Maybe it is the story of the prayer, said to have been uttered with the last breath of a medieval martyr. Maybe it is the musical rendition, composed amidst almost unbearable emotion.
Whatever the reasons, Un’tanneh Tokef towers above all other prayers on these days of awe. No wonder that in times when people would cry as they prayed, this was the prayer over which they wept most.
The author is said to be Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who, like many medieval Jews, was repeatedly pressured by the local bishop or governor to abandon Judaism and enter the dominant faith. Finally exasperated, he said he would give an answer in three days. He immediately regretted his words with their implication that there was a possibility that he would succumb.
Three days later when asked what he had to say he said the answer was no and they should cut out his tongue because it had transgressed. The bishop decided instead that Amnon should be cruelly tortured.
Dying from the effect of his wounds, a few days later on Rosh HaShanah the rabbi asked to be carried into the synagogue, and as the cantor reached the K’dushah, he said, “Pause that I may sanctify the Name of God!”
He there and then uttered the words we know as Un’tanneh Tokef: “Let us declare the mighty holiness of this day, for it is solemn and awesome…” As he reached the culminating words his soul expired.
Later he appeared in a dream to Kalonymos ben Meshullam and taught him the words of the prayer, which subsequently entered the liturgy of almost every Jewish community.
The scholars are not all agreed that this is the true story. Some argue that in style, language and theme Un’tanneh Tokef may reflect a period three centuries earlier.
Some see parallels with non-Jewish hymnology (e.g. a Middle-Latin poem, “What a tremble will be there/The book will be opened/All hidden things will appear/The awesome trumpet will sound/Over all the graves”).
But the fact is that in the history of the liturgy a theme can grip a number of authors before reaching a final form. And though it is not only Jewish poets that deal with God’s judgment of human beings, the non-Jewish writers tend to write about the judgment of the dead whilst Un’tanneh Tokef deals with the judgment of the living.
What does the prayer say?
1. This is a solemn day of judgment.
2. God opens the records; we have each signed our own entry.
3. The shofar is sounded, a small voice is heard; even the angels are on trial.
4. Like sheep before the shepherd, every living soul comes for scrutiny.
5. On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who will have rest and who will wander, who will be humbled and who exalted.
6. But penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree.
The hymn does not end there but continues:
7. God does not wish the death of the sinner but desires his repentance.
8. God our Maker knows that we are flesh and blood.
9. We come from dust and end in dust; we are transitory like a potsherd, like grass, like a flower, a shadow, a cloud, the wind, the dust, a dream.
10. God Himself is eternal; we praise Him on earth as the angels do in heaven.
• “Every person’s entry is signed with his name” – The Midrash says that when Adam sinned, he was distressed that his deed would affect his descendants. God assured him that every person would see their own entry in the records, and their own deeds would decide their fate.
• “Even the angels are not pure in God’s sight” – The sages say that when the angels accuse the Jewish people, the Almighty rises to the defence of His children.
• “A still, small voice” – This phrase, from the story of Elijah (I Kings 19), indicates when the trumpet is sounded in the heavenly court, the whole of creation is hushed into silence.
• “Like a flock of sheep” – The shepherd checks each of his sheep; God scrutinises every one of His creatures. Instead of “kiv’nei maron – like a flock of sheep”, some think the original phrase was “kiv’numeron – like a troop of soldiers”, since an inspecting officer looks at every one of his troops.
• “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur sealed…” – The Talmud says the righteous are at once written down for life, and the wicked for death; it is the fate of the intermediate category, i.e. the average person, that is suspended until Yom Kippur.
• “Man’s origin is dust and his end is dust” – Noting that this phrase evoked deep sobs amongst his congregation, a Chassidic teacher said that the only reason to weep would be if we came from gold and ended as dust.
• “Man is like a potsherd, like grass, like a shadow, like a dream” – This is not a devaluation of man; it is part of the contrast between us and God, who as our Maker knows we are limited and finite, but within our limits we can achieve great things.
WHY DID PEOPLE CRY?
During the Russo-Japanese War, wounded Jewish soldiers assembled for a Rosh HaShanah service. Many who came were without limbs, emaciated, blind or otherwise incapacitated. As the prayers began, a sigh filled the room and everyone burst into tears.
During Un’tanneh Tokef, “No words at all were heard in the House of Prayer; only tear-choked voices filled the atmosphere of the little house. The cantor’s voice became stronger and stronger and struck sparks in the air: ‘…Who will live and who will die, who in his time and who before his time.’ Those were terrible and awful moments” (Agnon, “Days of Awe”, p.103).
In a thousand different situations the frailty and unpredictability of human life has evoked almost uncontrollable weeping at this moment. No wonder Un’tanneh Tokef has an uncanny fascination and shakes even the least emotional person.
IS EVERYTHING BESCHERRT?
There are critics who accuse Un’tanneh Tokef of echoing a rather un-Jewish strain of fatalism. Is the prayer implying, Alles is bescherrt, “What will be, will be?”
Is it saying with Omar Khayyam, “The moving finger writes; and, having writ/moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a line/Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”, and is this Judaism?
Yes, we are being told that decrees are made on Rosh HaShanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, but the crucial message is in the climactic line, “But penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree”.
In other words, there is room for human free will in moulding the future. But there is the external event and the internal event. The external event is what happens to us; the internal event is how we respond.
The quantity of our life is not always up to us, though with sensible precautions we can stave off a number of things. But the moral quality of our life is in our hands.
Maimonides wrote, “Free will is granted to every man. If he desires to incline towards the good way and be righteous he has power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way and be a wicked man, he also has power to do so”.
JH Hertz commented, “We are free agents as far as our choice between good and evil is concerned. This is an undeniable fact of human nature; but it is an equally undeniable fact that the sphere in which that choice is exercised is limited for us by heredity and environment”.
PENITENCE – T’SHUVAH
T’shuvah makes atonement for all transgressions; even if a person has transgressed all the days of his life, if he does T’shuvah at the end, nothing of his wickedness is remembered unto him.
What is T’shuvah? It is when the sinner forsakes his sin and removes it from his thoughts, and concludes in his heart not to do it again. And let the sinner call to Him who knows all hidden things to witness that he will never return to perform that sin again.
Do not say that one does T’shuvah only for transgressions that involve an act, like adultery, theft and robbery. But just as a person must turn in T’shuvah from these, so he must search out his evil thoughts and turn from anger, hostility, jealousy, quarrelling, pursuing money or honour, and the greed for food and such matters.
The sages said, “Where repentant sinners stand, the completely righteous cannot stand” (Ber. 34b); that is to say, the rung they stand on is higher than those who have never sinned, for they have had to labour harder to conquer their passions (Maimonides).
PRAYER – T’FILLAH
The Tzanzer Rebbe was asked, “What does the rabbi do before praying?”. “I pray,” was the reply, “that I may be able to pray properly”.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw a wagon driver greasing his wheels while wearing tallit and tefillin. “Lord of the Universe,” the rabbi remarked, “What a holy people is Israel. Even while they grease their wheels they think of You!”
Said the Medzibozer Rebbe, “We read, ‘And as for me, may my prayer unto You, O Lord, be in an acceptable time’. As for me, who am I? As for my prayer, what significance is there in it before You, O Lord? But may it be in an acceptable time, when even an insignificant prayer by an unworthy person is accepted”.
CHARITY – TZ’DAKAH
It is said in the Talmud, “Every charity and deed of kindness does much to make peace and is an important intercessor between Israel and their Father in Heaven” (Bava Batra 10a). Our charity also makes peace between the poor man and his Father in heaven, because the poor man may be annoyed with God by reason of his lot (Agnon).
Charity is performed with money when that is what is needed. But Maimonides teaches in his 8 Rungs of Charity that the greatest tz’dakah is quietly and anonymously ensuring that a person will never reach the point of needing to find help.
Charity comes from a root which means “love”; true charity is a loving, respectful, tolerant attitude to every other human being. Charity is an approach, not just an action.
According to many Siddurim, one should start the day by affirming the duty to love your neighbour as yourself before you speak of loving God with heart, soul and might; if you want God’s blessing, first you must be a blessing to God’s creatures.