The Personal Prayer at the Heart of the High Holy Days

“Here am I, poor in deeds,” it begins. Where did it come from and, more importantly, what does it say to us?

September 11, 2015 | Atar Hadari
About the author: Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

From Feast of trumpets I, 1884, by the Polish painter Alexander Gierymski. Wikimedia.

Just before the start of the musaf (“additional”) service in Ashkenazi synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the prayer leader chants a personal entreaty begging God to be merciful to His people, gathered at this season in repentance of their sins. The prayer is known by its opening words hineni he’ani mimaas, “Here am I, poor in deeds. . . .”  In all of halakhic literature there seems to be only one reference to it, by Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolis of Galicia (1762–1828), who wrote:

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