The piyyut, or sacred poem, "Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom" ("Let us recount the power of the holiness of this day"), is one of the central and most thrilling texts in the liturgy of the High Holy Days. In it, worshipers are presented with all the potential calamities and dangers that the new year might offer them: "Who will live and who will die. Who will die at a ripe old age and who will die a premature death. Who will die by fire and who by water. Who by the sword and who in war ..." (This is the wording used in the liturgy of the Jewish communities of Italy.) A series of opposites - live-die, be elevated-be degraded - suddenly plunges worshipers into a litany of bizarre deaths, which seem to be opposites as well: fire and water, famine and thirst. There is a cruel choice between categories of death, but the result is the same.
This text has become very popular in Jewish communities throughout the world. "Unetaneh tokef" is sung not only on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, which consists of two days), but on the second day as well, and it was subsequently adopted for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as well. In view of its status, the poem has been accorded various melodies. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, it was given an entirely different melody at Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where it serves as a sort of funeral prayer for young, fallen members of the kibbutz.
Two remaining works
Despite the immense popularity of "Unetaneh tokef" in the liturgical traditions of various Jewish communities, its text is hard to find in the remnants of ancient manuscripts that have reached our hands from the Orient (and which have been preserved in the Cairo Geniza, a repository of sacred books and texts that are no longer in use). In those few early and authentic manuscripts where it does appear, "Unetaneh tokef" serves as the culminating passage of a comprehensive composition, or kerova - a sacred poem that appears at the end of each blessing in the central Amidah prayer recited on festivals - for Rosh Hashanah.
The kerova was written by an author of sacred poems who lived in the Holy Land during the Byzantine era and is known only by the name of Yanai. This liturgical poet produced his works in major Jewish communities in the Holy Land before the Arab conquest - perhaps in Gaza - and was admired by the members of his community. For every Sabbath, he would write a new kerova, which he also apparently sang during the morning service of that particular Sabbath. Today, however, nothing remains of Yanai's impressive output except for "Unetaneh tokef" and the poem "Az rov nissim hifleta balaila" ("You showered upon us so many miracles that night") in the Passover Haggadah text.
Moreover, "Unetaneh tokef," cut off from the other liturgical works produced by Yanai, has become the final passage of another kerova that has become part of today's liturgy. This text was written by Yanai's most celebrated student, Elazar Hakalir. As if all this confusion were not enough, "Unetaneh tokef" is presented in the High Holy Day prayer book as a European text written by a martyr who sanctified God's name, Rabbi Amnon of Magenza.
Unlike Yanai, Hakalir, who was apparently a wanderer and expatriate during most of his life, did not leave behind a cycle of liturgical texts. Instead, he would sporadically write poems for Jewish festivals or for other special days. Each weekday he would produce a fresh new sacred poem for the particular Jewish community that was hosting him at the time, and he was capable, during various periods in his life, of creating, with incredible energy, four or five - at times, even six or seven - parallel texts on a single topic and for the same day on the Jewish calendar.
Hakalir's impressive creativity and his continual wandering perhaps explain the broad dispersion of his texts and their inclusion in the liturgies of Europe's Jewish communities, which continued to follow the traditions of the Holy Land: in the Balkans before the arrival of the Jews who had been exiled from Spain (nusakh Romania, of the liturgical tradition of reciting prayers in Greek that were written in Hebrew letters), in Italy (nusakh Roma, the liturgical tradition of the residents of Rome), in France (nusakh Apam, the tradition of "Apam," a Hebrew acronym of the initials of three Jewish communities, Asti, Fasano and Moncalvo, whose members were confronted by Napoleon's troops in northern Italy), and in Germany (nusakh Ashkenaz, the liturgical tradition of northern and eastern Europe).
To this day, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, congregations that observe the Ashkenazi liturgical tradition recite Hakalir's greatest sacred poem, "Upad me'az leshefet hayom" ("Rosh Hashanah has always been the Day of Judgment"). However, for some reason, the final passage by Yanai, "Unetaneh tokef," has been affixed to the end of Hakalir's poem. What was the original ending and why was it replaced by an "alien" text? And why was this alien text regarded as a European creation?
The authentic ending by Hakalir, "Mi lo yira'akha melekeh" ("Who will not fear you, O King?") is a poem consisting of approximately 300 lines. It was only recently discovered and has even been reconstructed by Binyamin Lefler in the context of the Academy of the Hebrew Language's historical dictionary project. The passage has been preserved in a number of remnants stored in the Cairo Geniza, but was known in the 11th century in the French liturgical tradition. In France, commentaries were written on this poem and local writers of sacred poetry imitated it in their own works.
The uniqueness of this liturgical poem is found in its unusual content. It deals with the Jewish people and the rulers of the world, and not with the individual's situation or his failure to observe Jewish precepts. Whereas the individual can never be acquitted by a heavenly court, the Jewish people can. Thus, God punishes the Jewish people's enemies, the gentiles, while He acquits the Children of Israel - the seed of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - because of the righteousness of the Jewish people's ancestors and because of the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn) of mercy, on the Jewish New Year.
The concept of the essential powerlessness of human beings - who are compared to a broken piece of pottery, to dry straw, to a passing shadow, to dust blown in the wind - is not expressed by an individual reciting a prayer that strongly reflects human mortality. Instead, that concept is uttered by angels of destruction (malakhei habala) and various accusers (mastinim) in the heavens. In Hakalir's drama, these angels and accusers are full of anger and fury after hearing that Ya'akov-Yisrael (that is, the Jewish people) has been found not guilty on the Day of Judgment, because - they claim - Ya'akov-Yisrael exhibits more anger, has a shorter existence, and is more despised than any other nation on earth.
In the passage where God defends the name of His people, Hakalir's text reaches its climax. One of the arguments used by God is that the Jewish people is so important that the defendant is the one who determines the very date of the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah: The date of Rosh Hashanah on any given year is determined by the date of the sanctification of the lunar month and - when necessary - by the creation of a leap year (that is, the insertion of an additional month) by the earthly rabbinical court. Furthermore, the love of the Shekhina (the Divine Presence, expressed by a feminine noun in Hebrew) for Ya'acov-Yisrael is so great that the Shekhina is left alone in an intimate encounter with it while the angels are forced to remain outside:
"If a holy gathering is convened on earth
It is a Day of Judgment in heaven,
And, if nonetheless, this gathering is important,
What is that importance, you ask.
If he is acquitted
And if he understands who I am,
We will stay alone together, he and I,
While you can loiter outside his home
As his visage dulls your faces."
The unusual combination of the mystic atmosphere that envelopes the text and a feeling of total confidence regarding the justness of the Jewish people's behavior is certainly appropriate for the fateful, difficult moments experienced by the poet in an era of great despair. This was the era of frequent changes of regime in the Holy Land on the eve of the Arab conquest: the transition from a Byzantine regime to a Persian one (614 C.E.), the restoration of a Byzantine regime (629) and, finally, the transition to an Arab regime (636). Someone who personally experienced frequent banishments and deportations understandably felt great despair because of these calamities.
This was apparently the period when Hakalir wrote his "Mi lo yira'akha melekeh." In that text, all the blame falls on the shoulders of the nations of the world who have distorted the nature of the divine judgment and have delayed the granting of the divine acquittal to the Jewish people. In anger, God directs all His energy at the nations of the world: "In this way will He judge them. And he will judge all their armies ... And He will serve as their judge. And He will strictly apply the law ..."
Such words and others like them were precisely what the Jews of Europe wanted to hear 500 years later, during the Crusades. The European Crusaders originally intended to rescue sites sacred to Christianity in the Holy Land from the hands of the "Muslim infidels." However, they found, closer to home, "infidels" who were no less dangerous: the Jewish communities along the Rhine Valley. The members of those communities chose to die as martyrs sanctifying God's name rather than to allow themselves to fall into the hands of their vicious attackers. During this period, the influence of the leaders of French Jewry over the much-weakened German Jewish community increased. The German Jews strongly identified with the ecstatic passage "Mi lo yira'akha melekeh" and, for the sake of Hakalir's composition that had become part of the liturgical tradition of French Jewry, were prepared to discard their own time-honored liturgical text, that emphasized the concept of individual responsibility.
"Unetaneh tokef" was poised on the brink of extinction. The leadership of Ashkenazi Jewry refused to be a party to such a scenario because it wanted to perpetuate the image of punishment and pain associated with the old version of martyrology: "Because they will not obtain an acquittal when You judge them ... Who [will die] by water and who by fire. Who by the sword and who by war. Who by earthquake and who by plague ..." The community leaders wanted to amend Hakalir's dominant composition in its final, ecstatic segment: By replacing "Mi lo yira'akha melekeh," with "Unetaneh tokef," they hoped at least to preserve the latter text.
The tale of Rabbi Amnon
As part of the war over the survival of Yanai's text, the tale of Rabbi Amnon became a permanent fixture in High Holy Day prayer books. The source of the tale was the famous liturgical poet and exegetist of liturgical poetry, Rabbi Ephraim bar Jacob of Bonn, who personally experienced the Second Crusade (1146) and who skillfully transmitted different traditions regarding the liturgical poems and their authors. In his story, references are made to Talmudic scholars who apparently lived a century earlier. The scene of his testimony is the city of Magenza (Mainz) where, according to Rabbi Ephraim, Rabbi Amnon lived. Rabbi Ephraim describes his chief protagonist as an individual "who was a leader of his generation, an affluent person with an attractive personality and good looks."
The tale revolves around Rabbi Amnon's tongue and something he accidentally said and could not correct. He therefore resolved to sanctify God's name and supposedly wrote a liturgical poem in which he justified God's verdict in his case. Here is the narrative:
In the face of the local bishop's continual urging that he convert to |Christianity, Rabbi Amnon decided to put an end to the pressure. He therefore asked the bishop to give him three days to think the matter over. Rabbi Amnon acted in this manner "merely to stop the bishop from continually badgering him." However, when he left the bishop's chambers and when he was alone with his thoughts, he became enraged with himself over what he had done: How could he have allowed himself to make such an equivocal utterance suggesting that he might have doubts about his own faith and that he wanted to think about this matter of principle?
On the third day, when the bishop summoned him, Rabbi Amnon refused to appear. When he was brought before the bishop against his will, Rabbi Amnon did not wait to hear the bishop announce what his penalty would be. Instead, Rabbi Amnon decreed that his punishment should be the ripping out of his tongue, because that organ had lied. However, the bishop did not agree. In his view, the tongue had spoken words of truth, while Rabbi Amnon's feet, which had not brought him to the bishop, should be punished by the severing of his toes together with the fingers of his hands.
Thus, the bishop ordered that the fingers of Rabbi Amnon's hands and the toes of his feet be cut off. Every time a finger or toe was about to be removed, Rabbi Amnon was asked whether he had now been persuaded to convert to Christianity. In order to ensure that his lesson would be understood by the local population, the bishop sent forth Rabbi Amnon on a knight's shield on which the rabbi's severed toes and fingers were also placed.
The incident occurred just before Rosh Hashanah. When the great and awesome Day of Judgment arrived, Rabbi Amnon asked his friends to carry him to the synagogue with his severed toes and fingers at his side and to place him close to the leader of the prayers. Rabbi Amnon naturally considered that he had committed a horrible sin and, in his view and in the view of Rabbi Ephraim bar Jacob of Bonn, the defense of the Jewish people in the text by Hakalir was not suitable with respect to Rabbi Amnon's situation.
According to legend, before the recital of the Kedusha section of the Amidah prayer, Rabbi Amnon asked the leader of the prayers to briefly pause so that Rabbi Amnon could sanctify God's name. Rabbi Amnon wanted to do so with his tongue that had sinned and with the signature of his amputated hand "because [to quote the text of "Unetaneh tokef"] every person's signature appears in it [God's Book of Judgment]." Rabbi Amnon then raised his voice and began to recite "Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom." When he finished the siluk (literally "removal," or the final passage before the Kedusha section), he himself was removed from this world.
According to the etymology here, the siluk passage embodied no "elevation of spirit" (the root of siluk can also mean "to rise") or feeling of ecstasy, but was, in fact, a removal from this earthly world.
Through this story, the Ashkenazi leadership sought to sanctify an old text. The details of the martyrdom and the story of the severing of the fingers and toes were no doubt adapted by the Ashkenazi rabbis to suit the descriptions of the Day of Judgment in the earlier liturgical poems, although similar descriptions can be found in tales of Christian martyrs. In those tales, the Christian martyrs are asked before the severing of each and every finger or toe whether they are willing to recant.
In modern Hebrew literature, Rabbi Amnon has become a romantic symbol of the dedication of artists to their work. Not just through his death, but also through his writing of a liturgical poem on the brink of death, Rabbi Amnon becomes a martyr who sanctifies God's name. His artistic creation does not only give Rabbi Amnon's removal (from the world) a meaningful purpose; by means of the short story, this creation has ensured perpetuity for itself and Rabbi Amnon.
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