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The Story of the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Hana Bat Haim

: ' '

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 were 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 making 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 Mount
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 survive, 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 him. 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.

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 holiness.

"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 (nistalek)."

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 flock."

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 vitality.

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.

Addendum
Most of the above article was given as a lecture by my knowledgeable friend, Rabbi Zeev Sultanovitch, at the Har Beracha 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.
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Translations of the "Unetaneh Tokef " prayer in the above article were take from the Artscroll Yom Kippur prayerbook.


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