The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are solemn days of reflection and repentance. The prayers in our siddur (prayer book) are somber. This is our time to ponder our sins. We request forgiveness from those we have harmed. We ask G-d to forgive the sins committed against Him. The piercing blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana wake us from our spiritual slumber. They remind us to examine our deeds and contemplate how we can improve them and ourselves.
The most stirring prayer of the liturgy for me is the Unetaneh Tokef, found in the Musaf section of the siddur. Its origin is unclear. It was believed to have been written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, in the 11th century. He died a martyr’s death after refusing to convert to Christianity. However, the prayer was discovered in ancient manuscripts found in the Cairo Geniza. Some rabbinic scholars believe that, therefore, it is older than the 11th century, and may have been written in Israel by Yannai, the first great composer of liturgical poetry know to us by name. Perhaps the story of Rabbi Amnon is less about the composition of Unetaneh Tokef than its adoption into the prayer books of northern European Jewry.
What is the prayer about?
The first section of Unetaneh Tokef describes G-d sitting in the heavenly court on His throne of judgment. Before Him is the book of all our deeds, everyone’s life. The shofar sounds and the angels tremble. All mankind passes before G-d like sheep passing by a shepherd.
On Rosh Hashanah our individual fates are written; on Yom Kippur that fate is sealed. We pray, “How many will pass and how many will be born? Who will live and who will die? Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time?”
Then, our possible fates are recited:
- Who by water and who by fire?
- Who by sword and who by beast?
- Who by hunger and who by thirst?
- Who by earthquake and who by plague?
- Who by strangling and who by stoning?
- Who will rest and who will wander?
- Who will be calm and who will be harassed?
- Who will be at ease and who will suffer?
- Who will become poor and who will become rich?
- Who will be degraded and who will be exalted?
As I reflect on these words, I look back at the year. How many have died in fires, earthquakes, floods and violence perpetrated by another human being? Fortunately, I know of none or few. But this year I ask myself, how many have already died from a plague? How many more will die these next few months? How many lives have been disrupted? How many of our friends and relatives have lost their income? How many are suffering depression and loneliness? How long will this suffering continue? Will G-d grant scientists the ability to come up with an effective vaccine soon?
Do we give up? Judaism says no, and believes in a loving and forgiving G-d. While our fate may seem bleak, man has power. He can cause the severity of G-d’s decision to be repealed. Repentance, prayer and charity during the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) can remove the evil of the decree. We continue to praise G-d and believe that He will hear our prayers and grant us a healthy and happy New Year.
Shana Tova U’metukah. A good and sweet year to all.