High Holy Days

Un’saneh Tokef & Days of Awe

Later additions to the liturgy have been inserted such as the Un’saneh Tokef. This was developed during the Christian persecution of Jews during the Crusades. This poetic prayer speaks of the sanctity of God’s Day of Judgment. We read “The great shofar is sounded. A still, small voice is heard. This day even angels are alarmed, seized with fear and trembling as they declare: ‘the day of Judgment is here!’ ” Then a mournful dirge is sung: B’Rosh Hashonah, yi-ka-say-vun, yi-ka-say-vun, uv yom tzom kippur yay-cha-say-moon, yay-cha-say-moon. The translation is as follows: “On Rosh Hashonah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Yes, these are the “Days of Awe” and this is why Jews fast and afflict their souls on Yom Kippur. They beat their breasts and cry out for forgiveness.

During the days of penitence between these two solemn assemblies, observant Jews think about their sins and go to one another seeking forgiveness. There is a sense in which Jews understand the need to forgive one another if they are to find forgiveness. Certainly, this belief is one of many which the early Church imported from the faith of our forefathers.

High Point of High Holidays?

My favorite moment during the High Holidays is always on Rosh Hashonah during shoforos.

As previously explained, the shofar is the horn of a ram. It is a tool of the season to call us to teshuvah--repentance. Jewish people hear this sound on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. The blast is to stir them. Just as you wake up in the morning to the familiar sound of an alarm clock. When we hear the sound of the shofar, we should come to repentance. The correct usage of the instrument requires three basic notes plus one variation. Tekia, is one long blast. Shevarim is three short blasts, and teruah is nine staccato blasts. Then a variation known as tekiah gedolah, is heard climaxing in one extended long blast. When the shofar is heard we are called to repentance. We are called to think. We are called to reflect on the condition of our souls.

Maimonides, a medieval Jewish sage, philosopher, and undoubtedly one of our greatest teachers said the following regarding the shofar:


You who are asleep wake up. Search your deeds and repent. Look into your souls you who indulge all year in trifles, amend your ways. Let each one of you give up his evil course and purpose.[11]

To Be “Broken” is the Key

The “Days of Awe” are filled with reflection and solemnity. The Bible presents a truth about the need for a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Judaism accepts this view and vividly paints the picture that can teach all of us to humbly approach God. Being broken before God is more than the key to humility. It is a very special language that the God of Israel understands and hears with compassion. He desires to listen often and carefully to His repentant children. Jews and Christians alike should give thoughtful attention to the following wisdom.

Israel Baal Shem Tov offers this Hasidic insight into the meaning of prayer that explains it better than most modern Christian literature.

In the palace of the king there are many rooms and there is a key for each room. An ax, however, is the passkey of passkeys, for with it one can break through all the doors and all the gates.

Each prayer has its own proper meaning and it is therefore the specific key to a door in the Divine Palace, but a broken heart is an ax which opens all the gates.[13]

God hears the prayer cried out from a broken heart. The solemn mood and reflective time of inner focus during the High Holidays should move the honest person to deep humility and genuine repentance leading to a tender heart.

   For a Happy New Year: Repent!

The greeting offered to one another during the holiday season is l’shanah tovah tikohtavu. “may you be inscribed for a good year.” This is a very real blessing to offer. The Rosh Hashanah prayer service focuses on s’lichos--the penitential prayers. During this segment of the service we make confession to God for our sins. We ask monumental questions during our High Holiday liturgy.


Who shall live and who shall die? Who will perish by fire, and who by water? Who by the sword, and who by wild beasts? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by the plague? Who shall become rich and who shall become poor?

We ask many of these things of God and after each section of this somber prayer we speak with faith, “Penitence, prayer, and charity can avert the evil decree.”