The Story of the "Unetaneh Tokef" Prayer (Part 2)

Rosh Hashanah in the Mainz Synagogue

“After these things, the holiday approached and Rosh Hashanah
arrived.” He rolled in torment. From one such wound it was difficult
to recover in those days because of infections, blood poisoning,
swelling, and abscesses. Yet he had twenty such wounds. This was no
quick death. For many days his body was inflamed, languishing,
bleeding, and he could see and feel everything. He writhed. This was
the punishment. The oppressors knew very well that a quick death would
be an act of compassion. And so, he lay this way, in his sickness, his
suffering, with the knowledge that his death was approaching. And
here, “the holiday approached and Rosh Hashanah arrived.”

“He asked his relatives to bring him to the synagogue with all of his
dismembered organs and place him by the prayer leader, and they did
this.” We can well image the atmosphere in the synagogue. Everybody
knew what had happened to Rabbi Amnon, and now, here, they were
bringing him in on a stretcher, and placing him next to the prayer
leader at the head of the congregation.

“And as the prayer leader was about to to say the Kedusha prayer,
‘VeChayot Asher Hena,’ Rabbi Amnon said, ‘Wait a moment and I will
sanctify the great God.’ And then he said in a loud voice, ‘And so the
Kedushah prayer shall ascend to you,’ i.e., that I have sanctified
Your name upon Your kingship and Your unification. Then he said
‘Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom,’ (‘Let us now relate the power of this
day’s holiness).” Now he was able to relate the power of this day’s

“Then he said, ‘It is true that You alone are the One Who judges,’ in
order to declare God’s acts as just, that God take note of these
dismembered fingers and toes and the whole episode. And he mentioned
‘and everyone’s signature is in it’ and ‘consider the soul of all the
living,’ because it was thus decreed upon him on Rosh Hashanah, and
when he finished the entire prayer (“siluk”), he passed away

A “siluk” is a liturgical poem. In Aramaic it means an ascension. Any
such poem in prayer is called a “siluk” because its purpose is to
elevate the supplicant to a higher level. “And when he finished the
entire prayer, he passed away.” “Nistalek” has a similar meaning,
i.e., that he ascended to the upper world.

“And he disappeared from the world before the eyes of all, for God
took him, and regarding him it says, ‘Oh how great is Your goodness,
which You have hidden away for those who fear You’ (Psalms 31:20).” It
would appear that immediately after he finished his prayer his soul
ascended to Heaven.

The plain description of this event is shocking. How is it possible to
torture an individual of such greatness who is completely innocent?
After all, he did not wish to be a king, ruler, governor, or
plantation owner. He merely wished to live according to his faith. For
having performed no injustice he was tortured in the most painful
manner. Yet he accepted this decree and sanctified God.

The Accurate Version

The congregation in the synagogue was no doubt startled. This man’s
prayer as he lay dying on his bed and his subsequent death left them
shaken, and they could not accurately recall all of his words.

“After these things, wherein Rabbi Amnon was elevated and called to
the Academy on High, on the third day after his sanctification, he
appeared in a dream of Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam ben Rabbi
Moshe ben Rabbi Klonimos, and he taught him this prayer, ‘Unetaneh
Tokef Kedushat Hayom,’ and he commanded him to send it to the entire
Diaspora, that it should serve as a testimony and a remembrance. And
the rabbi did this.”

It is interesting to note that a version of the prayer “Unetaneh
Tokef” with minor differences was discovered in the Cairo Geniza.
Apparently this prayer was sent from Ashkenaz to many communities in
the exile, and it was even sent to Cairo. And indeed, the prayer also
reached the communities of Spain, though it did not commanded so
central a role in their prayers as it did in Ashkenazi liturgy.

Born of Torment

It is the torment itself that gives birth to the prayer “Unetaneh
Tokef Kedushat Hayom.” What depth of soul and what power of spirit are
called for in order to create such a wonderful prayer while in a state
of extreme pain. Sensitive, gentle, exact, and clear:

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome
and frightening. On it Your kingship will be exalted.”

Not the kingship of the governor, not that of the king, and not that
of the kaiser. Sanctity is the kingship!

“And 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, (counts and
calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the
Book of Chronicles – it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is
in it.”

Rabbi Amnon can no longer sign his name, but his signature is in the
Book of Chronicles on high, Rabbi Amnon declares God’s actions as just
and accepts them lovingly, and sanctifies God:

“The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be
heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them –
and they say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the
heavenly host for judgment!’ – for they cannot be vindicated in Your
eyes in judgment. All mankind will pass before You like members of the

One mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that these terrible killers
will be absolved, that God forgets. Everybody, from an angel to the
very last of creatures, will be judged. God is the seeing shepherd. It
is not the bishop, or “episcopus,” who oversees matters. It is not the
governor that rules and controls things.

“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.”

The Secret to Jewish Survival

The threat which hovered over the Jewish communities was terrible.
From period to period mass murders were carried out, and in the midst
of such events there were frightening stories not unlike that of Rabbi
Amnon. During the time of the Crusades, about seventy ears after the
death of Rabbi Amnon, terrifying massacres took place in Ashkenaz.
Jews were ordered to abandon their faith or face death, and thousands
died sanctifying God’s name. During the calamities, neither
possessions nor intellect were of any avail in helping the Jews save
their lives.

In the eyes of their foes, a Jew’s life was worthless. It did not
matter whether it was a man, woman, or child. Such harsh conditions
normally cause nations and communities to disintegrate and disappear,
or, at least, to be rendered an insignificant element. This, however
is not the case with the Jews. Jewry commanded a central position in
European culture, and also in the Islamic lands. Members of the Jewish
community were shining examples, full of intelligence and wisdom,
poetry and knowledge.

The secret of Jewish survival is connected to self-sacrifice in
sanctification of God. Attachment to faith until the end, spiritual
might beyond description. Rabbi Amnon’s story is not an exception;
there were hundreds and thousands like him. The willingness to receive
upon oneself manners of torture which are hard to even imagine, this
was the means to survival! This is the wonder of the sanctification of
God’s name. This is the secret of maintaining an existence full of

Who created this wonderful prayer? Not the handsome and striking Rabbi
Amnon, but the stricken, tortured, infected, and poisoned Rabbi Amnon,
as he lay on his deathbed. Could one imagine anything more astounding
than this? How is it possible that states of such darkness and terror
gave rise to the Tosafists, the commentators, the liturgical poets,
the Kabalists, the sages and the righteous, people who knew how to aid
and show compassion upon others.

This heritage has continued for thousands of years, since the Binding
of Isaac and the Egypt bondage, events which gave birth to the nation
which would stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.
During the course of generations an especially unique Israeli identity
has crystallized with an inestimable capacity for perseverance,
capacity for creativity containing morality and greatness, vision and
anticipation of better days, the days of the Messiah.

This is the inner continuity of Jewish history, despite all of the
geographical and political twists and turns which the Jewish people
have experienced since the time it was settled on the soil of the Land
of Israel and throughout the long period of exile, dispersed and
dismembered amongst the nations – humiliated and contemptible, yet
towering and extraordinary.

Most of the above article was given as a lecture by my knowledgeable
friend, Rabbi Zeev Sultanovitch, at the Har Bracha Yeshiva. It will
appear in its entirety in the second volume of the “Bina Le-Itim”
series which will be published, God willing, this coming winter. This
volume will focus on the period following the Mishna until the end of
the period of the Early Authorities (“Rishonim”). After this, there
will appear two volumes on the modern era.

Translations of the “Unetaneh Tokef ” prayer in the above article were
take from the Artscroll Yom Kippur prayerbook.

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