Once in a generation: the new Reform High Holy Day machzor

Ten years in the making, the new prayerbook is intended to serve congregations for the next 40 years


When they bring their new High Holy Day machzor to shul this autumn, many Reform congregants will feel the difference. The book will be lighter than the previous edition not because it has has fewer pages — in fact, with 1,300, it has more — but because it has reverted to a two-volume set rather than the single one published in 1985.

The change in weight has one obvious practicality, as the machzor’s editorial group chair, Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of Edgware and Hendon Reform, explained. “In so many synagogues, you are not in your regular seat, you are in a seat in a hall — or a cinema even, as was Finchley Reform [last year] — so you haven’t got a place to lean your book against,” he said.

The machzor is available as an ebook too (an option open to Progressive movements, but not to Orthodox). “The advantage of an ebook version for those who need to use it is that they can make the font size whatever works for them, which is not possible with hard print,” he said.

A new machzor is usually a once-in-a-generation event, that reflects both changes that may have taken place in the intervening decades since the previous edition but also anticipation of what will continue to speak to readers in the years ahead. The latest Reform High Holy Day machzor — the ninth in the movement’s 180-plus history — has been designed to match its most recent siddur, which reached congregations in 2008; it features a clear layout and signposting, use of colour, illustrations, gender-neutral language for God and transliteration of Hebrew prayers into English letters. It took 10 years to produce (it might have been eight, were it not for Covid, Rabbi Goldsmith said.)

“We felt that accessibility is hugely important,” he said. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days when many people will come to synagogue who don’t come regularly during the year and therefore knowing where you are, what’s going on makes it a more meaningful experience.”

Updating the language was essential too. For 51 weeks of the year, rabbis were referring to God as “the Eternal” in the siddur but in the 1985 machzor “God goes back to being ‘He” and ‘the Lord’ — which jars with more and more people,” said the machzor’s co-editor Rabbi Paul Freedman of Radlett Reform.

In no prayer was this more apparent than one of the best-known, Avinu, Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King”. The new machzor includes four variations of the prayer including one that keeps the two Hebrew terms but does not translate them and another than uses different names to address God.

While the machzor does not follow the siddur in offering alternative service tracks, it does give options. “Alongside prayers, there are interpretations which give the opportunity to use a study piece in place of a prayer when you feel as a shaliach tzibbur [prayer leader] that’s going to be more relevant or meaningful at a particular time,” Rabbi Goldsmith said. “We’ve done it by colour coding which was not possible to do in previous years…

“In 1985, not many Reform synagogues would celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah. Now almost all of them do. And this book gives you choices to be able to do something different on second day Rosh Hashanah.”

The machzor contains over 1,000 study passages, both alongside the prayers and in an anthology at the back, much of which were compiled by the co-editor Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet, the former principal of Leo Baeck College. Co-editor of the 1985 edition, he must be one of the few people with the distinction of editing a machzor twice.

One of the challenges, Rabbi Goldsmith said, was trying to figure out which issues today would remain so in 2065 — “and that is difficult. One of Jonathan’s and Lionel Blue’s achievements in the 1985 machzor was it never did feel out of date.

“We’re assuming ecology, climate change, is going to be an issue for many years ahead. We’re assuming that alienation through technology might be as well. And we’re assuming the relationship with Israel will be in there as well. There’s much more Israeli poetry and Israeli writers than there were in 1985.”

There is also a significant increase in contributions by women. One of his own favourites is a piece by Rabbi Miriam Berger of Finchley Reform, which imagines “if God were able to speak to us about the things that we would hope that God would have managed but doesn’t seem to have managed”.

The study passages also help to anchor the theme of each service, particularly on Yom Kippur so that, as Rabbi Magonet explained, “you do have a feeling that you are going on a journey through the day [and] are not just stumbling from one Amidah to the next”.

One example of notable change comes in the Avodah, the central part of the Yom Kippur liturgy which recalls the priestly atonement rites in the Temple. “The 1985 machzor was groundbreaking in the way it retold the drama of the High Priest and the sacrificial rites in Temples times,” Rabbi Freedman said. “It retold the drama but in an explanatory way, not quite at arms length but asking questions about how it is relevant to us today — rather than just removing it because in our liturgy we don’t pray for the restoration of the Temple and animal sacrifices.”

This section also records the martyrdom of the Ten Rabbis in Roman times. “It has taken that essential idea — still to continue with the Ten Rabbis who gave their lives in pursuit of holiness and teaching Torah,” Rabbi Freedman said. But an updated series of readings now invite reflection on “how now shall we live our lives and approach God and bring God into the world”.

One significant difference, Rabbi Magonet pointed out, was that the last book “was still very much concerned about the Shoah and the direct impact it had on our communities”.

That was evident in the readings for the martyrdom section in 1985. Material on the Shoah is retained in the study anthology and in Yizkor.

But for the central part of the day, it was felt the machzor should be looking in “a different direction”, Rabbi Magonet said, less at the “tragedy of death and martyrology” and more toward the “sanctification of life” and our place in the world. “The focus has moved somewhat,” he said.
“The Shoah memories in the old book have become now like the Temple sacrifice material of the previous book. We have moved on in a certain way but we haven’t lost the past. But we’ve changed our perception of how it is to be used and understood in our contemporary world.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive