During the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah, special “Selichot” (atonement) prayers are said each morning, literally at the crack of dawn.
On Rosh Hashanah itself, there are many additions to the regular service. In the Mussaf service, the shofar is blown many times. The three themes of this service are;
Malchuyot (kingship), Zichronot (remembrance) and Shofrot (shofar blowing).
On this day we crown God as the true God, as our one and only King, the Righteous Judge of the world.
The remembrance prayer beseeches God to remember only our good deeds and those of our forefathers and therefore judge us favorably.
We recall the shofar blasts when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai and ask that it will be speedily sounded again with the arrival of Messiah.
One of the high points of the Mussaf prayer is the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer-poem. It was written approximately one thousand years ago by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany.
Rabbi Amnon was summoned by the bishop of Mainz who pressed him to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon repeatedly refused, but on one occasion, he requested three days to consider the offer. Immediately afterward he regretted that he had even intimated considering converting, and for three days he couldn’t eat or sleep and prayed to God for forgiveness. When three days were over, Rabbi Amnon had to be forcibly brought before the bishop, and said “I should have my tonge cut out for not refusing immediately”. The bishop had Rabbi Amnon’s limbs amputated and sent him home. A few days later, on Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon, dying of his wounds requested to be brought to the synagogue, and with his last breath, said the prayer known as Unetaneh Tokef. Three days later, Rabi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabby Kalonymus, a Torah scholar and poet and taught him the exact text of the prayer. Rabbi Amnon asked that this prayer be disseminated amoung all the Jewish communities and be included in the High Holy Day prayers of all time.
The prayer portrays God as a Shepherd tending his flock, examining and counting each one individually as it passes under his staff, comparing this to the judgment of all humanity on this day to be judged for the coming year.
During the first afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (in case it’s on Shabbat, the Tashlich prayer is postponed to the second day), the Tashlich prayer takes place near natural flowing water. After saying this beautiful prayer, one symbolically shakes ones’ sins into the water.
Ten Days of Repentance
The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the “Ten Days of Repentance”, a second chance, as it were to be inscribed in the Book of the Righteous on Yom Kippur. There are three ways to do so, as it states in the prayer, “Repentance, Prayer and Charity can remove the bad decree”. As one repents his sins and resolves to improve his actions in the future, by giving charity and praying with greater concentration, one can improve ones spiritual status before Yom Kippur.