Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most popular times of year for Jews to go to synagogue, but they also present an atypical synagogue experience. Most synagogues use the high attendance at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to fund their relatively expensive operations during the year, and so require worshippers to purchase tickets in advance. On a normal Shabbat or a less popular holiday, synagogues welcome anyone to just drop in to participate in services, so that’s unusual.
Another crowd-related anomaly which may feel a little more welcoming than the tickets is the presence of volunteer ushers at many synagogues on the High Holidays. Again, there are not going to be ushers or greeters at a normal service. Ask for help if you don’t know where to sit or what you need to have with you.
Traditionally, Jews pray a set service, mainly in Hebrew, with only a few opportunities for improvisation. The typical Saturday morning Sabbath service is longer than most Christian Sunday services, but the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are much longer even than that. If you want to, you can pray for most of the day on both holidays. In addition to the regular prayers that Jews pray all the time, there are many special prayers for the holiday. There is a special prayer book just for these two holidays that contains not only the prayers, but the scriptural readings for the holiday.
Most prayer books that Jews use on the High Holidays acknowledge that many worshippers only come once a year and are not fluent Hebrew readers. They provide both translations of the Hebrew prayers and inspirational readings in English on the themes of the service. In the Reform movement, much of the service may be prayed in English. In many Orthodox services, where Hebrew is the default language for prayer, the worshipper can still find a prayer book for these holidays that contains the Hebrew prayers with English on facing pages. Most congregations provide the prayer books for worshippers, and it is good to be on the same page as everyone else. You are not obligated to pray, but it is good manners to stand and sit when others do.
At most synagogues, the dress code for the High Holidays is dressy business attire. It is a custom of long standing to buy new clothing in honor of the holiday, and in many congregations there is social pressure to look good. There are wide variations in standards of appropriate modest dress as well. In some congregations, all men cover their heads with a skullcap called a yarmulke or kippah. In some, women cover their heads completely, or with a kippah, or not at all, and in some, head covering is optional. There should be a basket of head coverings at the entrance to the sanctuary if people in this congregation expect worshippers to wear them. If most worshippers wear a prayer shawl for morning services or for the special evening service on Yom Kippur, the congregation may provide those, too.
The salient themes of Rosh Hashanah prayers are God as King and God as Judge. At Rosh Hashanah, traditional prayers are peppered with additional references to divine kingship. The prayers emphasize the relationship between Jews and God–God’s power and might and humanity’s relative lack of power, as a way to excuse human failings.
The text of the prayer book is also full of language about the Jewish family relationship with God. The Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the sacrifice of Isaac, the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in the book of Genesis. Throughout the services, the prayers remind Jews that Jews have a family relationship with God, a history with God and with each other. Along with emphasizing God’s mercy, the prayers address God at length as Avinu Malkenu, “Our ruler, our parent.” Standing before the open ark where the Torah scrolls are displayed in white covers, the congregation sings a familiar melody addressing God in this way, in one of the characteristic moments of the holiday.
Another distinctive part of Rosh Hashanah services is the shofar service, which usually follows the morning services. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Saturday, the shofar is not sounded. The shofar is usually a ram’s horn, though some other kosher animal horns can be used. It’s blown like a trumpet, but not musically. The person leading the service calls out a series of blasts. It’s loud and in some way atavistic, recalling a pastoral past. Sometimes the person blowing the shofar wears a prayer shawl over his or her head, to shut out the congregation and concentrate, or not to be the focus of public attention. The traditional liturgy of the shofar service is verses about God’s kingship and about the power of remembering.
If you attend services this year, we hope reading this makes you feel more prepared and comfortable in the synagogue.