Unetanneh Tokef

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Berosh Hashana Yikatevun (from Unetane Tokef). Ashkenazi(Chasiddic) version. Performer: Yeshayahu Bik; Recorded by: Yaakov Mazor; In NSA Studio, 1997

Unetanneh Tokef, Unethanneh Toqeph, or Unesanneh Tokef (ונתנה תוקף) is a piyyut that has been a part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy in rabbinical Judaism for centuries. It introduces the Kedusha of Musaf for these days. Describing the important place this prayer has in the service, the ArtScroll machzor calls it "one of the most stirring compositions in the entire liturgy of the Days of Awe."[1]

Composition of Unetanneh Tokef[edit]

Recorded in the 13th century commentary Or Zarua, legend has it that Unetanneh Tokef was composed by a purported 11th-century sage named Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (or Mayence, in Germany) -- who, apart from this one story, is utterly unknown to history. Friends with the Archbishop of Mainz, Rabbi Amnon was pressured to convert to Catholicism. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer; immediately after, he regretted intensely giving even the pretense that he could possibly accept a foreign religion. After spending the three days in prayer, he refused to come to the bishop as promised, and, when he was brought to the bishop's palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sins. Instead, the bishop ordered his hands and legs amputated — limb by limb — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused.

This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. On that holiday, as he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue, where he recited the original composition of Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath. Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus Ben-Meshullam (died 1096), one of the great scholars of Mainz, and begged him to record the prayer and to see that it was included in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus, the legend concludes, Unetanneh Tokef became a part of the standard liturgy.[2]

However, modern scholarship has demonstrated that the prayer is in fact considerably older than it was traditionally believed, with fragments found in the Cairo Geniza dating to the 8th Century.[3]

While medieval history testifies amply to the intense persecution of Jews by Christians at the time of the Crusades, there are difficulties with the legend that it was composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Not least of these is its portrayal of R'Amnon as an illustrious Torah giant, while Jewish history of that period provides no record of a 'Rav Amnon of Mainz' at all. It seems unlikely that a person of such tremendous stature would be remembered only in a single legend.[4] Moreover, the discovery of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer within the earliest strata of the Cairo Geniza materials makes it almost impossible that the prayer could have been composed as the legend claims. Additionally, some scholars see parallels with non-Jewish hymnology, suggesting that elements of the prayer stemmed from other sources.[5]

Rather, the prayer was likely written by a payetan (perhaps Yannai) in the Land of Israel several hundred years earlier.[4] Authorship in the Land of Israel is corroborated also by internal evidence, such as the concluding three-part remedy of 'repentance, prayer, and charity', which is found in exact permutation[6] in Genesis Rabbah (composed in the Land of Israel), yet not in Babylonian sources (e.g., Talmud Bavli cites a four-part remedy)

Unetaneh Tokef displays significant liturgical skill, seamlessly fusing concepts and language from ancient Biblical and Rabbinical source materials (see #Themes and Sources of Unetanneh Tokef).

Position in the Prayer Service[edit]

In the Ashkenazic ritual, Unetanneh Tokef is inserted during the Mussaf service, when the chazzan repeats the Amidah , as a Silluk (parting poem) just before entonning the kedusha. In the Sephardic ritual, Unetanneh Tokef is usually omitted, as Sephardic Jews do not recite piyyutim during the Amidah. Nevertheless, because of the importance of this prayer, many Sepharadic congregations (mainly Moroccan) recite it immediately prior to the commencement of the Mussaf service. The congregation stands up to chant it and the Torah Ark is opened. It is one of the few piyyutim that is recited on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur in the Polish tradition whereas it's only said on Rosh Hashanah by Sepharadim and German Ashkenazim who have another silluk for Yom Kippur: "Mi Ya'arokh Eilekho".

Themes and Sources of Unetanneh Tokef[edit]

Unetanneh Tokef is recited immediately prior to and as an introduction for the kedusha prayer, during which the angelic sanctification of God is mentioned. Unetanneh Tokef adapts this daily praise to the specific elements intrinsic to the High Holidays, namely the Divine judgment of all existence. In most printed editions, Unetanneh Tokef consists of four paragraphs, each reflecting a different aspect of this general topic.

Fear and Trembling[edit]

The first paragraph depicts the judgment day, where the angels in heaven tremble at the awe-inspiring event of the annual judgment of all creation, with the implication that man should also approach this day with trepidation. The heavenly Book of Chronicles is opened, in which every human being's fate will be inscribed.[7]

Hebrew Text Translation Biblical/Rabbinical Sources
וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיוֹם וּבו תִנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְיִכּון בְּחֶסֶד כִּסְאֶךָ וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת. אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוֹכִיחַ וְיוֹדֵעַ וָעֵד וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה. וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחות, וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת. וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא. וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּו. וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע. וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן. וְיֹאמְרוּ הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין. לִפְקד עַל צְבָא מָרוֹם בַּדִּין. כִּי לֹא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ בַּדִּין. "Let us now relate the power of this day's holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself - in which everyone's signature is. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin silence will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them—and they will say, 'Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!'—for even they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment." Book of fate:
  • "The Lord will never forgive him [one who secretly worships other deities]; rather will the Lord's anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven." (Deuteronomy 29:19).
  • "I looked up again and I saw a flying scroll. 'What do you see, he asked?' And I replied, 'A flying scroll, twenty cubits long and ten cubits wide.' 'That,' he explained to me, 'is the curse which goes out over the whole land. For everyone who has stolen, as is forbidden on one side of it, has gone unpunished; and everyone who has sworn falsely, as is forbidden on the other side of it, has gone unpunished." (Zechariah 5:3)
  • "The Lord has heard and noted it, and a Scroll of Remembrance has been written at His behest concerning those who revere the Lord and esteem his name." (Malachi 3:16)
  • "Add that to their [i.e. my enemies] guilt, and let them have no share of your beneficence, may they be erased from the book of life, and not be inscribed with the righteous." (Psalms 69:28)
  • "At that time, the great prince Michael, who stands besides the sons of your people, will appear. It will be a time of trouble, the like of which has never been seen since the nation came into being. At that time your people will be rescued, all who are found inscribed in the book." (Daniel 12:1)
  • "Rav Kruspedia said in the name of Rav Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the confirmed unrighteous, one for the confirmed righteous, and one for intermediate individuals. The confirmed righteous are signed and sealed immediately for life; the confirmed unrighteous are signed and sealed immediately for death; The fate of the intermediates is held suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are judged meritorious, they are written for life; if they are not judged meritorious, they are written for death." (Rosh Hashana 16b)
  • "Reflect on three things, and you will not fall into transgression: know what is above you—a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written." (Pirkei Avot 2:1)

The still thin sound:

  • "And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering bricks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire—a soft murmuring sound [still, thin sound]." (1 Kings 19:11)

Guilt of angels:

  • Even the moon is not bright, And the stars are not pure in His sight. How much less man, a worm, The son-of-man, a maggot. (Job 25:5)
  • "If He cannot trust His own servants, and casts reproach on His angels, how much less those who dwell in houses of clay, whose origin is dust, who are crushed like the moth, shattered between daybreak and evening, perishing forever unnoticed." (Job 4:18)
  • "He puts no trust in His holy ones. The heavens are not guiltless in His sight; What then of one loathsome and foul, Man who drinks wrongdoing like water." (Job 15:15)

He Judges Us[edit]

The second paragraph continues this point, depicting how every event that will occur in the upcoming year is "written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur". This paragraph is known by its opening words, BeRosh Hashana, and it is traditional that the litany of possible destinies is read with increasing speed from the phrase "Who shall rest and who shall wander" to the end of the paragraph. This paragraph reaches its climax with the final line, said by all the congregants in unison, "But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the severe decree." This verse is usually printed in more emphatic typeface and usually with, in smaller type, the words "fasting", "voice", and "money" above "repentance", "prayer", and "charity" respectively - those words are not read aloud but are intended as instructions on how to perform the three acts necessary to avoid (or reduce) the dire punishments. This verse expresses the formula by which a man may obtain a reduction in the severity of the original decree, as expressed in the Bible (Second Chronicles 7:14), the Talmud (T.B., Rosh Hashana 16b; T.J. Ta'anith 2:1) and Midrah (Bereshis Rabbah 44:13).[8]

Hebrew Text Translation Biblical/Rabbinical Sources
וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן (תעביר) לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן. כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ. מַעֲבִיר צאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ .כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי. וְתַחְתּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיּוֹתֶיךָ (בריה). וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם:

בְּראֹשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת. מִי בְקִצּוֹ וּמִי לא בְקִצּוֹ מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ מִי בַחֶרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא מִי בָרַעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה מִי יָנוּחַ וּמִי יָנוּעַ מִי יִשָּׁקֵט וּמִי יִטָּרֵף מִי יִשָּׁלֵו. וּמִי יִתְיַסָּר מִי יֵעָנִי. וּמִי יֵעָשֵׁר מִי יִשָּׁפֵל. וּמִי יָרוּם וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

"All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed - how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!"

Like a shepherd:
  • "Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms And carries them in His bosom; Gently he drives the mother sheep." (Isaiah 40:11)

God scrutinizes man:

  • "The Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place he gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth—He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings." (Psalms 33:13)
  • "What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him." (Psalms 8:5) "Oh Lord, what is man that You should care about him, mortal man that You should think of him." (Psalms 144:3)
  • "What is man that You make much of him, that you fix Your attention upon him. You inspect him every morning, examine him every minute." (Job 7:17)
  • "Do you fix your gaze on such a one? ... His days are determined. You know the number of his months; You have set him limits that he cannot pass." (Job 14:3)
  • "On Rosh Hashana all worldly creatures pass before Him like the children of Maron [meaning, according to Gemara, 'in single-file,' like sheep being counted, hikers ascending a mountain pass, or troops passing muster] as it says, 'He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana I, ;see also Mishna, Tractate on Rosh Hashanah I,2)

Repentance, prayer, and charity annul the decree:

  • "R. Judan said in R. Eleazar's name: Three things nullify a decree, and these are they: Prayer and charity and repentance, and the three are enumerated in one verse: If My people, upon whom My Name is called, shall humble themselves, and pray... (2 Chronicles 7:14)—here you have prayer, ...And seek My face (ib.)...—alludes to charity, as you read, 'I shall behold Thy face in righteousness' (Psalms 17:15), ...And turn from their evil ways... (II Chron. loc. cit.)—denotes repentance, ...after that, Then will I forgive their sin (ib.)." (Genesis Rabbah 44:12)

We are Helpless[edit]

The third paragraph begs for Divine mercy on the basis of the fact that man by nature is sinful and innately impotent and mortal, which conditions will cause a merciful Deity to forgive his trespasses. The passage here echoes the despair found in the book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), but concludes—as does Isaiah 40:7, from which it apparently draws—with the contrasting affirmation that God is eternal and enduring. The text of אדם יסודו מעפר is very similar to Wisdom of Solomon 2:1, where it is presented as the philosophy which the Book of Wisdom sets out to discredit.

Hebrew Text Translation Biblical/Rabbinical Sources
כִּי כְּשִׁמְךָ כֵּן תְּהִלָּתֶךָ קָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וְנוחַ לִרְצות כִּי לֹא תַחְפּץ בְּמוֹת הַמֵּת כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּבו מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ תְּחַכֶּה לּוֹ אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ. אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא יוֹצְרָם וְ[אַתָּה] יוֹדֵעַ יִצְרָם כִּי הֵם בָּשָׂר וָדָם. אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר, וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף. "For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream." If a man repents, God accepts:
  • "Seek the Lord while he can be found, Call to Him while He is near. Let the wicked give up his ways, the sinful man his plans; Let him turn back to the Lord, and He will pardon him; To our God, For he freely forgives." (Isaiah 55:7)
  • "Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?--says the Lord God. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live." (Ezekiel 18:23)
  • "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)
  • "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:10)

God knows man's inclination:

Man is but flesh and blood:

  • "All flesh is like grass, All its goodness like flowers of the field: Grass withers, flowers fade, When the breath of the Lord blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass: Grass withers, flowers fade — But the word of our God is always fulfilled!" (Isaiah 40:7)
  • "He brings potentates to naught, Makes rulers of the earth as nothing. Hardly are they planted, hardly are they sown, Hardly has their stem taken root in earth, When he blows upon them and they dry up, And the storm bears them off like straw." (Isaiah 40:23)
  • "the breath in our nostrils is as smoke... our body shall be turned to ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air... our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud... and shall be dispersed as a mist... for our time is a very shadow that passeth away." (Wisdom of Solomon 2:1)
  • "You return man to dust; You decreed 'Return you Mortals!' For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night. You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up." (Psalms 90:3)
  • "Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow." (Psalms 144:4)
  • "Truly man has a term of service on earth. His days are like those of a hireling—like a slave who longs for shadows... My days fly faster than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end when the thread runs out. Consider that my life is but wind... Your eye will seek me, but I shall be gone. As a cloud fades away, So whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up... I shall not live forever; let me be, for my days are a breath." (Job 7:1)
  • "Man born of woman is short lived and sated with trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers; he vanishes like a shadow and does not endure." (Job 14:1)
  • "Who knows what is good for man to do in his life, his few days of futility that pass like a shadow." (Ecclesiastes 6:12)
  • "And the [man's] dust returns to the ground as it was, and the spirit returns to God who bestowed it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

God is Enduring[edit]

Finally, the fourth paragraph lyrically praises God as exalted above all existence, and begs Him to sanctify His Name by redeeming Israel - transitioning directly into the kedusha:

Hebrew Text Translation Biblical/Rabbinical Sources
וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם אֵין קִצְבָה לִשְׁנוֹתֶיךָ. וְאֵין קֵץ לְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ וְאֵין לְשַׁעֵר מַרְכְּבוֹת כְּבוֹדֶךָ. וְאֵין לְפָרֵשׁ עֵלוּם שְׁמֶך שִׁמְךָ נָאֶה לְךָ. וְאַתָּה נָאֶה לִשְׁמֶךָ. וּשְׁמֵנוּ קָרָאתָ בִּשְׁמֶךָ. "But You are the King, the Living and Enduring God.

There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of Your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and to elucidate Your Name's inscrutability. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name."

God enduring: "Your kingship is an eternal kingship. Your dominion is for all generations." (Psalms 145:13)

Popular culture[edit]

  • In 1990, Israeli composer Yair Rosenblum composed a new musical setting for the prayer.[9] This version was first performed at a memorial for 11 soldiers from kibbutz Beit Hashita who fell during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and is now often played on Israeli radio during the High Holy Days.[10]
  • Leonard Cohen's Who by Fire is inspired by this poem.[11]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Yom Kippur Machzor, page 530
  2. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Unetaneh Tokef, page 332; The Orot Sephardic Yom Kippur Mahazor (1997, NJ, Orot Inc.) page 1089. Kalonymus may be the true author of this stirring recitation. Munk, Elie, The World of Prayer (1963, NY, Feldheim) vol.2, pages 209, citing Zunz.
  3. ^ "Schechter Institute - Insight Israel". Schechter.edu. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  4. ^ a b "YUTorah Online - U-Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Ha-Yom: Medieval Story and Modern Significance (Rabbi Dr. Jacob J Schacter)". Yutorah.org. 2005-10-02. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  5. ^ "Blog Archive » Un’tanneh Tokef – the prayer that tears the heart". OzTorah. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  6. ^ Schmeltzer, Menahem, 'Penitence, Prayer, and (Charity?),' in Minhah le-Nahum: Biblical and other studies presented to Nahum M. Sarna in honour of his 70th birthday, ed. Brettler, Marc and Fishbane, Michael, p.291, Scheffield Academic Press 1993.
  7. ^ The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, commentary to Deuteronomy 29:19 and elsewhere
  8. ^ Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Berosh Hashana, pages 97-98; Orot Sephardic Rosh Hashannah Mahazor (1996, NJ, Orot Inc.) page 524; Munk, Elie, The World of Prayer (1963, NY, Feldheim) vol.2, pages 209-210; Scherman, Nosson, The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Rosh Hashanah (1985, Brooklyn, Mesorah Publ'ns) pages 480-481; Montefiore, C.G., Rabbinic Conceptions of Repentance, Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 16, nr. 2 (Jan. 1904) page 232.
  9. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEVnlVRmYTk
  10. ^ "Who by fire, who by water". Hadassahmagazine.org. 1973-10-06. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  11. ^ "Leonard Cohen’s Lyricism". The Jewish Week. 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 

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