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Introduction to a New Machzor: What to Expect

Posted on August 22, 2017 by Rabbi Jim Bennett

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Jewish community brought offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to express their profound gratitude, hopes and prayers on holy days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The arrival of the New Year, heralded by the sound of the shofar, was also welcomed with burnt offerings to God. Similarly, the Day of Atonement was marked by solemn offerings acknowledging the sinfulness of the people and praying for yet one more year of wellbeing.

With the destruction of the Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE, a new era of communal worship was ushered in with the institution of the synagogue. Jews now began to gather together for prayer each day, each Shabbat and – of course – each holy day.  Realizing the need for a sense of organization and unity, the siddur, a daily prayerbook and the machzor, a high holiday prayerbook emerged. For hundreds of years a common machzor evolved, merging the words of Torah with prophetic teachings, ancient poetry called Piyutim, and the words of some of the most inspiring prayers of the Jewish community.

With the birth of Reform Judaism in the 19th century, the need for a more contemporary liturgy was born. The Reform movement led the way in innovative and creative worship, and eventually the Union Prayer Book and the accompanying Union Prayer Book for the High Holidays were published. Many of us who grew up in the Reform movement in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century have fond memories of the poetic and inspiring words of the Union Prayer book. At the same time, by the 1970s it became clear that the language and ideas in this book were no longer most relevant to the majority of American Jews and the Gates of Prayer and the Gates of Repentance were born. More modern language usage replaced the formality of the older English of the Union Prayer Book. New poetry was added, ideology that was no longer familiar to American Reform Jews was excluded and a book that was more appropriate for the last quarter of the 20th century was born.

Now, a generation later, our Reform movement has become accustomed to the beauty and meaning of Mishkan T’filah, our Shabbat and daily prayer book, so we are welcoming Mishkan HaNefesh, a new machzor (or High Holiday prayer book) as well.

As we prepare for the coming New Year during the month of Elul, we invite you into a deeper understanding of Mishkan T’filah, our new book. In many ways, the machzor will feel familiar, filled with prayers, readings and traditions that remind us all of the beauty and majesty of the High Holidays we have always shared.

At the same time, there is much that is new. For one thing, Mishkan HaNefesh (which means “Sanctuary of the Soul”) looks new. It is published in two volumes, one for Rosh Hashanah and one for Yom Kippur. The design, shape and size of the book is new. The book reads from right to left according to the tradition of Hebrew publishing. While much of the music of the holidays will sound familiar, there are new opportunities for songs that will uplift and inspire us. There are new poetic readings, new insights and new opportunities for spiritual meaning and practice in these pages. The ancient ideas of these Days of Awe are wrapped in contemporary understandings, with a full sense of inclusion and egalitarianism in the language and content. God is referred to in a gender inclusive manner, and the challenge of Jewish particularism in an ever more universal world is tackled directly. While many of the beautiful texts of the machzor remain the same, we will also be challenged to add new understandings of our faith to those we have carried with us or even thought to cast off in the past.

In short, Mishkan HaNefesh is a book that will simultaneously challenge and inspire. In a short time, when the newness of the books and their unfamiliarity fades, we are confident that this book will be a truly beloved addition to the many volumes that have made the Jewish people the “People of the Book.” We invite you to join us in opening the pages and entering the holiness of our most holy Days of Awe.


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