The Central Rosh Hashanah Prayer Explained

A man in religious clothing holds an old book

Photo Credit: Marie Docher/Getty Images

Aug. 31, 2021

"In actuality, Rosh Hashanah is not a Jewish holiday at all," said Professor of Classical Rabbinic Literature Reuven Kimelman.

By that, he means that other days of Jewish observance commemorate a specific historical moment in Jewish history. 

But Rosh Hashanah observes the birthday of the world's creation or, in another interpretation, the birthday of humanity (as marked by the Hebrew calendar). Both are events relevant to all humankind. 

No prayer better exemplifies this aspiration to universalism than the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, a nearly 2,000-year-old prayer traditionally recited while standing. (Amidah means standing in Hebrew.) 

"The Rosh Hashanah Amidah is the seminal prayer of the holiday," Kimelman said. 

Below is a line-by-line annotation of three of the prayer's central paragraphs, based on an interview with Kimelman. Select the purple boxes to see the comments or use the buttons in the toolbar at the bottom to advance through the prayer. The same information is also available in a simplified version.