Un’taneh Tokef: The Awesome Sanctity of This Day

May 16, 2013Rabbi Richard S. Sarason, Ph.D.

In the traditional liturgy, the special character of each holiday is particularly conveyed by the piyyutim (hymns, liturgical poems) that are recited or chanted on that day. Most of these piyyutim have been omitted in Reform liturgies since the nineteenth century, out of a sense that their Hebrew diction is too arcane and their theology too medieval. Yet, some of these poems have routinely been retained in Reform High Holy Day prayer books, particularly for Yom Kippur.

Probably the best known of the piyyutim for Rosh Hashanah, which over time has come to be recited on Yom Kippur as well, is Un’taneh tokef (“Let us declare the awesome sanctity of this day”). This poem powerfully dramatizes the Zichronot theme of Rosh Hashanah as Yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, on which “all creatures pass before God as in a military muster” (the imagery comes from Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2).2 It describes in rather harrowing images3 how the book of memory, in which each person’s deeds are inscribed, is opened on this day, and how everyone’s fate for the next year is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur–for life or death, for prosperity or suffering. Yet the poem continues on a hopeful note that prayer, repentance, and charity may avert or temper any severe decree. It then contrasts the frailty and fragility of human life with God’s eternity, and expresses confidence in divine compassion. In the traditional liturgy, the poem is recited in the Musaf Amidah, right before the Kedushah, the acclamation of God’s holiness. The poem’s very last lines, in fact, transition into this acclamation.

The poem is intentionally upsetting; it aims to stop each of us in our tracks and to make us consider ultimate themes of life and death, as well as our personal behavior and responsibility for our actions. In previous generations, many worshippers were literally moved to tears by its message and imagery. In our own day, it is not necessary to take any of this mythic imagery at face value in order to take seriously the poem’s underlying ideas and exhortations. Some North American Reform prayer books (notably that of Isaac Mayer Wise) that were concerned about the imagery omitted altogether the first part of the poem. Others, such as the Union Prayer Book and Gates of Repentance, shortened the poem by omitting its ending. The current draft of the new Reform Mahzor gives the entire poem, with extensive framing commentary and “left-page” alternatives. Some North American Reform prayer books (notably the 1855 prayer book of Temple Emanuel in New York and the Union Prayer Book) included this poem only in the Yom Kippur liturgy rather than on Rosh Hashanah, regarding “the awesomeness of this day” as more appropriate to Yom Kippur.

The poem has an interesting history. It was composed by an unknown poet in the land of Israel during the Byzantine era (perhaps in the 6th to 7th centuries C.E.),4 and appears in three Mahzor fragments of the rite of the land of Israel found in the Cairo Genizah. It does not appear in any fragments of the Babylonian rite found there, nor does it appear in the Sefardic rite. It is taken up into the medieval Ashkenazic rite together with other piyyutimfrom the land of Israel (there was a movement of – some – liturgical texts and customs from the land of Israel through Italy and into the Rhineland). The well-known legend (paraphrased by Chaim Stern in Gates of Repentance) of the martyrdom of Rabbi Amnon of Mayence/Mainz,5 who is said to have composed and recited this poem in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah as he was expiring, is just that-an Ashkenazic legend that aims to sanctify the rather recent custom of reciting this poem by linking it up with a tale of pious martyrdom in the wake of the Crusades in the Rhineland. In the legend, Rabbi Amnon is said to have come in a dream to the prestigious Rabbi Kalonymos Meshullam ben Kalonymos and taught him the poem. Rabbi Kalonymos ben Meshullam was, in fact, one of the martyrs of the First Crusade.

Un’taneh tokef remains one of the highlights of the High Holy Day liturgy on account of its sober theme and graphic imagery. It exhorts us to consider what really matters in life, and leaves us with a sense of urgency, but also a sense of confidence that repentance and change are possible – and that this is how we should approach the Divine.

For further reading:
Machzor: Challenge and Change. Resource Pack for Individual and Group Study. CCAR, 2010.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, ed., Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef.Jewish Lights, 2010.

  1. Very often the piyyutim retained were from the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic rite, which are written in a more classic biblical Hebrew style under the influence of Arabic poetics, rather than from the Ashkenazic rite, where the earlier and more florid Byzantine poetic models from the land of Israel were still being emulated. The Spanish poems, on the whole, are easier to understand and correspond more to western poetic aesthetic ideals than the Byzantine and Ashkenazic ones. Thus, for example, it has been common in Reform prayer books to begin the Yom KippurSeder Ha’avodah, the description of the Yom Kippur rites in the Second Temple, with the introductory poem from the Sephardic rite rather than from the Ashkenazic one. That custom may still be found in Gates of Repentance, p. 410.
  2. The best manuscripts of the Mishnah and at least one Genizah fragment of the poem read here kiv’numeron rather than kiv’nei maronNumeron is a Greek loan-word, meaning a military muster, during which each soldier is counted. B’nei maronrepresents a later attempt to read this as two Semitic words: “those on high” = the angels (construing maron as an Aramaized form of marom). Interestingly, the creative misreading seems already to be presumed in the content of the poem, which proclaims that the angels also are judged on Rosh Hashanah.
  3. As a graphic depiction of the Day of Judgment, this poem has sometimes been likened to the Catholic Dies Irae hymn of the Latin Requiem Mass, which describes the Last Judgment in similarly harrowing terms (and dates from roughly the same period). Un’taneh tokef, of course, does not deal with the final judgment at the end of time but rather with the annual judgment on Rosh Hashanah.
  4. Piyyut-scholar Joseph Yahalom has identified the poem’s author as Yannai, a sixth-seventh century synagogue poet best known for his extensive weekly cycles ofkedushtot, which relate the weekly Torah readings to the first three benedictions of the Amidah. See his “Who Shall be the Author and Who Shall Not,” Haaretz, September 6, 2002.
  5. This first appears in Or Zarua (“Light is sown”), a book of liturgical customs and their reasons by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (c. 1180-1250). The name Amnon is characteristic of Italian Jews, not Ashkenazic Jews. There apparently was a Rabbi Amnon who was martyred in Italy.

Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.

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