There are many sounds we associate with the High Holidays. Perhaps the best known is the blowing of the Shofar, the ram's horn. The commandment, interestingly, is not to sound the Shofar, but to hear it. Thus, the rabbis argued that a Jew passing by a synagogue on Rosh Hashana who stops and listens to the Shofar is fulfilling the commandment.
The Shofar is not sounded if the holiday falls on the Sabbath, but since there are two days of Rosh Hashana, we still can hear it once. Which is good, because in some synagogues the blasts are counted until there are at least one hundred have been sounded. These are not done all at once, luckily for the person doing the blowing. There are several times during the service when we have a Shofar service. I was lucky enough to find a video of that. Tekia is a long blast; Sh'varim is a blast broken into three, and Teruah is a series of short sounds. The reader calls out the particular blast that comes next. Tekia gedolah is the "great" blast at the end. There is also a Tekia gedolah that marks the end of Yom Kippur.
On the second day of Rosh Hashana we read the story of the binding of Isaac. (Muslims believe it was Ishmael who was almost sacrificed.) Isaac is saved when an angel tells Abraham to stop, and shows him a ram caught by the horns in a thicket.
There is Midrash that says that the ram was one of the few things created before the creation. One of his horns was blown at Sinai when God revealed himself to the former slaves. The second is hidden and will announce the coming of the Messiah.
Several of the prayers are repeated on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One that has a special place only before Yom Kippur begins (that is, before sundown) is Kol Nidre. Those familiar with film history will remember this from The Jazz Singer; it is chanted twice, the first time the Cantor/father who chants it (in reality, a famous Cantor), and at the end, Al Jolson. The first movie to use sound used this special prayer twice.
The prayer is a legal formula, in which the congregation cancels all oaths between its members and God. Thus, when the actual holy day begins, we can begin our atonement with a clean slate. For wrongs against people, we must ask forgiveness of them.
I often play the melody of Kol Nidre before the Kol Nidre service begins (on violin or viola). People have told me that hearing it as they enter and get settled sets a tone for them, and makes a break with the busy-ness of the day. I wrote a haiku about this several years ago (I didn't really write it, I worked it out in the car on my way home from synagogue one day):
The violin speaks -There are many recordings, including those by Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Neil Diamond, and many cantors. I like this one:
time is suspended - I am
playing Kol Nidre.
When I was a child, I thought God was in the music. Now there are new melodies, and it is not easy to find recordings with the melodies I remember. This one of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, our King) is not only the old melody, it is beautiful:
Avinu Malkeinu is also omited on Shabbat, because it asks that we be inscribed for a good life, and we are not supposed to ask for things on Shabbat.
The High Holiday prayer that evokes memories and is perhaps the iconic prayer, is Unateka Tokef, or B'Rosh Hashana. I have not been able to find a recording of either the melody I remember from childhood or the one I have been using since I returned to synagogue as an adult and parent. But I must say something about it.
On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who will be born, who by fire and who by water, who after a long life, and who while young, and so on.
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of lovingkindness can change the severity of the decree.
In Avinu Malkenu we ask to be written in the book of life, forgiveness. At the end of Yom Kippur, we change this to "Seal us in the book of life, etc." Until our deeds ready us for next year.
L'shana tova, everyone. And if I have offended or hurt anyone here, I ask forgiveness.