During these High Holy days, we will chant one of the most powerful prayers, Unetaneh Tokef.
Some of the prayer is as follows:
“We acknowledge the awesome power of this day, its pure sanctity … you are judge and prosecutor … What is forgotten is remembered and recorded and borne witness to; All deeds are signed and sealed by every human being …
The great shofar is sounded, and a still, small voice is heard… The angels are in terror, for judgment is to be decreed against the inhabitants of both heaven and earth.”
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who will live and who will die, who will perish by fire and who by water, who by sword, who by hunger and who by earthquake, who will be poor and who will be rich … etc. With Repentance and Prayer and Righteous Acts, we can transform the severity of the decree.”
This prayer which resonates and defines the holiday can be traced back to the 11th century when Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a prominent scholar and poet lived in a time of persecution and uncertainty in Jewish communities across Europe. Rabbi Amnon’s life would become a testament to faith, transformation, and the enduring power of prayer.
After relentless pressure from the Bishop to convert to Christianity, Rabbi Amnon tried to stall the Bishop and requested to deliberate on the matter for three days. Realizing that offering the delay may have given the impression that he was remotely entertaining the idea of conversion, he was horrified and fasted the three days. When the time expired the Rabbi refused to see the Bishop until he was brought to him by force.
As punishment for his defiance, the Rabbi pleaded that the Bishop take his tongue for the punishment of suggesting that he may leave his faith. But the Bishop responded that his tongue was right and that his legs had sinned by not coming to him. He then ordered that the Rabbi be dismembered limb by limb. During the cruel process, the Rabbi was offered the choice to convert and lessen the decree, but he remained steadfast until the end and was sent home on a shield.
This occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah, and on that holy day Rabbi Amnon, as he lay dying, asked to be brought to the synagogue. There he recited his Unetaneh Tokef prayer which he had composed in his last days. As he concluded it, he breathed his last breath and expired.
Three days later Rabbi Amnon appeared in Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam’s dream. He dreamt that Rabbi Amnon, taught him the prayer and bade him to include it in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus Unetaneh Tokef became a part of the standard liturgy.
The tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz endures as a testament to the spirit of faith and the capacity for courage in the face of adversity. His encounter with the bishop and the creation of Unetaneh Tokef serves as a reminder that the journey of faith is often marked by challenges, but it is through these challenges that the true strength of one’s convictions is revealed. A reminder that even in the most trying times, the human spirit can shine brightly with resilience and hope.
U-netaneh tokef k’dushat ha-yom, ki hu nora v’ayom. U-vo tinaseih malkhutekha v’yikon b’hesed kisekha, v’teishev alav b’emet. Emet ki ata hu dayan u-mokhi·ah, v’yode·a va-eid v’khoteiv b’hoteim v’sofeir u-moneh, v’tizkor kol ha-niskahot. V’tiftah et sefer ha-zikhronot u-mei-eilav yikarei, v’hotam yad kol adam bo.
U-va-shofar gadol yitaka, v’kol d’mamah dakah yishama u-malakhim yeihafeizun v’hil ur’ada yoheizun v’yom’ru hineih yom ha-din, lifkod al tz’va marom ba-din ki lo yizku v’einekha ba-din. V’khol ba·ei olam ya·avrun l’fanekha kivnei maron. K’vakarat ro·eh edro ma·avir tzono tahat shivto. Ken ta·avir v’tispor v’timneh v’tifkod nefesh kol hai, v’tahtokh kitzva l’khol b’riyotekha v’tikhtov et g’zar dinam.
Let us speak of the sacred power of this day – profound and awe-inspiring. On it, Your sovereignty is celebrated, and Your throne, from which You rule in truth, is established with love. Truly, You are Judge and Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness, completing the indictment, bringing the case, and enumerating the counts. You recall all that is forgotten, and will open the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own hands have signed the page.
The great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard. Angels will be alarmed, seized with fear and trembling, declaring, “This very day is the Day of Judgment” – for even the hosts of heaven are judged; no one is innocent in Your sight. All that lives on earth will pass before You like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff; so You will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny.