The high holiday prayers consist of powerful poetry that express profound theological truths in emotionally evocative ways. For those who cannot understand the original Hebrew, a learned and eloquent translation is the only gateway to the most important prayers of the year. For such readers, the recent publication of R. Jonathan Sacks’ translation and commentary in the Koren Machzor for Rosh Hashanah ushers in a new era of high holiday prayerbooks.
R. Jonathan Sacks broke new ground two years ago with his widely acclaimed translation of the siddur (link). His new machzor for Rosh Hashanah accomplishes the same for the high holiday prayers. His often small changes to the English make big changes in readability and inspiration. The prayers not only read like language we might actually use, they make more sense and instill greater spiritual awakenings. Below are some comparisons between R. Sacks’ and Artscroll’s translations. You will quickly see the improvements in style and meaning.
The following is from the repetition of the Shacharis Amidah (Atah hu Elokeinu):
|Only You are our God, on heaven and on earth. Mighty and fearful. Bannered by myriads; He spoke and it came into being. He ordered and they were created; His memory is eternal. He lives in all worlds; He is pure of eyes. He dwells in concealment; His crown is salvation. His raiment is charity; His cloak is jealousy. He is garbed in vengeance; His concealment is uprightness; His advice is faith; His accomplishment is truth. He is righteous and fair; He is close to those who call Him sincerely. High and exalted, He dwells in the heavens. He hangs the earth on nothing.||You are our LORD, in heaven and on earth. Mighty and revered, encircled with myriads. He spoke and it was, commanded and it came into being. His memory is forever, His life is everlasting. Pure of eye, He sits concealed. His crown is salvation, His garment is righteousness. His cloak is jealousy, His coat is vengeance. His counsel is candor, His wisdom is faith. His deeds are truth, He is righteous and upright. He is close to those who call upon Him in truth, He is sublime and lofty. He resides in the heavens, and hangs the earth over emptiness.|
Here is Chamol al ma’asekha from Musaf:
|Have compassion on Your handiwork and be glad with Your handiwork. May those who take refuge in You say — when You vindicate those born by You — “O Master, may You be sanctified upon all Your handiwork.”||Have mercy on those You have made, take joy in those You made, and those who shelter in You will say, as You absolve the ones You bear, “Be sanctified, LORD, through all that You have made.”|
I have long found particularly powerful the Geonic additions to the third blessing, beginning “U-ve-khein tein pachdekha“:
|And so, too, O HASHEM, our God, instill Your terror upon all Your works and Your dread upon all that You have created. Let all works revere You and all creatures prostrate themselves before You. Let them all become a single society, to do Your will wholeheartedly. For as we know, HASHEM, our God, that the dominion is Yours, might is in Your hand and strength is in Your right hand, and Your Name inspires awe over all that you have created.||And so place the fear of You, LORD our God, over all that You have made, and the terror of You over all You have created, and all who were made will stand in awe of You, and all of creation will worship You, and they will be bound all together as one to carry out Your will with an undivided heart; for we know, LORD our God, that all dominion is laid out before You, strength is in Your palm, and might in Your right hand, Your name spreading awe over all You have created.|
Here is the beginning of the famous U-nesaneh tokef in Musaf:
|Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals (and counts and calculates); who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself, and everyone’s signature on it.||Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity — it is awesome, terrible; on this day Your kingship is raised, Your throne is founded upon love, and You, with truth, sit upon it. In truth it is You: Judge and Accuser, Knowing One and Witness, writing and sealing, counting, numbering, remembering all forgotten things, You open the book of memories — it is read of itself, and every man’s name is signed there.|
Rabbi Sacks’ translation consistently improves the authentic feel of the prayers, rendering them faithful to the original but true to the petitioners who can better understand the intent. His changes are both subtle and obvious, ranging from minor word selection to arrangement of sentence structure. The overall result is a transformed prayer experience where you understand both the words and the mood our Sages intended, lifting your prayers to heaven with the soaring shofar sounds.