They have titles like “Hadesh Yameinu,” “Mishkan Hanefesh” and “Lev Shalem”— “Renew Our Days,” “Tabernacle of the Soul” and “A Full Heart.” These are some of the High Holiday prayer books that are found in many of America’s synagogues and temples. These particular prayer books, though, are called “machzorim.” The word comes from the Hebrew root “to review” or “to go over.” Therefore, in Jewish literature, the machzor is a book that is returned to year after year.
Rabbi Noah Cheses of the Orthodox Young Israel of Sharon encourages people to own a machzor. He points out that in many Orthodox communities “the majority of our members have their own machzorim. When they go to the shelf every year before Rosh Hashanah, they understand that it’s a time to check in and begin the reflective work of the High Holidays by getting reacquainted with the machzor. The [literal] meaning of machzor helps us to carry memories and reflections into our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.”
Congregants at the Reconstructionist Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury will pray from “Hadesh Yameinu” during their services. Hillel B’nai Torah’s Rabbi Barbara Penzner says: “When you open this machzor, it’s an experience. It isn’t a bunch of words on a page. You can find things that speak to you. The layout is pleasing and the art is beautiful. You don’t feel like you’re swamped by these words you don’t understand, whether in Hebrew or English.”
Penzner further notes that the machzor also brings Reconstructionist theology to light. For example, the movement has jettisoned the phrase “the chosen people” in favor of more inclusivity. And translations of the prayers are purposely gender neutral. “People sometimes mistake Reconstructionists for atheists, but we acknowledge that God is more than a supernatural being who runs things,” she says. “It’s an open, inclusive sense of what God can be. Sometimes the word ‘God’ gets in the way for people. In our machzor, you almost never see the word God. You see a lot of names for God—‘The Holy One,’ ‘The Boundless One,’ ‘The Eternal One.’ This helps people open up so they don’t get stuck in this confrontation of what they think God is.”
Rabbi Jay Perlman of the Reform Temple Beth Shalom in Needham is excited about using “Mishkan Hanefesh” again. Perlman led services from the machzor for the first time last year. He notes: “This prayer book is really a beautiful tapestry. The translations of the prayers are egalitarian, and it removes all gender identification in the prayer itself, allowing for a more poetic flow. It also allows for the reader of the service to let his or her eyes wander and to find meaning in prayers that are perhaps not being spoken or sung aloud during the service.”
Perlman says the machzor also blends the Reform movement’s liberal approach with the richness of tradition. He cites the example of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. “We know in our community the notion of God transcends gender specificity, but in the prayer book we keep the Avinu Malkeinu—Our Father, Our King—as it is,” he says.
For Cheses, Avinu Malkeinu encompasses two contrasting terms. “One is a father and the other is a king,” he says. “They have different emotional resonances. Father is mostly a term of endearment, and when we think of a king, we think predominantly of fear, apprehension, trepidation and submission. There are elements of both in our relationship with our creator. We’re trying to get both of these relationships in play during the various prayers, so Avinu Malkeinu is really a trope that is woven throughout the prayers during the holidays but comes to full throttle when we’re saying that phrase over and over.”
Like its Reform and Reconstructionist counterparts, the Conservative machzor “Lev Shalem” also provides supplemental readings from a variety of sources, including Hasidic masters and contemporary philosophers. Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton explains that the role of a machzor “is to bring ancient words and prayers and thoughts that are timeless to us in fresh ways where that wisdom speaks to us.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are his favorite times to be in synagogue. “These days are about being reflective practitioners of our own lives,” he says. “It’s such a gift to be part of a people that takes the business of living so seriously.”
Gardenswartz asserts that a good machzor is integral to such reflection. And a great machzor can take familiar phrases and imbue them with new meaning. “The job of a service,” he says, “is not that the rabbi and cantor give people meaning. Often the job of a rabbi or cantor is to do tsimtsum, to contract, so people can find their own meaning. It’s helpful to give a good sermon or sing a good liturgy. But it’s also helpful to get out of the way so people can find their own answers. A good machzor has people doing their own dialogue with it.”
To that end, explains Perlman: “A prayer book doesn’t have a soul until an individual comes to it and utilizes it to bring meaning into one’s life. It invites us, the clergy, and by extension the congregation, to make it our own.”