaf prayer.
Like every Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh, we include Mussaf in our morning prayers. Mussaf takes more time than Shacharis because it includes more Piyutim, as well as the remaining seventy Shofar blasts. The Chazzan for Mussaf is typically not the same as the Chazzan for Shacharis, but the tune remains the same. One thing unique to this Mussaf prayer is that it is the longest Shmone Esrai of the year.
Malchiyos, Zichronos , Shofros – Much of the theme of the Mussaf prayer revolves around the three main concepts of the day – Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar blasts. Not only do we read verses that highlight these themes, we also offer up prayers to G-d on these topics. We pray that His kingship be recognized by all humanity, that He remember us for the good, and that the great shofar that will herald in the coming of the Moshiach finally ring.
Shofar Blowing – At different times throughout Mussaf the Tokea heads to the Bima and blows various sets of blasts. In the Nusach Ashkinaz custom, the shofar is not blown during the silent Shmone Esrai. Rather, it is sounded during the Chazzan’s repetition, and at the end of Mussaf. In Nusach Sfard, the blowing is done during the silent Shmone Esrai. Regardless, the shofar will be blown again after Mussaf to complete one hundred blasts. One may not talk from the time that the blessing is made before the sounding of the Shofar, until all blasts are completed after Musssaf.
After Mincha on the first day of Rosh Hashana there is a custom to recite Tashlich near a body of water, preferably one that contains life in it, like an ocean or lake. We recite prayers that can be found in the Rosh Hashana Machzor, and symbolically demonstrate that we are ridding ourselves of ours sins by asking G-d to heave them into the watery depths where they will never be dredged up. If there is no water in walking distance on Rosh Hashana, one may postpone the recital of Tashlich to a later time during the Ten Days of Repentance, or until Hoshana Rabbah if an earlier time isn’t possible.
It’s important to note that one may not throw bread or crumbs into the water at Tashlich because it is forbidden to feed wild animals or fish on Shabbos and Yomim Tovim. One may throw bread in the water at Tashlich if they are reciting the prayer on a weekday during the Ten Days of Repentance or before Hoshana Rabbah.
SPECIAL ADDITIONS FOR THE ASERES YEMEI TESHUVA
Beginning on Rosh Hashana and continuing until after Yom Kippur, we add certain phrases into the Shmone Esrei. They are:
1. In the first blessing, we ask Hashem to be remembered and written in the book of life “Zachraynu l’chayim…”
2. In the second blessing, we pray to be recalled with mercy for life “Mee chamocha…”
3. In the third blessing, we switch “Ha’El Hakadosh” to “HaMelech Hakadosh”
4. In the blessing of “Hashiva shoftenu” we switch the wording from “Melech ohev tzidaka umishpat” to “Hamelech hamishpat”.
5. After Modim, we add another plea to be written for life – “Oo’chesov l’chaym tovim…”
6. In the final blessing of Sim Shalom, we add a prayer for life, peace, livelihood and more – “B’esefer chayim bracha v’shalom….”
The prayer of Aveinu Malkaynu is recited on every weekday of the Ten Days of Repentance, including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In this prayer, we refer to Hashem as both our Father and our King, while praying for a good year in every respect.