Finding Theological Comfort
in the Unetaneh Tokef
Published in Koach on Campus, Fall 2000
By William Friedman
MIT Class of 2002
The concepts of sin and repentance weigh heavily upon
our minds as we enter the month of Elul, with the blowing of the shofar
every morning and evening, with the daily, pre-dawn recitation of Selihot
beginning the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, all finally culminating
with the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) themselves, Rosh Hashanah and Yom
It is a time of reflection, on both the positive and
negative experiences of the previous year. We search for reasons for our
joy and meaning in our tragedy. Fortunately, the liturgy of the Yamim
Noraim helps us do just that--put our struggles and triumphs in context.
With that in mind, we shall delve into a quintessential prayer of the
Yamim Noraim, the Unetaneh Tokef, and examine the difficulties and,
ultimately, the comforting solutions it offers.
The Unetaneh Tokef is a piyyut (poem) composed and
introduced into the liturgy during the eleventh century CE (4700 - 4800).
The poignant story is recorded in the Or Zarua [note 1, below] (which is
unproved one way or the other by scholarship [note 2]).
The bishop of Mainz had forcefully insisted his friend
and advisor Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. R' Amnon was granted
three days reprieve, at his own request. He spent them in solemn
contemplation, afraid that even this delay would cause him to be looked
upon askance, as if he were seriously considering the request. When he
returned to the bishop at the end of the three days, and defiantly
refused, R' Amnon was tortured [note 3] and crippled. Three days later, on
Rosh Hashanah, R' Amnon asked to be brought to the aron (ark) before the
hazzan's recitation of Kedushah. There R' Amnon recited the Unetaneh Tokef,
Three days later, R' Amnon came to R' Kalonymus in a
dream, and taught him the prayer. Whatever we think of the this latter
part (perhaps the text is allegorically teaching that R' Kalonymus wrote
the Unetaneh Tokef from memory of R' Amnon's recitation and disseminated
the prayer as a tribute to a friend), the poignancy of this tale should
add meaning to our own recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef this year in
addition to helping us decipher it.
With the background understood, on to the contents.
The first paragraph declares the fearsome,
awe-inspiring sanctity of the day (the Unetaneh Tokef is recited on both
days of Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur). We acknowledge God's
omniscience, God's flawless recall and constant witnessing of our deeds.
The image of the open Book of Life is established, with all our names
contained within. It continues with a beautiful contrasting image - the
sounding of the great shofar (u'vashofar gadol yitaka) juxtaposed with the
hearing of the still, small voice (v'kol d'mamah dakah yishmah), the
latter familiar from Eliyahu's contact with God (I Kings 19:12), when he
heard God's voice as a small, thin sound amongst powerful wind, grand
noise, and fire.
The angels tremble at the awesomeness of the Yom HaDin
(Day of Judgement), for their fate rests with ours. We imagine ourselves
passing one by one in front of God in judgement, as a shepherd counts his
sheep, an image derived from an erroneous reading of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah
1:2 [note 4]. The second paragraph contains the familiar reading of the
fates of all that are inscribed for us on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom
Then we reach the crux of the Unetaneh Tokef - "U'teshuvah,
u'tefillah, u'tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a ha-gezeirah" - Repentance,
prayer, and righteousness cancel/avert/remove the harsh/severe/evil
decree. This is the counterpoint to the preceding paragraph; the prayer
would have drowned in its own fatalism had it not been for this proud
declaration of free will, of our inherent ability to change our ways and
return to God [note 5].
(In the great Jewish tradition of tangible action over
intangible intention, many mahzorim print the words "Tzom, Kol, Mamon"
(Fast, Voice, Money) over teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, respectively,
to remind us that our intentions require actions to back them up.)
There is a problem here, however - free will extends
only so far. We are still victims of random catastrophes, both natural and
as a result of others' misuse of free will (what we often call "evil"),
and no amount of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can avert that. One
ingenious (if ahistorical) solution, is to note the root of ma'avirin is
avar - to cross over or to transcend, and thus interpret the line as "teshuvah,
tefillah, and tzedekah transcend the severe decree", as if they are coping
mechanisms [note 6].
As accurate as that may be, it doesn't deal directly
with the issue at hand, nor with the peshat (plain meaning) that Rabbi
We must be honest and admit that God's ways are often
inscrutable to us. Reading the fates listed in the preceding paragraph of
the Unetaneh Tokef, the listing of the many possible methods of death is
striking. It seems redundant--death is death. But then the paragraph lists
the various fates of those inscribed for life (who will wander, who will
have rest, etc.), and we are able to identify with that, for we know that
quality of life can vary greatly.
It should not be so difficult to imagine, then, that
to God, quality of death can also vary greatly. What seems to us a uniform
ro'a ha-gezeira may have different meanings to God. (We are even able to
relate to this--it is common to be glad that one dies naturally quickly
rather than slowly in a particular situation.) Even for Rabbi Amnon, his
teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, and indeed his death al kiddush Hashem
(on the sanctification of God's name) averted the more severe possibility
that his hesitation at refusing to convert would lead the less committed
in the community to apostasy.
The challenge of all this lies in realizing that we
can never know (and often tragically underestimate) the extent to which
our own actions can influence our fate; we must thus strive daily to
perfect ourselves, our community, and the world.
The comfort is in knowing that God is our companion in
change, that God desires it even more than we, for as we conclude in the
Unetaneh Tokef "v'ad yom moto t'chakeh lo, im yashuv miyad t'kab'lo"--"Until
the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him
immediately." Shanah Tovah.
(1) Twelfth century halakhic work by Rabbi Isaac ben
Moses of Vienna.
(3) The details of this torture are not for the
faint-hearted. R' Amnon told the bishop that his tongue should be cut out
for the sin of saying he would consider the request. The bishop replied
that it was not his tongue, but his legs that should be removed for not
coming as he should have (R' Amnon did not come when called, and the
bishop sent soldiers to get him). The bishop then proceeded to have R'
Amnon's feet and hands amputated, and had him tossed on the street in
(4) According to Rabbi Simchah Roth, who runs the
Masorti/Conservative on-line Mishna study group: The text reads "kivenumeron",
where "numeron" was a Greek word for regiment. Later, however, the text
was rendered as "kivnei maron", which can be read as a flock of sheep.
(5) Arzt, Max, quoted in Goodman, Phillip. The Rosh
Hashanah Anthology. Philadelphia: JPS, 1970, page 94.
(6) Rabinowitz, Stanley. "Communications,"
Conservative Judaism, 52:1 (Fall 1999), p. 92.