The following compilation by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in booklet form as Penitence, Prayer & Charity: An anthology for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, published by the Publications Committee of the United Synagogue, London, 1970 (and subsequently republished by the Great Synagogue, Sydney).
There is no doubt that for the vast majority of Jews the prayer of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is Un’tanneh Tokef.
Its popularity is partly due to the legendary account of its composition, which tells of the saintly medieval Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who was tortured for his refusal to abandon Judaism.
Mortally injured, he was carried into the Synagogue and uttered the words with which we are all so familiar: Un’tanneh Tokef K’dushat HaYom – “Let us celebrate the mighty holiness of this day.”
He spoke of the procedure in the Heavenly court on the Days of Judgment, when it was written down on Rosh HaShanah, for final sealing on Yom Kippur, who would live and who would die, who would prosper and who be made low. Three avenues, he declared, were open to him who wanted to ensure a favourable decree: Penitence, Prayer and Charity.
All this Rabbi Amnon said with the failing breath of a dying man, and as he ended his prayer, his life too came to an end.
Subsequently, the story continues, he appeared in a dream to R. Kalonymos ben Meshullam whom he then taught the Un’tanneh Tokef by heart, and in this way it was preserved for future generations.
With such a background is it any wonder that this prayer has such a fascination?
Yet with all the tinge of fatalism in Un’tanneh Tokef, it differs radically from the words of Omar Khayyam:
The moving finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line.
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it…
Un’tanneh Tokef says something very different.
“Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line”? Not at all.
However severe the decree, it cannot remain unaffected by human penitence, prayer and charity. These three things may not always cancel out the decree altogether but they can remove its severity, they can avert ro’a hag’zerah — the harshness of the decree.
It is on the three themes of penitence, prayer and charity — t’shuvah, t’fillah, tz’dakah — that this modest anthology is based.
Rabbi Amnon made no arbitrary choice when he selected these themes and invested them with such effectiveness. He was echoing old Jewish teaching. For the Jerusalem Talmud said, centuries earlier:
Three things annul evil decrees, namely prayer, charity and penitence, all of which are mentioned in one scriptural verse; for it is written, “If My people upon whom My name is called shall humble themselves and pray (T’fillah), and seek My face (Tz’dakah) (see Psalm 17:15) and turn from their evil ways (T’shuvah), then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (II Chron. 7:14). (Jer. Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1)
“Sin,” taught the Rabbis, “first appears as a frail spider’s web, growing as tough as a cable; whereas a touch will free us from its entanglement in the early stages, later only the mightiest efforts can free us from its bonds” (Sukkah 52a).
Yet no human being, no matter how long or how badly he has sinned, is so bad as to be absolutely irredeemable.
At the same time, no human being should be so complacent and arrogant as to regard himself as perfect. “There is no man on earth so righteous that he does only good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).
Hence, a person should be honest and realistic and see himself as he really is — “part guilty and part innocent”, in the Talmudic phrase.
The way of regaining God’s favour is that of repentance. It implies a conscious effort to turn away from evil-doing and bad habits and to return to the service of God.
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
1. He Shall Surely Live
Though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right; if the wicked restores a pledge, repays what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life, doing no iniquity, he shall surely live: he shall not die. None of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him; having now done what is just and right, he shall surely live (Ezek. 33:14-16).
2. True Repentance
To a man who says “I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent,” the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness. For sins against God the Day of Atonement brings forgiveness; for sins against one’s fellowman, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness till he has become reconciled with the fellowman he wronged (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
3. Fear of God and Man
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his death bed, his disciples came to visit him and before leaving they said: “Master, give us a farewell blessing.” He said to them, “I pray that fearing God may be as important to you as fearing man.” His disciples asked, “But should we not fear God more than man?” He replied, “If only you can attain this! When a man thinks of committing a transgression, he says: I hope no man sees me! If the fear of God is no more than this, it will be enough to keep you from many sins” (B’rachot 28b).
4. Where Penitents Stand
Where penitents stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand (B’rachot 34b).
S. If Not Now — When?
Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die.” His disciples asked, “But who knows when he will die?” He replied to them, “All the more, then, let him repent today, for perhaps he will die tomorrow” (Shabbat 153a).
6. A Question and Four Answers
“What is the punishment of a sinner?”
Wisdom Literature answered, “Evil pursues sinners!” (Prov. 13:21).
Prophetic Literature answered, “The soul that sins, it shall die!” (Ezek. 18:4).
The Torah answered: “Let him bring a trespass-offering and he will be forgiven” (based on Lev. 1:4).
When the question was asked of the Holy One, blessed be He, He replied, “Let him repent and he will be forgiven, as it is said: ‘Good and upright is the Lord, therefore does He teach sinners in the way’ (Ps. 25:8)” (Jer. Talmud, Makk. 31d).
7. The King and his Son
A king had a son who had gone astray from his father a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot; it is too far.” Then his father sent to say, “Return as far as you can, and I will come to you the rest of the way.” So God says to man, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7).
8. The Curtains of Solomon
“I am black, but comely,
0 daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar,
As the curtains of Jerusalem” (Song of Songs 1:5).
Just as a curtain, after becoming dirty, can be washed clean and become dirty again and again be washed clean, so Israel may be soiled with iniquities all the days of the year, but when the Day of Atonement comes, it makes atonement for them, as it is said: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you” (Lev. 16:30), and it is written, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) (Midrash).
9. Like a Nut
Israel is metaphorically described as a nut. If a nut falls into mud, you can pick it up, wipe it, rinse it and wash it, and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating. Thus it is with Israel. However much Israel may be defiled by iniquities all the rest of the year, when Yom Kippur comes it brings them atonement (Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba).
10. The Value of Confession
When a man is charged with crime before a human tribunal, as long as he denies his guilt he has a chance to go free, but when he admits his guilt he receives punishment. Not so before God. If a man does not confess, he receives punishment, but when he confesses he gains remission, provided he confesses with the determination to forsake his sins (Yalkut).
11. The Right Motive
Abandon transgression out of shame before the Creator, not out of fear of men or hope for their reward (Bachya ibn Pakuda [11th cent.] Chovot HaLevavot).
12. Worse than Sin
A righteous man once said to his disciples: “Had you not sinned, I would have been afraid that you might be guilty of something that is worse than sin, and that is pride. For he who believes that he has not sinned, has pride within himself and that is worse than sin” (Bachya ibn Pakuda).
13. In our own Hands
Free will is granted to every man. If he desires to incline towards the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so; and if he desires to incline towards the unrighteous way and be a wicked man, he also has the power to do so. Give no place in your minds to that which is asserted by many of the ignorant: namely that the Holy One, blessed be He, decrees that a man from his birth should be either righteous or wicked. Since the power of doing good or evil is in our own hands, and since all the wicked deeds which we have committed have been committed with our full consciousness, it befits us to turn in penitence and to forsake our evil deed (Moses Maimonides [1135- 1204]).
14. Worse than Evil Deeds
You must not think that only such transgressions require repentance as have involved some act, as, for instance, immorality, robbery, theft; but just as one ought to turn from these transgressions, so ought one also to examine the wicked dispositions which he may possess, and to turn from anger, hatred, jealousy, mockery, hunting for wealth and honours, or hunting gluttonously after food, etc.; from all these a man ought to turn with repentance. And indeed, these sins are even more serious than those associated with actions inasmuch as when one is sunk in these it is very difficult to extricate oneself from them.
Moreover, let not a penitent think that, because of the wrongs and sins of which he has been guilty, he is far removed from the grade attained by the righteous. This is not so; he is as beloved and as pleasing in the eyes of the Creator as if he had never sinned; and indeed his reward will be even greater; for the penitent has tasted of sin, and has nevertheless departed from it, and subdued his inclination. And so have our sages said: When penitents stand, the wholly righteous cannot stand. This signifies that their position is higher than that of those who have never sinned, for they have had to struggle against their inclinations far more than the others (Maimonides).
15. True Repentance
What is true repentance? That the sinner must abandon his sin and remove it from his thoughts and resolve in his heart never to repeat it, as it is said, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7). Likewise must he regret the past, as it is said: “Surely after I turned I repented” (Jer. 31:18). He must also call Him who knows all secrets to witness that he will never return to this sin again (Maimonides).
16. Small and Big Sins
Two Jews came to a Chassidic Rabbi to ask advice about sins they had committed. One had committed a great sin for which he was sure God would never forgive him; the other was less worried, because he had never been guilty of anything so grave, but only of the normal collection of lesser sins.
The Rabbi told them to go out to a field and select stones corresponding to the size and number of their sins, and later to return to the field and scatter the stones. This done, they came back to the Rabbi. “Now go to the field once more,” he told them both, “pick up the stones you scattered, and bring them to me.”
He who had committed the one big sin knew at once which was his stone, and brought it to the Rabbi. The other, however, had scattered so many little stones that he could not be certain of identifying them again. He had a most difficult time in finding his stones and bringing them to the Rabbi.
The Rabbi then told them: “Your deeds are like your stones. You who brought one large stone, committed a grave sin. But you were conscious of what you had done, and with a determined effort at repentance you could be forgiven by God. But you, whose sins were many and small, like those of most human beings, have found how hard it is to catch up with one’s minor lapses. And no repentance of yours can possibly be effective until you realise that small things matter.”
17. The Lesser Sins
If one places in front of the window many thin and threadbare sheets, they have the same effect in screening the light of the sun as one heavy blanket. Similarly, it is not only the serious sins which act as a screen between the Divine Light and the soul, but also the lesser offences, such as hiding oneself from the needs of the poor, indulging in slanderous talk, flying into a rage, pride, and many such offences. Worst of all is the failure to engage in the study of the Torah (Shneur Zalman of Liadi [1747-1812]).
18. As Long as there is Light
Late one night in a little village in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great leader of the Mussar movement, was passing through the street where a cobbler of his acquaintance lived. Noticing the flickering light of a candle, he entered the shoemaker’s but and found him bent over his last, still at work.
“My friend,” the Rabbi scolded, “Why do you stay up so late? You have worked since dawn, and the candle is almost out in any case. Isn’t it better for you to go to bed and get some rest ?”
“Dear Rabbi,” the cobbler answered, “As long as there is light, before the candle flickers out, I can still do some mending.”
And, ever afterwards, Israel Salanter would say when teaching about t’shuvah, “Our light is still shining. Let us get on with our mending!”
19. Comprehensive List
The alphabetical arrangement of the Yom Kippur Confession was chosen to afford to the individual the opportunity to ponder his personal sins even as he reads out the transgressions specified there. These standard formulae should serve as models on which to base one’s own confession of such sins as one may have committed and which are not explicitly listed in the Confession (Abraham Danzig [1748-1820]).
20. The First Step
The first step towards repentance, which is the most essential and at the same time the most difficult, is Confession, or rather ‘the admission to oneself’ that one has sinned. It is not God who needs an avowal or confession from us, for He knows us through and through; in fact, much better than we know ourselves. But we ourselves stand very much in need of honest and unreserved confession; it is to our own selves that we must admit that we have done wrong (Samson Raphael Hirsch [1808-1888]).
21. Penitence is Sometimes Sudden
There are times when penitence comes suddenly. A sudden flash of spiritual awareness confronts the soul. All at once one becomes conscious of the evil and sordidness of sin, and is changed into a new person. And in the same instant, he feels a profound relaxation within himself. Such penitence is a token of some special grace, the influence of some great soul force, whose ways are to be traced to the ultimate mystery of our being (Abraham Isaac Kook [1865-1935]).
22. The Quest for Improvement
When a society pursues false goals and permits injustice to prevail in its midst, the reaction may take the form of internal strife and revolution. A new life will be established upon the ruins of the old, but the new life will face the peril of new corruption, and a new need of cleansing. The striving against the lingering wrongs which pervade every man and group is the mark of the Providence of God, who continues to summon us to remake ourselves and our world in the image of the ideal. This striving is the root of t’shuvah, or penitence, which will never permit us to remain as we are, which will ever send us in quest for self-improvement (Abraham Isaac Kook).
23. Confession in Public
The Confession is part of the ‘public’, congregational, worship. This fact is of cardinal importance, because it prevented Jewish confession from ending in the establishment of the confessional. Judaism knows not private, auricular confession to a priest who grants or obtains forgiveness for the sinner. Virtue is victory by the individual himself over temptation that assails him; therefore, we ourselves must leave our sinful way behind us and return unto God, and no one else can do it for us (JH Hertz [1872-1946]).
24. Man is the Pilot
Sin is not an evil power whose chains the children of flesh must helplessly drag towards a weary tomb. We can always shake off its yoke; and what is more, we need never assume its yoke. An ancient fable tells us of distant oceans with mountainous rocks of magnet of such terrific power that wreck and ruin befell any ship venturing near them. Instantly the iron nails would fly out of the ship, bolts and fastenings would be torn away by that magnetic force the vessel would become nothing more than so many planks of wood, and all on board fall a prey to the hungry waters. Sins there are that, likewise, unhinge all our stays of character, rob us of the restraints of past habits and education, and leave us helpless playthings on the billows of temptation and passion. Yet a man is the pilot of his life’s barque, and can at all times steer it so as never to come near those mountains of destruction, darkness, and death (JH Hertz).
25. Great is T’shuvah
If a man’s return to God is motivated by love, the change of heart is so complete that his previous sin is not only obliterated, but serves as a driving force towards the good. The memory of his past failures is bound to strengthen his impulse for a new and better life. As a modern psychologist (Max Scheler) put it: the evil act of the past which has become part of his life has now a ‘functional value’ for the good. It is this real and radical penitence which the prophets called the ‘New Spirit’, the ‘New Heart’, and which the Rabbis glorified as the greatest revolutionary force for the betterment of mankind. T’shuvah in this sense is more than a passing sentiment, it is a creative act of permanent value. The heart and mind are re-born, cleansed and filled with a new vitality. JA Hadfield (Psychology and Morals, p. 44) has defined sin as “a disorder of conduct which results from a deliberate and conscious choice of the self, and depends upon the acceptance of a low ideal.” T’shuvah can be, accordingly, defined as the restoration of the inner order of man, which depends upon the acceptance of a high ideal. As long as man retains the ability for such a choice, he is not lost (Alexander Altmann).
26. Confession for Others
The great Confession of Sin in the traditional Jewish liturgy is invariably couched in the ‘plural’ rather than the singular:
“For the sin which ‘we’ have committed before Thee”. It thus emphasises the truth that each human being is accountable not only for his own personal acts of commission and of omission, but also for the sins of permission as well, the failings of the society of which he is a member, the collective transgressions which he has acquiesced in by his inactivity, his indifference, or his silence. Each individual, in greater or lesser degree, can mould the weal or the woe of his generation and is therefore responsible for its shortcomings (Robert Gordis).
The first step in repentance is to re-establish communication with God: “Take with you words, and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2).
The chief requirement of prayer is Kavvanah, devout concentration. It does not always come easily. There are occasions when one does feel suffused with a sense of spiritual wellbeing, or holiness, of deep communion with God. But these occasions are the peak of the religious life, and they do not come about every day. And yet the significance of worship is not limited to these unique moments. Worship has many levels of meaning and all are valuable. What are some of these levels?
There is firstly the simple fact that the steadying, reassuring atmosphere of the synagogue can do much for people who live, as we do, in a tense and troubled age.
There is the fact that the service, the day and the place all encourage us to reflect and meditate about God, about man, about oneself and one’s deeds and destiny.
There is the sense of strength and continuity that comes from joining in with the community and through it with a great, immortal people.
There is the blessing of family unity and harmony that comes when all join in prayer to God.
There is the knowledge, understanding and uplift that derive from the study-passages that are intertwined with our prayers — passages from the Torah, the prophets, the sacred writings, the law, the lore and the poetry of a hundred and fifty generations.
27. Hannah’s Prayer (Haftarah for 1st day Rosh HaShanah)
And Hannah prayed and said:
My heart rejoices in the Lord, my strength is exalted in the Lord; my mouth is enlarged over my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation. There is none holy as the Lord, for there is none beside You, nor any rock like our God. Engage not in much proud talk: let not arrogance come out of your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. They that once were full have hired themselves out for bread, and they that were hungry have ceased to starve; while she who was barren has borne seven, and she that had many children now languishes.
The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up again. The Lord makes poor and makes rich: He brings low, He also lifts up. He raises up the poor out of the dust, He lifts up the needy from the dung-hill, to make them sit with princes, and inherit a throne of glory; for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He has set the world upon them (I Samuel 2:1-8).
28. Laws of Prayer
How many important laws can be learnt from the verses relating to Hannah’s prayer!
Now Hannah, she spoke in her heart — from this we learn that one who prays must direct his heart aright.
Only her lips moved — from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips.
But her voice could not be heard — from this, it is forbidden to raise one’s voice in t’fillah (B’rachot 31a).
29. Out of the Depths
Out of the depths have I cried to You, Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let Your ears be attentive to the sound of my supplications.
If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, Who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. I wait for the Lord. my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning; yes, more than watchmen for the morning. Let Israel hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is plenteous deliverance. And He shall deliver Israel from all his iniquities (Psalm 130).
30. Preparing for Prayer
No-one should stand up to say the t’fillah (Amidah) other than in a thoughtful mood. The pious men of old used to wait an hour before they prayed so that they might direct their heart toward God. Even if a King greets a man saying the t’fillah, he may not return the greeting ; and even if a snake was twisted around his heel he may not interrupt his prayer (Mishnah B’rachot 5:1).
31. I Lift up my Eyes
I lift up my eyes to the hills: from whence shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip: He that guards you will not slumber. Behold, He that guards Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your guardian; the Lord is your protection at your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall guard you from all evil; He shall guard your soul. The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in, now and for evermore (Psalm 121).
32. The Mood of Prayer
Rise to recite the prayers not in a mood of misery, indolence, laughter, chatter, frivolity or idle talk, but only in a mood of joyous piety… When you pray, know before whom you stand (B’rachot 28b, 31a).
33. Looking Upwards
We read (Ex. 17:11) that in the battle with Amalek, when Moses lifted up his hand Israel prevailed. Did Moses’ hands make war or break war? But this is to show that as long as Israel look upwards and humble their hearts before their Father in Heaven, they prevail — and if not, they fall (Rosh HaShanah 29a).
34. The Book of Life
Three books are opened in Heaven on the New Year: one for recording the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate category. The thoroughly righteous are at once written down for reward, and the thoroughly wicked for punishment. But the fate of the intermediate category, which includes most of us if not all, is suspended from the New Year to the Day of Atonement. If we deserve well, we are then written down in the Book of Life; if not, we are written down in the book of punishment (Rosh HaShanah 16a)… to which the Baal Shem Tov added:
“This must be understood in a spiritual sense. When a man clings to the love of God, and puts his trust in His infinite mercy, he takes upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and thereby inscribes himself in the Book of Life. Whereas the man who, a slave to his passions, so loses his belief in the all-embracing love of God that he fails to repent and return to his Father in Heaven, his despair of the love of God is equivalent to his being inscribed — God forbid — in the Book of Death.”
35. White — Not Black
On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Jews do not appear depressed and in dark clothes, but joyous, dressed in festive white, as a mark of a cheerful and confident spirit (Jer. Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 1:3).
36. As Incense
“Let my prayer be set forth as incense before You” (Psalm 141:2). The rabbis saw the letters of the word קטרת (incense) as the initials of four ingredients which go to make up effective prayer.
The ק stood for קדושה — holiness. The first requirement of prayer is to match the holiness of one’s words with the holiness of one’s life outside the Synagogue. Isaiah says: “When you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15). The Talmud says: “He who steals a measure of wheat and says a benediction over the bread is a blasphemer”. There is no point in a show of piety in Synagogue if outside it our hearts are cruel and selfish.
The ט stood for טהרה — purity. One’s attitude to God must be pure and honest, not full of pretence and deceit. If we are vain, boastful and self-centred, prayer will achieve nothing for us, for we are too full with a sense of our own importance to allow God room in our lives.
The ר stood for רחמים — mercy. Whoever is able to pray for others and fails to do so is a sinner. Whoever fails to show mercy to others cannot expect mercy to be shown to him by God.
The ת stood for תקוה — hope. We should not pray with a desire to change the laws of nature or to receive material benefits. We should rather pray in the confident hope that communion with God and meditation on high ideals will bring peace of mind. To occupy one’s mind with these things is a therapy in itself.
37. Bachya’s Prayer
Lord, you know best what is for my good.
If I recite my wants, it is not to remind You of them but so that I may better understand how great is my dependence upon You.
If, then, I ask You for things that make not for my wellbeing, it is because I am ignorant; Your choice is better than mine, and I submit myself to Your firm decrees and Your supreme direction (Bachya ibn Pakuda).
38. The Shofar
The law to blow the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah has a profound meaning. It says, “Awake, you sleepers, and ponder on your deeds; remember your Creator and go back to him in penitence. Be not of those who miss realities in their pursuit of shadows and waste their years in seeking after vain things which cannot profit or help. Look well to your souls and consider your acts; forsake each of you his evil ways and thoughts, and return to God, so that He may have mercy upon you.” (Maimonides).
39. What the Shofar Notes Mean
Each of the four sounds blown on the Shofar, T’ki’ah, Sh’varim, T’ru’ah, T’kiah, stands for a sound felt in the human heart.
T’KI’AH, a long, drawn-out blast, is a call to conscience: “wake up to your duty!”
SH’VARIM, three broken sounds, resembles the sigh of realisation that we have strayed from the right path.
T’RU’AH, nine short, staccato notes, reflects our weeping and sobbing, which express remorse and regret.
And the final T’KIAH comes as an “all-dear”, to say: “You have realised you have done wrong, and have repented of your sin. Now go ahead, and be confident that God will forgive!”
40. Talking in Synagogue
Woe to him who carries on conversation in the synagogue. He shows that he does not belong there; he belittles the faith: he has no share in the God of Israel (Zohar).
41. The Confession
Why was the Confession couched in the plural form so that we say, “We have sinned”, and not, “I have sinned”? This is because all Israel is one body, and each individual Jew is a limb of this body. And when his fellowman commits a sin, it is as if he himself had committed it. Therefore, even if he has not committed any particular sin he must confess it, for when his fellow sins, it is as if he himself had trangressed (Isaac Luria [1534-1572]).
42. Why is the Heart Beaten?
During the recitation of the Confession, when the sin is mentioned, a man should smite his heart with his fist (for the heart is the prime cause of all iniquity and sin), as if to say, “You have caused me to sin.”
43. The Whistle
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the important thing in prayer was not the mechanical repetition of the words, but the sincerity of one’s heart. Thus, he said, one can pray fervently even when he does not even know as little as merely the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and do it as effectively as one who has mastered all the prayers and knew them by heart. And to emphasise this lesson he told the following parable:
A poor village Jew was in the habit of worshipping during the Holy Days in the Baal Shem’s synagogue. He had a slow-witted boy who did not know the letters of the alef-bet, and hence his father would not take him to the synagogue. But when the boy became thirteen he was allowed to accompany his father to the House of God on the Day of Atonement. The boy had a little whistle which he used to blow while sitting in the field minding the sheep. Unknown to his father, he took the whistle to synagogue with him in his pocket.
During the prayers he asked his father to let him blow the whistle but the father forbade it. By the time of the Ne’ilah service the atmosphere in the Synagogue became tense and aflame with devotion, and the hearts of the worshippers melted like the candles in their clay sockets. The boy could no longer contain himself. Taking out the whistle, he blew a shrill sound. The whole congregation stood terrified at this desecration of the holyday and this rude interruption of the service, but the Baal
Shem called out:
“With the sound of his whistle, this child has brought all our prayers up to Heaven; for this child knows nothing, and when throughout the day he saw us praying, a spark of God’s holiness blazed up in his heart like a fire. This fiery desire to blow the whistle was for no other reason than to express his craving to praise God, blessed be He.” (after SY Agnon).
44. Too Full of Prayers
The Baal Shem Tov once refused to enter a certain synagogue because he said it was too full of prayers. Noting his followers’ astonishment at his attitude, he explained that so many routine, insincere prayers were uttered there that they could not rise to the heavenly throne and stayed on earth, cramming the synagogue full.
45. Joyful Prayer
The Baal Shen Tov came to a certain city before Rosh HaShanah. He asked the inhabitants who was their Reader during the Services on the Solemn Days. The reply was, “The Rabbi of the city.” Thereupon the Besht asked, “What is his custom during his prayer?” They replied, “He weds all the Confessions of Yom Kippur to joyful melodies.” The Besht sent for the Rabbi and asked him, “Why do you recite the Confessions so joyfully?” The Rabbi replied, “When a royal slave removes unsightly things from his master’s courtyard, he is happy because he has done it out of love for him. Similarly do I rejoice when I remove objectionable things from my heart, for thereby I give pleasure to the King of Kings.” Then the Besht replied, May my portion be with you.”
46. Sharpening the Saw
He who is about to pray should learn from a common labourer, who sometimes takes a whole day to prepare for a job. A wood-cutter, who spends most of the day sharpening the saw and only the last hour cutting the wood, has earned his day’s wage (Mendel of Kotzk).
47. The Wanderers’ Return
Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was one of the best known Chassidic rabbis. His renown was largely due to his deep understanding of human beings. Once, after he had recited the Amidah prayer, he went up to several people in the synagogue and greeted them, saying Shalom Aleichem! Shalom Aleichem! several times, as though they had just come back from a long journey. When they looked at him in surprise, he said: “Why are you so astonished? You were far away, weren’t you? You in a marketplace, and you on a ship with a cargo of grain, and when the sound of praying ceased, you returned, and so I greeted you!”
48. Service of the Heart
Is this a service of the heart. when the body is in the synagogue and the mind in the market? (Efraim of Lenchitza [17th cent.]).
49. As the Potter Shapeth his Clay
Lo, as the potter shapeth his clay,
Enlarge or diminish his vessel he may:
So, for mercy in Thy hand are we.
Oh, not our failings, but Thy covenant see.
And let us, O Lord, abide with Thee.
Lo, as the mason prepareth his stone,
He may try and smooth or leave it alone:
So, for life and death in Thy hand are we.
Oh, not our failings, but Thy covenant see,
And let us, O Lord, abide with Thee.
Lo, th’ artificer in plying his art
Metals may fuse, weld, or keep them apart:
So, humble and poor in Thy hand are we.
Oh, not our failings, but Thy covenant see.
And let us, O Lord, abide with Thee.
(from the Kol Nidre service; trans. HM Lazarus).
50. Lord, Thine Humble Servants Hear
Lord, Thine humble servants hear,
Suppliant now before Thee:
Our Father, from Thy children’s plea
Turn not, we implore thee!
Lord, Thy people, sore oppressed.
From the depths implore Thee;
Our Father, let us not, this day,
Cry in vain before Thee.
Lord, blot out our evil pride,
All our sins before Thee;
Our Father, for Thy Mercy’s sake,
Pardon, we implore Thee.
Lord, no sacrifice we bring.
Prayers and tears implore Thee;
Our Father, take the gift we lay,
Contrite hearts before Thee.
Lord, Thy sheep have wandered far.
Gather them before Thee;
Our Father, let Thy shepherd’s love
Guide us, we implore Thee.
Lord, forgive and comfort all
That in truth implore Thee;
Our Father, let our evening prayer
Thus find grace before Thee.
Lord, Thine humble servants hear,
Suppliant now before Thee;
Our Father, from Thy children’s plea
Turn not, we implore Thee!
(From the Sephardi Ritual for Yom Kippur: trans. Solomon Solis-Cohen).
51. The Aim of Worship
The aim of our worship is the purification, enlightenment and uplifting of our inner selves… Its aim is not simply to stir up the emotions, or to produce fleeting moments of devotion, empty sentimentalism and idle tears, but the cleansing of heart and mind. Life robs us of the correct judgment concerning God, the world, man, and Israel, and concerning our own relationship to them all. Leaving the disturbing influences of life, and turning to God, you can find it again through the contemplation that is part of t’fillah… Contemplate afresh our prayers, our Divine service as a whole, and see if you do not find it more dignified, meaningful and important than you had ever before imagined (Samson Raphael Hirsch).
52. Prayer is the Bridge
Prayer is the bridge between man and God.
With the intellect one figures out that God is and also something of what He must be.
In intuition one experiences Him.
In revelation one receives testimony concerning Him.
In the good life one charts a course by His light.
In ritual one celebrates Him.
But only in prayer does one establish a soul to soul inter-
change with him.
53. Our Humble Answer
Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living (Abraham Joshua Herchel).
54. Constant Exercise
A man who uses his legs only three times a year will find that he cannot walk properly even then, for his muscles will waste for lack of exercise. Similarly, he who prays only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur may find his prayers limping even on these days. Prayer requires constant exercise to be effective (Immanuel Jakobovits).
To translate tz’dakah as “charity” is to miss the point of the Hebrew word. The giving of charity in a monetary sense certainly comes into it, and alms-giving is a religious obligation, but tz’dakah means much more: “righteous action” in the widest sense.
Hence it is by means of tz’dakah that we show the sincerity of our penitence and our prayer.
There is a dramatic discussion concerning this point in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning (paragraph 57 below). The prophet rebukes those who accuse God of not having heard their prayers. Why has God not answered them? Because their prayers were limited to concern for their own material prosperity. If they really wanted to pray effectively, their prayers had to be unselfish, for others as well as themselves; and they had to worship by deeds, not only by words. Worship through deeds of lovingkindness is an essential requirement of Judaism. Prayer and ritual is only part of religion, which has to be translated into deeds. One’s belief in God is expressed by obeying His laws in one’s dealings with one’s fellow man.
That is why the Rabbis said of a man who was dishonest and untrustworthy that he made the land unclean, profaned the name of God, and caused the Divine Presence to depart.
That is why, too, it is said that the first question asked of every man when he seeks to enter the next world is not “Did you believe in God ?” or “Did you pray at the set times?” — important though both are — but “Were your business dealings honest and clean?” (Shabbat 31a).
Righteousness, righteousness shall you follow (Deut. 16:20).
56. The Way to Peace
The work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence for ever (Isaiah 32:17).
57. The Fast I Have Chosen (Haftarah for Yom Kippur Morning)
Is such the fast that I have chosen — the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I have chosen — to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall he your reward. Then shall you call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry and He will say: “Here I am.” If you take away from the midst of you your yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedness; and if you draw out your soul, then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon-day; and the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and make strong your bones; and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations: and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in (Isaiah 58).
58. Micah’s Definition
What does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
59. Forgive your Neighbour
Forgive your neighbour the hurt that he has done you,
And then your sins shall be pardoned when you pray.
Man cherishes anger against man,
And does he seek healing from the Lord?
Upon a man like himself he has no mercy,
And does he make supplication for his own sins?
60. Secret Charity
In the Temple there was a Chamber of Secret Charity. God-fearing people used to deposit their contributions in it secretly, and the poor who were descended from well-to-do families were supported from it in secret (Mishnah Shekalim 5:6).
61. A Cheerful Countenance
If a man were to give his fellow all the good gifts in the world but his face is sullen, it is as if he had given him nothing; but he who receives his fellow with a cheerful countenance, even if he give him nothing, is as if he had given him all the good gifts in the world (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 13).
62. I and My Fellow
A favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was:
I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature.
My work is in the town and his work is in the country.
I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work,
Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work.
Will you say, I do much and he does little?
We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little;
It is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven.
63. Beginning and End
The Torah begins by telling of an act of benevolence and ends by telling of an act of benevolence. At the beginning it is said, “And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21), and at the end it is said, “And He buried him (Moses) in the valley” (Deut. 34:6). (Sotah 14a).
64. Great is Benevolence
Greater is benevolence than alms-giving in three ways:
Alms-giving is performed with money, but benevolence with both personal service and money.
Alms-giving is done for the poor, but benevolence for both poor and rich.
Alms-giving is done only for the living, but benevolence may be shown both to the living and the dead. (Sukkah 49b).
65. Charity and Lovingkindness
Charity and lovingkindness intercede magnificently, and promote peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven. (Tosefta Peah).
66. Was Man Worth Creating?
Before creating man, God called the angels together and asked their opinion on what he proposed to do.
“Create him not!” said the Angel of Justice, He will be unjust towards his brother man; he will injure the weak and oppress the vulnerable!”
“Create him not!” said the Angel of Peace. “He will stain the earth with the blood of his brothers; he will spread mischief and discord everywhere!”
“Create him not said the Angel of Truth. “Though You create him in Your image and stamp the impress of truth on his brow, yet will he desecrate Your creation with falsehood
They would have said more, but Mercy, the youngest and dearest angel-child of the Eternal Father, stepped up to the Divine Throne, and said: “Father, create him! Make him in Your image, as the crowning glory of creation. When others forsake him, I will be with him. I will touch his heart with pity and make him kind to others weaker than himself. When he goes astray, turning from the ways of justice, peace and truth, I will gently direct him back onto the right path again, and turn his errors to his own good!”
The Father of Mercy listened to Mercy’s voice, and with Mercy’s support He creased man (Midrash B’reshit Rabba 8:5).
67. Before you Pray
By benevolence man rises to a height where he meets God. Therefore do a good deed before you begin your prayers (Achai Gaon [c.760 CE]).
68. Eight Rungs
There are eight rungs in the giving of charity, one lower than the other. The highest is to give assistance to a fellowman who has fallen on hard times by presenting him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, thus helping him to become self-supporting. Next best is giving charity in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. This is, indeed, to perform a commandment from unselfish motives…
Next in order is the giving of money to the charity fund of the community, to which no contribution should be made unless one is confident that the administration is honest, prudent and efficient.
Below this rung is the situation where the donor is aware to whom he is giving, but the recipient is unaware of who his benefactor is…
Lower than this is the situation where the recipient knows the identity of the donor, but not vice versa…
The next four rungs in order are: the man who gives money to the poor before he is asked; the man who gives money to the poor after he is asked; the man who gives less than he should, but does it with good grace; and lastly, he who gives grudgingly. (Maimonides, Mattenot Aniyyim 10).
The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned. If, for instance, his tongue gave offence to others, he should study the Torah aloud. With whatever part of the body he sinned he should now engage in good deeds. If the feet had run to sin let them now run to the performance of the good. The mouth that had spoken falsehood should be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity. The haughty eye should now gaze downwards. The plotting heart should now meditate on the teachings of Torah. The trouble-maker should now become a peace-maker. (Yonah ben Avraham Gerondi [13th cent.]).
70. “Depart from Evil and do Good”
In a sermon on the Day of Atonement the Rebbe of Ger said:
“He who has done evil and talks about it and thinks about it all the time, does not cast the base thing be did out of his thoughts. He will certainly not be able to turn, for his spirit will grow coarse and his heart stubborn, and in addition to this he may be overcome by gloom. Have I sinned or have I not sinned — what does Heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven. That is why it is written, “Depart from evil and do good (Psalm 34: 15) — turn wholly away from evil, do not dwell upon it, and do goad. You have done wrong. Then counteract it by doing right.” (quoted by Martin Buber in The Way of Man).
A traveller was crossing mountain heights of untrodden snow alone. He struggled bravely against the sense of steep which weighed down his eyelids, but it was fast stealing over him, and he knew that if he fell asleep death would inevitably follow. At this crisis his foot struck against a heap lying across his path. Stooping down, he found it to be a human body half buried in the snow. The next moment he held it in his arms, and was rubbing and chafing the frozen man’s limbs. The effort to restore another unto life brought back to himself warmth and energy, and was the means of saving both. The same law obtains in the realm of the soul. In order that our spiritual vitality may quicken into new life, we must help others in highest matters of faith and hope.
“Heaven’s gate is shut
To him who comes alone;
Save thou a soul,
And it shall save thine own.”
72. Seeming Trifles
Do we resist the temptation to insult, or do we spit forth arrows of fire at the nearest target? Do we forgive a wrong, or do we harbour for long years the acid feelings of revenge? Do we remember that our competitor, too, must earn his daily bread, or do we crush him in our mad rush for power? Do we feel the pain of one who lies ill, or do we look on with cold, fitful eyes? Do we treat rich and poor alike, or do we grovel before the one and sneer at the other? Would we bend down toward the mire to pull an unfortunate man from it, or would we be too concerned about soiling our clothes?
All this must sound insignificant; even banal, and bring a smile to the reader’s lips. Perhaps it is insignificant when compared to the death of millions in extermination camps; but these seeming trifles, unchecked and untended, can grow into mass murder. Let us never forget that compassion concerns not only great issues but small ones as well (Samuel H Dresner).
73. Three Steps Backwards
Don’t leave it until it is too late and you then reproach yourself to the end of your days. When you come to the end of the Amidah and Kaddish you take three steps backwards as you say Oseh shalom bim’romav — “May He who makes peace in Heaven make peace on earth” — because if you want to make peace you can’t always stand obstinately where you are; you must be prepared to take a step backwards and to make concessions.
74. Witnesses of God
It is our duty as Jews, as witnesses of God, to speak about whatever are the fundamental issues for survival of mankind. Jews should do this particularly as they have suffered more by comparison than any other people. If Jews do not take action they will give the impression that they only speak out about their own concerns. If we expect the rest of mankind to stand up for us when we are in distress, it is our duty to show mankind that we also feel for them (Isidor Grunfeld).
75. Faith and Belief
We open our prayers: “Our God and God of our Fathers.” “Our God” — that’s faith; “God of our Fathers” — that’s belief. Faith is more audacious. an act of pioneering, going out on one’s own. Belief is traditional: relying upon the heritage of the ages. Faith is personal and direct; belief is indirect.
A man once started to recite the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Maimonides: “I firmly believe that the Creator, blessed be His name, is the Creator and Ruler of all created beings…” Suddenly, he paused: “Can I say that I firmly believe? If I did, I would not be so fretful, so profane, so absorbed only in business, neglectful in charity; I would not pray so half-heartedly….” And then he thought more about it. “It cannot be that I firmly believe. Look at my actions… But if I don’t, how can I tell a lie? How can I read this prayer in all honesty? No! I will not say it. A liar is worse than a non-believer.” And he thought, “If I don’t say it, it would mean that I do not believe. But I do believe!”
Again he. paused, until he found a way out, He decided to say: “O God, please help me that I might firmly believe…”
We, too, with our weakness, doubts and preoccupations, must pray likewise: “O God, please help us, that we might firmly believe in You and in Your Torah.”