One of the most beautiful and moving penitential prayers in the Jewish liturgy is entitled Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King). It is prayed – and more often sung – a number of times throughout the Jewish year, but it really comes to prominence during the Jewish High Holy Days, being sung during the Rosh Hashanah New Year’s service and again on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.
There are a few different versions of this prayer, some longer and others more abbreviated. But it is always prayed or sung with some degree of pathos, as its words praise God for His faithfulness and are intended to move those who pray Avinu Malkenu to repentance. When sung properly, this prayer will break your heart.
In Jewish life, the Avinu Malkenu prayer is motivated by a desire to be forgiven of sin. In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah begins a process of ten days of repentance that culminates in the observance of the Day of Atonement. During these ten days, it is said that the books of those destined for life and death are opened in heaven. God, the supreme judge, weighs the good and evil deeds of men and women and decides their fate for the year.
Avinu Malkenu is mournfully sung as an appeal to God to notice our good deeds and our repentance, and to forgive our sins. Then, it is believed, we will have a good year—and if we pass away, then we would go to heaven rather than the Jewish concept of hades.
It is worth reading a version of the full prayer, but this is not easily found. It is written out in The Authorized Daily Prayer Book (revised edition) by Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, which is published by Bloch publishing company in New York City. One of the later editions would be best to read – I personally own the 1979 edition of this Jewish prayer book, and the prayer can be found on pages 167-168.
A number of versions of the Avinu Malkenu prayer are also found in the special prayer book called the Machzor, which has been developed throughout centuries of Jewish tradition and is used during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You can borrow it from the library or purchase a copy at http://www.artscroll.com/Products/MPSP.html, which has an array of excellent Jewish resources that are oftentimes beautifully printed.
The following is an abridged version of the prayer in English:
Hear our prayer. We have sinned before Thee. Have compassion upon us and upon our children. Help us bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine. Cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth. Inscribe us for blessing in the Book Of Life. Let the New Year be a good year
The prayer appeals to God’s grace and compassion. It is an admission of sin and guilt, and calls upon those who pray it to change their lives and do good by making the world a better place for all. The prayer calls upon God to write our names in the Book of Life and to grant us the assurance of sins forgiven—at least for one more year!
I appreciate the sentiments of this traditional prayer, and hope it will move you as well. This is a significant time of the year for anyone who wants to draw near to the Lord. As a Messianic Jew, I appreciate the High Holidays as they remind me of my own need to repent and seek the Lord more deeply. In fact, knowing that Yeshua is the Messiah and the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:8-14) helps me to appreciate this prayer and season of the year even more.
I am not seeking atonement or forgiveness through repentance, fasting or any other human effort. Our efforts to earn forgiveness from a Holy God are impossible, as this gift is only granted by God Himself through the work of His Son. But we do drift from God during the course of our lives. This is why it is worthwhile to pause our usual activities and seek His face, repenting and turning from our everyday sinful behavior and asking Him for greater grace and the strength to live for Him.
There is nothing like hearing Barbara Streisand, who is originally from Brooklyn, sing this magnificent prayer. Click on the following link, open your heart, and enjoy this moving Jewish melody, which epitomizes the hopes of the Jewish people during this time period between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).