Poem of the Week |

Divinely Inspired Atrocity and the Jewish New Year

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of introspection, observation and benevolence a-la Marcia Falk.

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Death by sword – not just a figure of speech these days.  Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1865).
Death by sword – not just a figure of speech these days. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1865).Credit: (Courtesy)
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden


We Declare the Utter Sanctity of This Day

Translation and meditation (in italics) by Marcia Falk

On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

Our lives are stories
inscribed in time.

At the turning of the year
we look back, look ahead, see

that we are always
in the days between:

How many will leave this life
and how many will be born into it,
who will live and who will die,
whose life will reach its natural end
and whose will be cut short,
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast,
who by hunger and who by thirst,
who by quake and who by plague,
who by choking and who by stoning,
who will rest and who will wander,
who will be tranquil and who will be torn,
who will be at peace and who will be tormented,
who will be raised high and who will be brought low,
who will prosper and who will be impoverished.


Turning inward
to face oneself

Entering into prayer
and contemplation

Giving to the needy
as justice requires

Ma’avirin et-ro’a hag’zerah
These diminish the harshness
of the decree

From Marcia Falk, “The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season,” Brandeis University Press, 2014

On Rosh Hashanah, a person’s fate for the coming year is said to be inscribed in the Book of Life (it is then sealed on Yom Kippur). The prayer Un’taneh Tokef Kdushat Hayom (“We Declare the Utter Sanctity of this Day”) is recited in nearly all synagogues, though at different points in the High Holiday services.

In this meditation, the poet animates the metaphor in the ritual, observing that we are always “in the days between” – between the beginning and the end, the front and the back covers, in the midst of the narration of the catalogue in the next section of the prayer.

Marcia Falk. Credit: Stephen Damon

This year the mind leaps to the words “who by sword,” which if once taken as a metaphor for military force, is now all too substantial following the literal beheadings by Islamic State, and events such as the murder of Shira Banki by ultra-Orthodox fanatic Yishai Schlissel, as well as death by fire as a Palestinian family slept in their own home in the village of Dura. All these atrocities were supposedly divinely inspired.

The remedies for ameliorating harsh decrees are ways not of changing fate but rather of coming to terms with it. In Hebrew, these are tshuva, t’filah and tz’dakah, and here they can be understood as introspection, observation and benevolence.

Tshuva is commonly interpreted as “repentance,” in the sense of becoming newly religious. (In the next section of the poem, not reprinted here, Falk defines it as “seeking to become/ one’s truest self.”)

She renders t’filah – prayer – as “Being alive to the unending flow/ within and around us// holding dear/ the transient beauty.”

T’zdakah – usually translated as “charity,” is “Knowing we are, all of us, / flesh and blood // and that the fruit of kindness / is kindness.”

Legend attributes the prayer to an otherwise obscure 11th century rabbi in Mainz, who had his extremities amputated for refusing to convert, recited the prayer with his dying breath in the synagogue, vanished into thin air and then appeared in the dream of another, very famous rabbi, who wrote down the words. However, the Cairo Genizah yielded up fragments of the prayer dating back to the 8th century.

Poet, translator and scholar Marcia Falk lives in California.

*Musing: Leonard Cohen riffs on this prayer in “Who by Fire.” Could this be included in a religious observance?

*Bonus: Un’taneh Tokef at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Baltimore, MD



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