The Story of the "Unetaneh Tokef" Prayer (Part 1)

Transmitters of the Tradition of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz

The tragic story of the events leading up to the composition of the
liturgical poem “Unetaneh Tokef” is brought in the work Or Zarua,
which was written by one of Judaism’s leading early Torah authorities,
Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna.

Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna, who lived from 4940-5010 (1189-1250), was a
student of Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel and a number of other Tosafists in
Ashkenaz (Germany). He was considered one of the leading authorities
of his generation, disseminating Torah in Bohemia (today’s Czech
Republic), and, during his last years, in Vienna. It was there that he
died at the age of seventy. Amongst his many students was Rabbi Meir
ben Baruch, known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, who, in his later
years, was considered the leading rabbi in all of Ashkenaz.

The work Or Zarua is considered one of the most important books of
Jewish law written by early Ashkenazi scholars and often cites
preceding authorities. Chapter 276, the Laws of Rosh Hashanah, cites:
“From the handwriting of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn ben Rabbi Yaakov [we
learn] that Rabbi Amnon of Mainz established ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ because
of the terrible incident which he experienced.”

Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, born in 4893 (1133), was the student of Yoel
HaLevi and seceded him in his position as rabbinic chief justice. He
wrote Tosafot, legal responsa, and commentaries to blessings and other
customs. He also composed liturgical poems, of which about twenty-five
have come down to us. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna was too late to learn
directly from Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, but he studied his legal
writings, which constituted a kind of collection of Torah lessons from
his mentors.

At the end of the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz mention is made of a
Rabbi who lived at that time and who received the exact version of
“Unetaneh Tokef” in a dream. This was “Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi
Meshullam ben Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Klonimos.” Rabbi Klonimos was
known to many, and his name is mentioned in books of Jewish law. Based
upon his name, the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz is estimated as
having taken place around 4780 (1020), about seventy years before the
decrees of 4856, during which the large massacres which accompanied
the First Crusade took place. In other words, Or Zarua recorded an
event which took place about two hundred years before his time.

Mainz

The Mainz Jewish community was one of the three largest and oldest
communities in Ashkenaz, which were known collectively by the acronym
“Shum” – Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. Mainz was the oldest of the three
communities. The Klonimos family, which came from northern Italy,
established a large talmudic academy there, and from it grew the
Jewish community of Ashkenaz.

Non-Jewish sources from that period note that the city of Mainz was
controlled by a bishop-governor. This fact is confirmed by the account
of Or Zarua and lends strength to the accuracy of the narrative.

That city was ruled by a senior clergyman, and therefore the ruler was
known by the title of governor or bishop. Bishop is from the Greek
“episcopus” which means “overseer” and “watcher.” At that time, there
were quite a few cities that were given over to the control of the
church by one of the kings in return for a pardoning of sins, or in
order that the church pray for him. Only hundreds of years later was
secular rule reestablished in Mainz.

The Connection Between the Governor and Rabbi Amnon of Mainz

This is how Or Zarua relates what transpired:
“Here is the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who was the leading Torah
sage in his generation, wealthy, of praiseworthy lineage, handsome,
and who the ministers and governors began to attempt to convert – yet
he refused to listen to them.”

It appears that the governor of Mainz at that time was interested in
attaining wisdom and in learning about the sources of Christianity.
Most clergymen were ignorant, and very few enjoyed attaining wisdom
and speaking with the Jewish scholars. The Jews had little choice but
to agree and to maintain good relations with the governor. And so they
would meet in order to talk from time to time. As time went by, the
governor and the ministers began speaking with Rabbi Amnon. They did
not use force; they “merely” requested that he abandon his faith:

“They spoke to him day after day, but he would not listen to them, and
the governor implored him. When they became insistent with him, he
replied, ‘Let me take council and consider the matter for three days.
He did this in an attempt to repel them.”

Such discussions were carried out in a calm and routine manner,
however, every such discussion involved repeated petition and request.
They met on a daily basis. The educated church leaders were looking
for company on their own level. The Jews, especially the Jewish sages,
were potential partners as far as they were concerned. Furthermore,
every governor considered it a challenge to cause a Jewish sage to
abandon his faith and convert to Christianity.

The church heads learned from their own sacred books that the founders
of the church, aware of the fact that the Jews are the people of God,
targeted the Jews for conversion, but the Jews rejected them. The
resulting frustration was great. Therefore, great efforts were
invested, sometimes by sweet enticement, sometimes by force, to cause
a Jew – and how much more so a Jewish scholar – to disparage his faith
and become Christian.

Rabbi Amnon is Forced to Establish Relations with the Governor

It is clear, then, what interest the governor had in forming relations
with Rabbi Amnon. He wanted the company of an educated man, and he
also harbored the hidden hope of convincing the rabbi to abandon his
faith. Yet what interest did Rabbi Amnon have? After all, he had no
need of the knowledge or wisdom of the governor.

It must be understood, however, that we are dealing with a small
Jewish community in the midst of a hostile non-Jewish environment. The
Jews had no choice but to depend upon the kindness of the ruler, for
he was the only individual who could defend them from the anger of mob
or the scheming of the knights. The Jews had no rights per se. There
were no soldiers or fighters in their midsts. They had no ministers
that could use their authority to protect the community. They were
few. They had no allies that would come to their defense from
elsewhere.

The plight of the Jewish communities was dismal to say the least.
Their entire physical wellbeing was dependent upon the goodwill of the
ruler, for with the aid of his soldiers and by the laws which he laid
down, he was able to protect them. Therefore, it was to the benefit of
a Jewish sage or leader to see to it that relations with the governor
remain positive and stable. This is what allowed the community as a
whole to exist in relative tranquility: to pay their taxes and to lead
a normal life of commerce, craft, Torah study, and preservation of
community institutions.

Rabbi Amnon had to protect the community, and it followed that he
could not reject the governor in a harsh manner. Such relations, in
various places and in various periods, were extremely delicate, like
explosives. The fonder a leader was of his Jewish subjects, the
greater the pressure upon him to convert them. Noncompliance with the
imploring of such leaders would be interpreted as ungratefulness,
betrayal. The Jew would have to navigate with great skill, walk on the
razor’s edge; he could neither get too close nor distance himself too
greatly. The slightest slip could result in a serious blow to the
existence of the Jewish community.

The Pressure Mounts

After many days and repeated requests, the situation became worse. The
governor and his ministers applied much pressure and it was difficult
to reject them outright. Therefore, Rabbi Amnon asked to to be given a
number of days to take council and consider the offer. This is a
reasonable response. It is an acceptable request. Until now, the
course of things is understandable and expected, especially when we
take into account the stress of survival.

Jewish Survival

We now arrive at a most incredible development in our story. This
development can explain how it is that Judaism has succeeded in
surviving amidst a sea of hatred and scheming. Not only has Judaism
survived, but it has amassed great spiritual power.

Rabbi Amnon, in his personality, represents the entire Community of
Israel. He is wise, of praiseworthy lineage, handsome. He is a man of
many virtues. If he had agreed to convert, he himself could have
become a governor. He had all of the necessary traits. There is only
one thing he could not be even if he were to accept the governor’s
offer – he could not be himself. He could become a minister or an
important clergyman, but the Jew in him would not survive. The Jew
would not live. This is what rested on the balance:

“And it happened that as soon as he parted with the governor, he
reflected upon his having voiced uncertainty, that he was in need of
council or time to think over the question of disavowing the living
God.”

His Judaism was his complete essence, his entire being. How could he
have made such a statement? True, there is great importance in
securing the necessities of physical existence, peace and quiet. But
what does it involve? It is even possible that somebody in the world
should think that this matter calls for taking council or
consideration?

“He Would Not Be Comforted”

“He returned home and he was unable to eat or drink, and he became
ill. All of his relatives and friends came to comfort him, but he
would not be comforted, for he said, ‘I will go down to the grave
mourning because of what I said.’ And he cried and became very
depressed. And it came to pass that on the third day, as he was
paining and distraught, the governor sent for him, and he responded,
saying, ‘I will not go.’ And the oppressor sent many additional
ministers, more prestigious than they, yet he refused to go to him.
And the governor said, ‘Go quickly and bring Amnon against his will.’
And they went quickly and brought him to the governor. And he said to
him, ‘What is this, Amnon? Why did you not come to me on the day that
you designated to me so that you could take council and give me an
answer and fulfill my will?

Note the words of the governor, “fulfill my will.” It is already clear
to him. If it is possible to consider and take council on this matter,
then the answer is clear. If it is possible to even think about
abandoning the Jewish faith, then there is every reason to arrive at
the “correct” conclusion. Why remain a persecuted minority, weak,
despised, denigrated, and subject to plunder when you possess wisdom,
good lineage, majesty? You have all of the important traits. Why be
satisfied with so little?

I Shall Determine My Own Sentence

“And Amnon answered, saying, ‘I shall determine my own sentence’” –
Indeed, I did not come to you, and I know that you are angry with me,
and because I have no intention of fulfilling your will, I know that
you will punish me. Yet, “I will determine my own sentence.” I will
decide what my punishment will be, because I misled you. I should not
have instilled false hope in you that I would abandon the Jewish
faith. True, I am to blame for this and I shall determine my own
sentence. Rabbi Amnon does not wish to endanger the entire community,
and therefore he endangers himself alone:

“The tongue which spoke and misled you shall be cut off” – now I
reveal to you that I only said what I did in order to repel you, and
this really was not correct, for you are the governor and ruler. This
tongue “shall be cut off.”

It is important to realize that under the tyrannies of that age such
punishments were accepted. They used to cut off people’s tongues,
noses, ears, and hands. But Rabbi Amnon had an additional reason to
decree such an awful punishment upon himself:

“For Rabbi Amnon desired to sanctify God for having spoken in such a
manner” – he wished 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 a Jew who promises to somebody to consider abandoning his
faith can do nothing but disappoint. It is unthinkable. There is no
reason to think about such a thing. There is no point in trying to
persuade Jews into doing this.

The Decree of the Oppressor

“And the governor answered, saying, ‘No, the tongue shall not be cut
off, for you spoke well. Rather, the feet which did not come at the
time that you told me, they shall I cut off, and the rest of your body
I shall torture.’ And the oppressor gave the command and they cut off
his fingers and thumbs.”

Yet not all at once – “And with each finger they would ask him,
‘Perhaps now, Amnon, you would like to join our faith?’ And he
answered, ‘No.’” The axe was raised twenty times, on each finger and
toe. We are not talking here about the pain of the cut alone, but also
of the horrifying anticipation of the one to follow. And it is
possible to stop the process. He need just say the word. But Rabbi
Amnon repeats twenty times “No!” to the conversion proposal, twenty
times to continue with the cutting, to continue the torture, to
continue the irreversible damage to his body, and, in fact, the
hastening of his end.

“And when they finished the cutting, the wicked governor gave the
order to lay Rabbi Amnon in a bed and to place all of his dismembered
fingers and toes at his side and to send him to his home.” This was
done, of course, so that all see and become fearful. It was done to
show everybody what happens when one does not abide by the governor.

However, the transmitter of the story writes, “This is why he was
called Rabbi Amnon, for he had faith [“He’emin”; from the same Hebrew
root as “Amnon”] in the living God and suffered great torture lovingly
due to his faith, just because of that which left his mouth.

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