New machzor delves into heart of Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has published enough books to earn his many titles — around 20 tomes, ranging from scholarly commentaries to analysis of contemporary culture. Widely viewed as one of the top Jewish leaders in the world, Sacks published the “Koren Sacks Siddur” in 2009, so named for the author and his famously authoritative publisher. That prayer book offered a new translation and commentary and has been making its way into wide use in Modern Orthodox synagogues.

Last month, Koren released the much-anticipated “Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” ($34.95), integrating Koren’s elegant format and linear translation with Sacks’ scholarly insights into the High Holy Days. In the 1,120-page volume, Sacks offers an accessible, accurate and poetic translation and wide-ranging commentary to explain and augment the prayers and significance of the day. Sacks spoke to The Journal from his office in London.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax: You acknowledge in your introduction that the High Holy Days prayers are lengthy and sometimes obscure, with difficult-to-understand poetry and acrostics. How does your machzor make the service more accessible? 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: We put a lot of work into the translation to, hopefully, bring out the power of the poetry and of the prose. And I constructed the commentary around the parts where there is time to reflect. …

In my rather long introduction, I tried to tell the story of Rosh Hashanah, which almost nobody knows. I didn’t know the story until I started researching, because Rosh Hashanah doesn’t appear as Rosh Hashanah as we know it in the whole of Tanach [Bible]. So how did it evolve? I wanted to make it in some sense interesting and in some sense moving, to stop you and make you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t think about that before.’ Rosh Hashanah is one of those moments when you really think, ‘Who am I? What am I doing with my time? What have I added to the story of our people? What will I be remembered for?’

I think it’s an incredibly energizing thing to be able to review your life once a year. It just keeps you on track somehow. You know, if I ruled the world, I would make every country celebrate a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I think they call it mission drift in military terms, when you get blown off track by events. So it’s just important to get back to first principles and say, ‘Why am I here and what does life ask of me?’

JGF: In looking at your V’Chol Maaminim (And All Believe) prayer, for the first time I realized that I’ve been singing the prayer incorrectly, parsing the couplets in the wrong way — a common practice, you point out on that page. In several instances in the stage directions and the commentary, you note subtle, almost academic nuances, yet these are differences that can really impact the way people pray.

JS: You know, you go around an ancient building and it looks old, and it looks spectacular, but if you know the history of the building, and know why this bit is in this style, and this bit is in that style, and what is the difference between Gothic and Baroque and Palladian columns, you see the building differently. It is that kind of architectural detail that I wanted people to have. I had the privilege once of being invited by Prince Philip to deliver a lecture at Windsor Castle, and I began by saying that Jews don’t have castles, but we have a story, and that is our castle. It isn’t built out of brick, but it is built out of words, and it’s four times as old as Windsor Castle. And that is where we live — that is our spiritual home. And I wanted to point out in the machzor this incredible structure of words, put together over many centuries.

But I also wanted to write in the commentary the questions that we are being asked. It’s not the questions we ask about Judaism, it is the questions that Judaism asks of us that are also important.

JGF: What are some of those questions?

JS: It all comes to a climax in ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ (Let Us Voice the Power). Here we are, ‘like fading grass, like shattered pottery, like a cloud that floats away.’ We’re here for so short a time. How can we make a difference? How can we connect with something that will live on after us? How can we experience eternity in the here and now? And these are questions that our very consumerist, individualist, secularist culture just doesn’t ask. So the mere fact that we’re sitting there through this extended choral symphony of Rosh Hashanah tefilah [prayer] just lifts us out of our everyday lives and really confronts us with the challenge of greatness.

Jews are a people of words — we just keep talking. And in the heart of it all comes this wordless cry of the shofar. Rabbi Akiva said the shofar is the cry of us to God, it’s the binding of Isaac, it’s the Jewish people saying to God, ‘Look at all the tears we shed in Your name.’ And Maimonides says it’s the opposite — it’s the cry of God to us, saying, ‘Wake up, get real.’ This whole thing of the wordless cry at the heart of this religion of words is tremendously dramatic. And I’ve tried in my commentary to bring that out a little bit. I hope you’ll read it and learn a little bit more about what it is to be Jewish and standing face to face with God at the very moment that he is acting as both sovereign of the universe and judge of our lives.

JGF: Your rabbinate has been focused on those two aspects — the universal, the place of Jews in the larger world on the one hand, and the particular, Jewish responsibility on the other. Tell me how you see these themes playing out in the machzor.

JS: The thing about Rosh Hashanah is it ties in this huge cosmology of God bringing the world into being, with this very intimate, personal thing God is asking us. We’re all passing before him, like sheep before a shepherd, and he is looking at us one by one — it’s eyeball to eyeball with infinity. So, on the one hand the cosmic, and on the other the very individual. And it is that contrast that makes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very different from Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, which are all to do with being a part of a particular nation and its history. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sort of beyond history.

JGF: I found on a single page in your commentary references to Shakespeare, Rabbi Bunam of Pzhysha and S.Y. Agnon — people from all different parts of Jewish and non-Jewish life. What sort of research did you do, and how did you pull this all together? 

JS: I believe in the particular and the universal. I’ve been a rabbi, and I’ve taught rabbis, and headed a rabbinical seminary, and on the other hand, I was educated in secular philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge and I’ve taught at universities around the world. Judaism is about vast horizons. Torah on the one hand, chochmah, the wisdom of the world, on the other. Why not integrate them? Why not bring them together on the page? I sometimes think we’ve become quite narrow in the way we represent Judaism. The psalmist says, ‘Min hametzar karati ya, anani bamerchavyah,’ ‘I cry to God from my confinement, and God answers me with wide open spaces.’ I tried to give this some intellectual breadth that says, ‘We are Jews, and that is our way of being citizens of the world.’ It’s going a bit against the grain of where Orthodoxy is at the moment. But that is fine. I enjoy going against the grain.

JGF: Did you get feedback about the experience people were having using the daily siddur that influenced what you put into the machzor?

JS: The feedback on the siddur was so positive that it really gave me the motivation to do the machzorim. Almost the first thing people said about the siddur is, ‘This really helped me daven.’ And the second thing was, ‘When are you going to do the machzorim?’ So I did the Rosh Hashanah machzor, and I’m working on the Yom Kippur machzor at the moment. I certainly felt that the reaction to the siddur exceeded my expectations. There is something about the Jewish soul that wants to speak to God, but we’ve found ourselves a bit tongue-tied. l