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Reflections on Prayer: U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayo

It’s hard to believe that it’s been only three days since the High Holy Days passed…  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  In just two days the Feast of Tabernacles begins and we make a mood switch from solemnity and introspection to one of joy and gladness.

I sit at the table making up menus for the upcoming holiday, looking out onto the porch where my husband and the boys are building our sukkah. I am humming a tune to myself and realize it is from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services.  It is a prayer that is probably the climax– the high point– of the whole liturgy, the very essence of the day.  It is called “U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom”—Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is”, and the content of the prayer, as well as its tempo and melody, awakens our gut-wrenching awe. The pivotal moment of this prayer, in our synagogue, is especially moving.  Our cantor stands on his platform, his holiday prayer book opened before him and the prayer begins.

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 as every human being’s fate will be inscribed.

“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 counts and calculates; Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles… and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar [ram’s horn] will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment…”

From the time we were in kindergarten we were taught to picture G-d up in heaven, a large book open in front of him, as he calculates our transgressions and our good deeds, weighing one against the other and writing our decree for the coming year.  It is chilling to realize that He knows and sees all and we will be judged.  The cantor continues, seven men surrounding the prayer podium sounding a poignant chorus to his words, adding drama and depth with their rich harmonies:

“All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock.  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 fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.”

I hear this and I realize how much time I have wasted.  G-d gave us ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when he made Himself incredibly, especially close to us, waiting for us to turn to Him and return.  How much time have I wasted, when I should have been crying out to Him, begging Him for mercy and forgiveness?  G-d is handing us an opportunity.  We are praying to the King of Kings, royalty incarnate.  And here He is, presenting himself as a shepherd, the plainest of professions, lovingly tending his flock… so close and accessible, not remotely out of reach, as a king upon his throne.

The next paragraph is chilling, the choir crying out the refrain “Who… who…” in a chilling moan, the echoes of the word filling the still synagogue.

“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 earthquake, who by plague, who by strangulation, 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.”

How many will be created? I sit behind a young woman, married too many years ago to still be so girlishly slender.  I know these words cut her as she hopes to become pregnant this year. Who will die before his time? How many people were murdered this past year, victims of Arab terror? How many were killed on our roads in the rash of car accidents that is our modern plague? Who by water? This summer, alone, tens of people drowned in Israel in our oceans and rivers.  Who will be impoverished? My husband found work this year after being unemployed for too long, but how many people are still struggling to support themselves with honor?

Then these words thunder through the synagogue:

“But Repentance Prayer and Charity Remove the Evil of the Decree!”

The next paragraph begs for Divine mercy on the basis of the fact that man by nature is sinful, impotent and mortal, conditions which will hopefully cause a merciful Deity to forgive his trespasses.

“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.”

The mood changes. Yes, our G-d is a G-d of judgment, but He is also a G-d of compassion, His love for us is compared to the love of a father for his child.  We are reassured.  He is waiting for us to return and all will be forgiven.

I don’t know why I find this next paragraph so comforting:

“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.”

I don’t find it disturbing that my being is compared to the fleeting existence of a passing cloud or a withering grass.  I find it moving that I have my purpose in life… to serve G-d, but that I am almost inconsequential in the face of the real force, the true everlasting strength, which is found in Him. I find that when I am confronted by something so much larger than myself, it helps me re-examine myself. Am I living up to my own expectations? To G-d’s? It is a profound reminder of humility, that so much in this world is not in our control.

Finally, the fourth paragraph praises G-d as exalted above all existence, and begs Him to sanctify His Name by redeeming Israel:

“But You are the King, the Living and Enduring G-d.”

And the prayer ends.

Some background must be provided in order to fully understand the power of this prayer.
The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer is attributed to a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, who lived about a thousand years ago. The story behind this prayer is tragic and poignant, both heartbreaking and inspiring.

The Bishop of Mainz, in the interest of attaining wisdom and learning about Judaism and the sources of Christianity, would speak with Jewish scholars.  Rabbi Amnon was a leading Torah sage in his generation.  The bishop would not use force, but every time rabbi and bishop would meet, the bishop would request that the rabbi abandon his faith and in return he would be offered a ministerial post.  Rabbi Amnon refused time after time.  One day, though, after the governor was especially insistent, Rabbi Amnon, in an attempt to push him off, replied, “Let me take council and consider the matter for three days.”

As soon as Rabbi Amnon returned home, he was horrified with himself at this seeming lapse of faith he showed by even appearing to consider the Bishop’s offer.  This was a reasonable response, a logical delaying tactic, especially when we take into account the stress of survival.  Rabbi Amnon knew that the plight of the Jewish communities and their well-being, were dependent on the good will of the rulers.  Relationships between them were delicate and the pressure placed upon the Jews to convert to Christianity was great.

For three days he could not eat or sleep and he prayed to G-d for forgiveness, refusing to be comforted.  When the deadline for a decision arrived, the Bishop sent messenger after messenger to bring Rabbi Amnon, but he refused to go.  Finally, the Bishop had him forcibly brought to him and demanded a response.  The Rabbi responded, “I should have my tongue cut out for not having refused immediately.”  Rabbi Amnon desired to sanctify God in the eyes of the Jews, and, indirectly, in the eyes of the non-Jews. He wished to make it clear to all that it is unthinkable for a Jew to promise somebody to consider abandoning his faith. The Bishop angrily had Rabbi Amnon’s hands and feet cut off, one finger and toe at a time, raising the axe twenty times, each time offering Rabbi Amnon to change his mind, and save himself by abandoning his faith.

A few days later was Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Amnon, dying from his wounds, asked to be carried to the synagogue.  He wished to say the Kedushah, to sanctify G-d’s Name and publicly declare his faith in G-d’s Kingship. With his dying breath, he uttered the words that we now know of as the U’Netaneh Tokef.

Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam, a scholar and poet, and taught him the exact text of the prayer.   Rabbi Amnon commanded him to send it to Jewish communities everywhere, to serve as a testimony and a remembrance and that it be inserted in the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for all time.  And indeed, for nearly 1,000 years, this prayer has been recited by Jews on the High Holy Days all over the world.

One of the most moving versions of Unetaneh Tokef was written by Yair Rosenblum, a celebrated Israeli composer.  In 1988 he was invited to serve as musical director for the sixtieth anniversary of Kibbutz Beit Hashitah.  During his stay, he was exposed to a memorial service that takes place there every Yom Kippur. He was especially touched by their treatment of the memories of the eleven kibbutz members who had lost their lives in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He composed a new melody for the prayer, blending motifs from Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions with Israeli folk music.

The 1973 war has come to represent the end of the euphoric period which followed the miraculous victory of the 1967 Six Day War.  Kibbutz Beit Hashitah had been especially torn apart, having lost 11 of their sons, the largest number as a percentage of the population of any town in Israel.  Beit Hashitah was a secular kibbutz and nobody thought that Rosenblum’s work would be accepted by the ideologically secular kibbutz members.  But the haunting melody with the ancient text spoke to these heartbroken people.  U’netaneh Tokef comforted them and the liturgy became a welcome part of their Yom Kippur ceremony. The tune is very powerful and stirring and makes the connection between the ultimate sacrifice of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz and the 2,656 Israeli soldiers who fell in the Yom Kippur War.

May our existence continue to be one of vitality, and may we no longer be asked to sacrifice ourselves for our faith, but rather to live in peace in G-d’s land, serving Him with joy.

Shira Schwartz
CFOIC Heartland