Most people look forward to the "Kol Nidre" prayer as the high point of the High Holy Days. Not me. I'm an "Unetanah Tokef" fan, the central prayer of the Rosh Hashanah service. You probably know it — it's the one with lines like "Who shall live and who shall die," "Who shall perish by water and who by fire / Who by sword and who by wild beast." (I'll past the whole thing at the end of this blog.) But few people pause to consider its origins or its real meaning. To be honest, I haven't ruminated on those things till this year, and recently found some interesting insights.
First thing: who wrote it? They story most bandied about is quite moving: it tells of a medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Ephrayim of Bonn, who lived around the 11th century. This being medieval Germany, Rabbi Ephrayim was about to be killed, but just before his death, another already dead rabbi, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, came to him in a dream and told him the prayer. "Unetanah Tokef" was to be the last words Ephrayim uttered before his grisly death, and that holy act — refusing his God even as he was put to death for believing in Him — was intended to spread reverence of God among all Jews in the Diaspora. Beautiful story, you'll agree. But it turns out it's probably false. According to Biblical scholars, the prayer is probably much older, like from the 6th or 7th century, and written by an unidentified rabbi living in the land of Israel.
Scholars argue that the original Hebrew style is uncannily similar to the Hebrew from that earlier era, and that it shares many parallels with Roman-Christian liturgy from those years. Plus, historically, Jews weren't killed in the gruesome fashion described in the poem — i.e. strangulation and stoning didn't happen in 11th century Mainz. (Don't get too excited — they did things like the "Judas Cradle" instead: victims sat naked on a pyramid and had their feet tied in such a way that moving caused the pyramid point to deepen its penetration into your vagina or anus.)
Second question: what's the meaning of the poem? For one thing, it gives a basic overview of the Days of Awe's main mission — to begin repenting, start forgiving, and continue soul searching in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life, which is sealed on Yom Kippur. But rather than say all that in the dry, legalistic prose or the Shulkhan Aruch, it sets it forth in wonderfully lyrical language. The rhythms of the poem are so transfixing, rocking back and forth in solemn sincerity, that simply saying them feels like the first step toward contrition. "Unetaneh Tokef" may goad you into action through blatant threats — God essentially tortures you to death if you don't repent — but the language in which it's expressed is so moving it almost works against the harsh threats being set down.
Yet even after going through all these portentous consequences of repentence – “Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented / Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low / Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished” – it stops, and then ends with a very tangible salvation that staves off the worst. The poem ends: “But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
I find tremendous humanity in that, particularly the “righteousness” part. What that means is simple: be good, do right, and God will forgive.
Unetanah Tokef ("We Shall Ascribe Holiness To This Day")
We shall ascribe holiness to this day.
For it is awesome and terrible.
Your kingship is exalted upon it.
Your throne is established in mercy.
You are enthroned upon it in truth.
In truth You are the judge,
The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,
He who inscribes and seals,
Remembering all that is forgotten.
You open the book of remembrance
Which proclaims itself,
And the seal of each person is there.
The great shofar is sounded,
A still small voice is heard.
The angels are dismayed,
They are seized by fear and trembling
As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!
For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.
They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes
And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.
As a shepherd herds his flock,
Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,
So do You cause to pass, count, and record,
Visiting the souls of all living,
Decreeing the length of their days,
Inscribing their judgment.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once. In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. But You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days, no measure to the hosts of Your glory, no understanding the meaning of Your Name. Your Name is fitting unto You and You are fitting unto it, and our name has been called by Your Name. Act for the sake of Your Name and sanctify Your Name through those who sanctity Your Name.