Lessons on Unetaneh Tokef

Presentation on Unetaneh Tokef

To Congregation B’nai Tzedek

Paul M. Hamburger

September 14, 2020

25 Elul 5780


Good evening.

For the next half hour, I would like to share some thoughts on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the highlight of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Who among us is not moved when reading the sacred words and hearing the stirring melodies? On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. The great shofar is sounded and a “still small voice” is heard. On these days it is decreed who will live and who will die. After all is said and done, our origin is dust and our end is dust. At the same time, repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the severity of the decree.

The prayer reminds us of how fragile our existence is. Its message is reminiscent of a story I read about Dr. Michael DeBakey, one of the world’s first heart transplant surgeons. According to the story, after one of the doctor’s heart transplant operations, reporters asked him “How is the patient?” “Resting comfortably” was his reply. A reporter then asked, “How much longer do you expect him to be on the critical list?” Dr. DeBakey replied “He’ll be on the critical list for as long as he lives.” That is what Unetaneh Tokef reminds us – no matter how much we feel like we are resting comfortably, we always remain on the “critical list” where things can change at any time and we must do what we can to maintain our physical and our spiritual health.

Let’s now study the history and text of this prayer and see what we can add this year to our own personal meditations.

To start, where did this prayer come from? Unetaneh Tokef has a somewhat mysterious origin. The traditional story surrounding its composition is found in a book entitled Ohr Zarua, a 13th century source written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna. In his work, Rabbi Yitzchak tells the story which he attributes to the works of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn (a 12th century authority).

According to the story, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (an 11th century rabbi) had a close relationship with the local ruler, the bishop of Mainz. Rabbi Amnon was admired by the bishop who would often consult with Rabbi Amnon on various issues. At one point, the bishop insisted that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon was not sure what to do and asked for three days to consider the matter.

As soon as he returned home, Rabbi Amnon was embarrassed for having created any doubt about whether he would convert.  He spent the next three days in contemplation, prayer, and fasting to seek forgiveness for his sin.  When the day came to appear before the bishop, Rabbi Amnon did not arrive. The bishop had him brought out to account for himself and Rabbi Amnon explained that it was unthinkable for him to even consider conversion and that his tongue should be cut out as punishment for his words.

The bishop let Rabbi Amnon keep his tongue; however, since Rabbi Amnon did not come to the bishop when promised, the sin was determined to be in his limbs. The bishop had his limbs amputated one by one until Rabbi Amnon would agree to convert. Rabbi Amnon steadfastly refused. Eventually, the bishop gave up and allowed Rabbi Amnon to return home.

A few days later, Rosh Hashanah arrived and Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to the holy ark. Just before the congregation was to recite the kedushah, Rabbi Amnon asked to speak. He poured out his heart with the words of Unetaneh Tokef and then died. According to a version of the story appearing in a book entitled Korey Hodorot, written by a 17th century literary historian Dovid Konforte, Rabbi Amnon literally ascended to the next world and was seated by the side of Rabbi Akivah and his colleagues.

Three days after his death, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream of Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam, a Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar in Mainz. Rabbi Amnon taught Rabbi Klonimus the words of Unetaneh Tokef and instructed him to have it added to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. It has been recited every year thereafter.

Although this is the well-accepted history of Unetaneh Tokef which can be found in many versions of Ashkenazi machzorim (Unetaneh Tokef is not part of the traditional Sephardic liturgy), there are reasons to call the story into question.

First, the source text in Ohr Zarua was written about 200 years after the events described in the Rabbi Amnon story. It is possible that a 200-year-old story might not be entirely accurate.

Second, the text of Unetaneh Tokef itself raises some questions. The high point of the prayer is when the congregation recites that Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah(repentance, prayer, and charity) have the power to avert the severity of the heavenly decree.  However, if one looks in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah page 16b), there are four things that cause an unfavorable decree to be torn up: charity, crying out, changing our name, and changing our actions. The Talmud also refers to a fifth thing – which is changing our place.

Certainly, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz was well-versed in the authoritative Babylonian Talmud and knew that the Talmud specified at least four things that could tear up the decree.  Moreover, the Talmud’s articulation of those four things did not use Rabbi Amnon’s formulation of Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah.

Interestingly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit page 54) states succinctly that there are three things that avert a difficult decree and they are Tefillah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah.  Similarly, Berieshit Rabbah (44:12), a midrashic source written at around the same time as the Jerusalem Talmud, lists the three things that avert evil decrees as Tefillah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah.

Certainly, it is possible that Rabbi Amnon was versed in these other sources. But it seems unusual that an Ashkenazi leader at that time would not rely on the more familiar text in the Babylonian Talmud.

Today, many scholars believe that Unetaneh Tokef dates to Rabbi Yannai, a 6thcentury payatan (or liturgical poet). This view is based on documents found in the famous Cairo Genizah which include portions of Unetaneh Tokef found among other documents from Rabbi Yannai.

Nevertheless, the Rabbi Amnon story is the one that has resonated throughout the years and has been reprinted in many High Holiday machzorim.

One fascinating example of how powerful the story is occurred at the Camp David negotiations, nearly 1,000 years after Rabbi Amnon’s death.  As recorded in Daniel Gordis’s biography of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Carter wanted Begin to discuss the issue of dividing Jerusalem as part of the peace accord. Begin related the Rabbi Amnon story and explained that just as Rabbi Amnon regretted having done anything that might be interpreted as if he would consider the unthinkable act of converting, so too Begin would not even consider dividing Jerusalem. After Carter relayed the story to the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, the issue of Jerusalem was off the table.

The somewhat mysterious history of the Rabbi Amnon story is part of what lends the power and mystique to Unetaneh Tokef. Perhaps it is fitting that we don’t know for sure who originally wrote this liturgical poem, as each year we are the ones who re-write it by investing our own experiences into the holy words.

Unetaneh Tokef is technically classified as a piyyut, a type of prayer commonly used throughout the High Holiday liturgy. Unlike other piyyutim, though, this one is unrhymed and there are no alphabetic acrostic devices. Instead, the wording itself is simple and direct. The prayer is written in a series of three to five-word phrases creating its own rhythm reminding us of how short our lives are and how quickly things can change.

The prayer opens with an introduction of G-d’s role. In our legal system, a witness cannot be a judge. Here, though, G‑d is not only the witness, He is also the judge and jury. From His final verdict there is no appeal and, as if that is not bad enough, we even signed our own testimony which He recorded (in real time) in a book called Sefer Hazichronot – the book of remembrances. This allows Him to remember all that we thought might have been forgotten.


This reference to Sefer Hazichronot perhaps alludes to another famous book of remembrances; this one found in Chapter 6 of the Purim Megillah. King Achashverosh was having trouble sleeping and he asked his aides to bring in his copy of Sefer Hazichronot. That book recorded all the events that transpired in his kingdom and he was reminded of what Mordechai had done to save the king from assassination. King Achashverosh literally used Sefer Hazichronot, the book of remembrances, to determine who was deserving of reward.


This allusion to Purim in Unetaneh Tokef may not be accidental. In the Zohar (the sourcebook of Jewish mysticism), we are told that Yom Kippur can also be read as Yom K’Purim – a day that is like Purim. Aside from the many common allusions between Yom Kippur and Purim (such as fasting and the casting of lots), the Zohar explains that, in the future, we will celebrate the Day of Atonement and transform it from a day of affliction to a day of delight just like Purim.


In the second section of Unetaneh Tokef, the great shofar is sounded. Court is in session and the King is on His throne with all the majesty, pomp, and circumstance that one can imagine. However, it is not the booming sound of the shofar but the “still small voice” that is heard וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַּקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.


This well-known phrase of the “still small voice” is from the Book of Kings where we read of Elijah the prophet who had defeated the so-called prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. He was running from Queen Jezebel who threatened his life. Elijah hid in a cave and pleaded with G-d to be saved. At G-d’s request, Elijah stepped out of the cave and stood on a mountaintop. At that moment, there came a great and mighty wind that shattered the rocks, but G-d was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake. Fire broke out but G-d was not in the fire. Then, after the fire, came the still small voice קוֹלדְּמָמָהדַּקָּה. That is where G-d’s voice was heard.


The translation of וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַּקָּה יִשָּׁמַעas a still small voice being heard is certainly poetic even if somewhat inaccurate. In Hebrew, the word “damam” is more accurately translated as silent and “daka” is translated as thin. The phrase therefore alludes to a silent voice that is somehow still thin and barely audible. That voice is, perhaps, our inner voice; the voice of our own emotions and convictions that guides us and can lead us in the right direction.


Jeffrey M. Cohen said it well in his book “Prayer and Penitence” when he wrote:


[There is an] incomparable sense of security induced by the man of faith’s own unswerving conviction that he possesses an inner guiding and directing voice, “a still small voice,” that, though still and inaudible to those around, and though small, in the sense that the prophet himself may not always be totally certain that he hears and understands its import, it is indubitably a force within him, a manifestation of a higher will, in which the man of G-d should glory, and in accordance with which he should continue fearlessly with his life’s mission.


That is hardly just a still small voice and certainly holds its own against the sound of the great shofar.


The second section of Unetaneh Tokef continues by describing how, once overtaken by the awe-inspired still small voice, all the created beings in the world will pass before G-d, single file, like a flock of sheep.וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן


Stop and consider this statement. Here we are. It is the Jewish New Year. It is a time for Jews to engage in personal reflection and a time to renew our Jewish identity. Yet it is precisely at this time that the high point of our service reminds us that our fate is linked with the fate of the entire world. All the created beings will pass before G‑d in judgment and seek forgiveness. This universalistic message is appropriate for the day that celebrates the birthday of Adam – the first man. All of us, without regard to class, race, gender, or other status must realize the essential unity of humankind. More on this theme in a minute.


The third section of Unetaneh Tokef is arguably the most compelling section. On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – Who will live and who will die? Who by water and who by fire? Who by earthquake and who by plague? This is the section that grabs us by the arms and shakes us out of our complacency. How can we read these words without nodding our heads in agreement at the notion that some of us will be afflicted by Covid, wildfires, hurricanes, racial injustice, or civil unrest? Each year our lives are touched by the world around us in specific ways we cannot imagine or predict. Unetaneh Tokef anticipates all the possibilities and tells us that we are all in it together.


Nevertheless, there is an aspect of this section that can be troubling. If it is all written and sealed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then what difference can we make in the year ahead? The book is written and sealed. Where do our actions throughout the year fit in?


In Parshat Ki Teitzei, we find the law governing how we need to place a protective fence around a rooftop to prevent someone from falling off and being injured. Why? If G-d is in charge and I didn’t place a fence on the roof, why is it my fault? Blame G-d; He decided to throw the victim off the roof. Or, said another way, why bother with fences altogether – if it is determined by G-d who will live and who will die, then who needs to design safeguards? G-d rules the world and will figure it all out.


There are thousands of commentaries and books on this topic. For our purposes, though, the short answer is that G‑d does his part, and we must do our part.  When life is difficult, we do not give up on the theory that it is all pre-determined. We argue, we fight through it, we challenge what is in front of us and do not let it stop us. As Sholem Aleichem said, no matter how bad things get, you must go on living, even if it kills you.


Beyond our own challenges, we are also called upon to alleviate the suffering of others. Are we callously indifferent to the suffering or potential suffering of others? Do we hear of others in need and sit in silence?


That is why, even though it is all written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur we recite together and out loud that Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah have the power to avert the severity of the decree – our job (and obligation) is to do what we can to literally make G-d change His mind.


The terms Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah are often translated as repentance, prayer, and charity. However, these definitions are not adequate to the point underlying Unetaneh Tokef.


Teshuvah (תשובה) can be better understood as the word “Tashuv” (תשוב) plus the letter “Hey” (ה)at the end. Tashuv means return. In other words, we should return the “Hey.”


G-d’s four-letter name is spelled yud and hey and vov and hey. Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings tell us the last “hey” refers to G-d’s attribute of Kingship and how He connects to this world. Through Teshuvah, we are to bring down G‑d’s quality of Kingship to our world and make it real.


Tefillah is next. The word is not accurately translated as “prayer.” Prayer typically implies a petitionary communication whereby our words ascend to influence G‑d. However, the root of the word for Tefillah is “palal” or to judge. The reflexive form of the verb – l’hitpalel – is what we do to ourselves when we pray. We judge ourselves. Prayer is not about asking G-d to change us; it is about changing ourselves so we can stand in the presence of G‑d.  It is not as much about having G-d communicate to us as it is about making ourselves communicable to G-d.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.”  By being the type of people with whom G-d can have a conversation, and who are ready to do what is asked, we are able to bring G-d into this world and make it a better place.


Tzedakah is most definitely not “charity.” Charity is defined as the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need. We are doing someone else a favor. Tzedakah is righteousness. It is a moral obligation, no more subject to our free choice than is our obligation not to steal or not to kill. We are not virtuous or deserving of honor for our acts of Tzedakah – we are fulfilling our moral, religious, and personal obligations to humanity.


This leads us to the final sections of Unetaneh Tokef. We conclude the prayer by acknowledging G-d as the King who lives forever whereas we are the humble penitents. As we read, אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר;we come from dust and we return to dust.


The real question for us is not where we came from or to where we will return – it is what we do in between those points in time. The notion of coming from dust and returning to dust is not intended simply to make us think about how temporary life is. We should be asking whether we are using the full measure of our allotted time on Earth to influence the world for good.  This point comes out more clearly in the next phrase בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ/We labor by our lives for bread and מָשׁוּלכְּחֶֽרֶסהַנִּשְׁבָּר/We are like broken shards. If all we do in between coming from dust and returning to dust is labor by our lives for bread, we really need the wake-up call of Unetaneh Tokef.


As I mentioned before, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the first man. Unetaneh Tokef reminds us of that connection because it was G‑d who banished Adam from the Garden of Eden saying (Bereishit 3:19), “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”


On its face, the idea of reminding us that we come from dust is to express extreme humility. At the same time, there is another powerful and uplifting message to consider.


When Abraham pleaded with G-d to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, he said “Anochi Afar v’Efer. I am but dust and ashes.” Yes, Abraham was expressing his deep humility. But look at it another way.  Consider that when a tree is burned to the ground, all that remains is dust and ashes. Yet at its greatest height and full bloom it is the same dust and ashes as it is when reduced to nothing.  The dust and ashes of the tree represent its essence and its fundamental character that connects it to all other trees in the forest, great and small.


Our universal human essential connection is that we are all of the same dust of the Earth from which our common ancestor was created. The dust has no race, no class, no gender, and no political affiliation. It is not just dust and yet it is the source of our common humanity.


Here’s another way to think about this point.


Mount Rushmore has been in the news lately. Let’s consider what that monument represents spiritually. Imagine Mount Rushmore. We can all picture the mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota where the images of four famous presidents appear. Many descriptions of Mount Rushmore refer to the presidential visages as being “carved into” the mountain.


That description, however, is not entirely accurate. Before 1927, there were no presidential images visible on the exterior of the mountain. Where were they? They were already there, hiding beneath 450,000 tons of rock that had to be removed to reveal them. Once the rocks were removed, the mountain became what we see today. But it was the same Mount Rushmore before and after the rocks were removed.


Now look at it from the perspective of the rocks. From a removed rock’s perspective, it was still Mount Rushmore even though it was down on the ground. The fact that the rock was removed makes absolutely no difference to it and its identity as being part of the mountain; it was part of Mount Rushmore before it was removed and it was still “Mount Rushmore” after it was removed.


Unetaneh Tokef tells us that the entire world stands in line before G-d and that we are all sourced from the same dust of the Earth. As different as we are from each other, we are all, in a sense, rocks removed from Mt. Rushmore and we come from the same source. It looks to us as if we exist independently of each other and separately from G-d’s Essence. But we don’t. We are all connected to each other and each one of us has our own G‑dly mission; that thing in life that we, and only we, can do. And G-d needs each of us to fulfill that mission.


That is what Abraham saw when he argued on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah; he pleaded for them because he understood that he was one with them.


When we pray the Unetaneh Tokef prayer with that same level of intellectual and emotional understanding, and then actually live our lives with that understanding, perhaps that will lead to a time of the ultimate redemption.


In the end, the key message of Unetaneh Tokef is one of using our interconnectedness with the rest of humanity to make the world a better place. We have the obligation to use our tools of Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah to improve ourselves and the world.


This year in the Hebrew calendar is 5781. That corresponds to the Hebrew letters תשפ”א. This stands for תהא שנת פלאות אראנו(TeheiShenatP’laotErenu). It should be a year where G‑d shows us wonders. May our Unetaneh Tokef prayer for this year bring about a year of wonders that convert everything negative around us into something good in an open and revealed way and that provide us and our world with a full and complete physical and spiritual healing.