Universal Prayer in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana

Meir Bar-Ilan

Whereas the national worshiper seeks to find his personal salvation in the salvation of his people and addresses the God of Israel, the universal worshiper addresses the Lord of the universe and asks Him to be concerned with the entire world. From one point of view, these two worshipers represent opposites but from another point of view, they complement each other. Both attitudes are present in the heart of every Jewish worshiper. Jewish prayer, in spite of its national character, also has the nature of universal prayer.

Indeed, generally, the Jewish worshiper addresses his God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and thus reflects his national approach. The blessings of the credo, "Reading of Shema (Hear)" well exemplify the national character as after "Creator of the Luminaries", praise to God the Creator of everything, come the blessings that close with "Who chooses His people Israel with love" and "Who loves His people Israel". After this the worshiper blesses "Who redeemed Israel". In the evening he adds "Who protects His people Israel forever" or "Who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of His people Isreal and upon Jerusalem". Thus it appears that these blessings, surrounding the Shema and concluding with a special designation for Israel, express the national character in Jewish prayer.

In the "Amida" (standing devotion) the national approach of the worshiper continues. After the blessings of praise in which God is described as "God of our fathers" and the general descriptions "reviver of the dead" and "the holy God" there come blessings which are national in consciousness or which contain the national aspect or is completely blurred. Blessings like "Redeemer of Israel", "Gatherer of the dispersed of His people Israel", or "Who blesses His people Israel with Peace" are declaratively nationalistic. In contrast, the blessing "Giver of Wisdom" is translatable into any language and fit to pass into any culture as a prayer since it has no clear expression of a national approach. Differing from it is the blessing "Who hears prayer", even though it includes the plea "for You hear the prayer of every mouth", the reference is apparently to the prayer of every Jewish mouth since only a Jew made the preceding requests for the restoration of justice, the destruction of the enemies of God's people, and God's mercy on the remnant of His people, on Jerusalem and on the offspring of David.

In summary, the national approach is at the basis of the Amida. Although this prayer contains hints of a universal approach, these remain only hints.Thus, for example, in the Modim of the Rabbis the worshiper says "God of all flesh" and continues "everything alive thanks You, Selah". Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that the Nishmat prayer on the Sabbath opens with the words "The soul of every living being blesses Your name, Lord our God", the principal guiding theme of the central daily prayers is characterized by a distinctly national tinge.

In light of these general remarks about Jewish prayer, it is worth looking into the Musaf (additional prayer) of Rosh Hashana, a prayer that differs in a number of ways from the rest of the prayers, and its universal approach. As will become clear below, study of the Rosh Hashana Musaf reveals how this prayer is replete with universal themes, prayers that have almost no duplicate in the prayers of the rest of the year.

In the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, the prayer of the "sanctity of The Name" - which only later became the prayer in all the Ten days of Awe - opens with the words "Now therefore, O Lord our God, impose thine awe upon all Thy works and Thy dread over all that Thou hast created" ("Kings of Rabbi Yokhanan Ben Nuri"). Before us is an example of a prayer with a distinct universal nature. The worshiper continues to ask: "that all Thy works may fear Thee and all creatures prostrate themselves before Thee". The worshiper thus emphasizes that his appeal does not relate to the mutual bonds between the people of Israel and the God of Israel but to the bonds of our God with "all that Thou hast created". In a small paragraph the repeated appeals of the worshiper to his God accompany the word 'all' five times, and 'all of them' once to teach us that the worshiper wants to see the rule of God over the whole world.

This universal prayer precedes a prayer with a distinctly national coloration "And therefore, O Lord, give glory unto Thy people, praise to them that fear Thee", etc. Thus the worshiper opens with universal words and uses them as background for his national prayer. The worshiper continues with his plea "and all wickedness shall be wholly consumed like smoke", but the principal link between the two prayers - the universal and the national - is seen in the continuation: "And Thou, O Lord, shalt reign, Thou alone, over all Thy works on Mount Zion", etc. Thus the universal prayer prepares the way to the final goal of the worshiper, that the Lord will reign in Zion and Jerusalem, within His people and His land, as explained in the continuation: "and shine forth and exalt Thyself over us in the sight of all living".

The continuation of the universal idea in the prayer is found in the "Kings" section, and is recognized in the second part of "Alenu leShabeh" At the beginning, the worshiper says "It behoveth us to praise the Lord of all", a prayer whose origin is in the Hekhalot (= Heavenly Palaces) literature, but in spite of the inclusive description "Master of all", the intent of the excerpt is distinctly national. The worshiper emphasizes the distinction between the Jewish people and all the other families of the earth, and thanks God for the distinction between His people and the others. However, in the second part of "Alenu", the aspiration of the worshiper is not only to thank God, but "when the world shall be set under the Kingdom of the Almighty". This universal approach, national gratitude to God preceding the universal plea for perfection of the entire world, is strengthened in pleas accompanying 'all' five times and once more 'all of them'. Thus, the same style of emphasizing through the frequency of all in the prayer, and placing national and universal prayers next to each other as complementary ideas.

The worshiper moves over to the verses of "Kings", and at the end cites one verse with universal significance and immediately after it, a verse with national significance. At the end of the quoted verses, the worshiper quotes the verse from Zecharaiah (XIV, 9) "The Lord will be King over the whole world", and immediately thereafter he quotes the first verse of "Shema" (acceptance of the yoke of divine kingship), "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one". Thus there is the juxtaposition of the national and universal. Basically, the worshiper intends to say that the perfecting of Israel can come only through the perfecting of the entire world.

The excerpt that concludes "Kings" is a wonderful example of universal prayer. After "Our God and God of our fathers". (A "national" opening not part of the subject but only an opening formula) the worshiper brings his universal plea in a sequence of pleas including, as in the preceding prayers, multiple repetition of all: "and rule over all the world entirely in Your honor, and be elevated over all the earth in Your glory, and appear to all dwellers of Your universe, and all creatures will know that You created them" etc. Eight times the worshiper expresses his plea containing all. This universal prayer is followed by a separate national prayer: "Our God and God of our fathers, sanctify us by Your commandments and and grant our portion in Your Torah". In other words, the worshiper goes from a general plea for the reign of the Lord in the world to a prayer that only a Jew can direct to God, comparable to the juxtaposition of the national and universal ideas above. There is no better way to conclude this prayer than with the closure: "King over all the earth, Sanctifier of Israel and of the Day of Remembrance".

In other words, first the designation of God who rules over all the earth (without being limited to His rule over Israel, or a vague designation of the reign of God as in the evening prayer in the Ashkenazi version) and afterwards, linked to the universal idea comes the national idea "Sanctifier of Israel".

The prayer of "Remembrances" opens with a universal prayer: "You remember the creation of the world and recall all ancient creatures". This beautiful prayer is studded with ten expressions all or all of them, and is intended to emphasize that God remembers everything. Even when the word 'all' is not present, it is obvious that the worshiper intends it, as in "regarding the states, it is decreed at that time: who for the sword (war) and who for peace" etc. Clearly the worshiper intends all the states even if he does not say it explicitly. Thus also the rhetorical question "Who is not remembered this day?" is an alternative of the assertion "God remembers all on this day". Hence, even if in the course of the prayer the worshiper avoids repetition of 'all' he still uses a beautiful literary style that speaks of God Who remembers everything. This universal prayer precedes the national prayer included in "Remembrances". The prayer concluding with "remembers the covenant" - that is, remembering the covenant of the patriarchs - is a national prayer in which the worshiper sees the remembering of His people as the focus of his words. Indeed the worshiper says towards closing (in circular repetition): "For You remember forever all the forgotten", but his principal intent is that God should remember His covenant with His people, should remember the covenant of Abraham, the kindness of the youthful days of the people of Israel, and Ephraim the beloved child.

Once the worshiper reaches the "ram's horn (shofar/trumpet)" section, the universal idea has almost faded away. Indeed the worshiper declares "and all the world in its entirety trembles before you", but this occurred when Israel received the Torah. The worshiper goes over to verses of Shofar and hopes "Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah" but he is only citing a verse without the development of independent thought. Similarly in the immediate continuation, when the worshiper cites the words of Isaiah (XVIII,3) "All who live in the world and inhabit the earth", this verse is included only for reference to Shofar, in the manner of the verses cited in the prayer of the day.

The cantor's repetition includes universal passages that were not said previously by the congregation in its silent prayer. The "Sanctification" is preceded by the section of awesome glory: "We shall relate the might of the sanctity of the day", a prayer presumably composed before the eighth century. This lyrical prayer emphasizes the universal character of the day: God remembers all the forgotten, and the book of memory of "every person" is called up, "and all the world's occupants pass before You like a herd of sheep". Thus God judges not only His people but the entire world. The poet again emphasizes this in saying: "You count every living soul, and you determine the lifetime for every creature, and inscribe their verdict". The poet is not speaking only of himself or even only about the people of Israel. On this day "all the world's occupants" come to be judged before the Master of the Universe.

In the "sanctity of the day" prayer in the cantor's repetition, after the universal prayer "Now bestow Your awe" which is succeeded by the national prayer "Bestow honor, Lord, on Your people", the cantor returns to the universal idea in a hymn composed by an anonymous ancient poet: "and all shall come to serve You". This hymn is certainly a universal prayer, notwithstanding the appearance of 'all' only twice, as the poet's intent was, as is seen from the structure of the hymn, that his pleas be realized by all the nations. All the nations shall come and bless, relate and expound, praise and say, etc. The climax of the nations' acceptance of the reign of the Lord will be "And they shall praise You in the congregation of people", that is, in the presence of the people of Israel. And the worshiper concludes: "And they will bestow a royal crown", that is, all the nations (including Israel) will crown the Lord and thus express their recognition of His reign over them.

Finally, it is worth noting that with the closing of the blessing "Kings" (and the other two sections) the following hymn is said: "This day the world was called into being, today He sits in judgment on all the world's creature, whether as children, whether as slaves", etc. Thus, first the worshiper points out that God is the judge of the entire world, but immediately after that he elaborates on the two categories of people being judged that day, children and slaves. The poet refrained from citing the text (Deuteronomy XIV,1) "You are children of the Lord", implying that Israel is judged as children whereas other nations are judged as slaves. The worshiper being judged by God apparently hesitated to say this explicitly for fear that the Judge might tell him that his behavior was that of a sinning slave and not of a beloved, obedient son (in accordance with the method of R. Judah in Kiddushin 36a). In any case the poet continued and presented himself as being on trial, uncertain of his status as a child or a slave though the hint is understood.

In summary, the universal idea, which on ordinary days appears almost concealed if present at all in prayer, receives honored status on Rosh Hashana. The prayers for all mankind are near the prayers for the Jewish people and the worshiper is aware that the salvation of Israel will come only with the salvation of all mankind. In any case, the national idea in prayer complements the universal idea and vice versa. This approach of the worshiper on Rosh Hashana is seen as continuing the vision of the prophets of Israel who prophesied unto all the nations and not just Israel; likewise it continues the Scriptural idea that the Lord is the Judge of the whole earth. Apparently in this (as in other matters) the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashana is unique.


The translation of the liturgical texts is mostly from: Service of the Synagogue: New Year, [Naphtali Adler haKohen], New York: Hebrew Publishing Co. [not dated].

See: Meir Bar-Ilan, Mysteries of Prayer and Hekhalot, Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1987, pp. 52, 80 (Hebrew).

Originally this paper appeared in Hebrew, in: HaZofe, September 19, 1990.

Translated by: Rachelle and Saul Isserow envelope icon

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last updated: May 18, 2003