Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Fourth Day of Tishrei 5781
One of the most famous prayers of the High Holy Days – and one of the most difficult – is Untaneh Tokef. Today, we will consider the origins and content of the prayer. Tomorrow we will look at how we understand it in our lives today.
Untaneh Tokef is a piyyut, a liturgical poem. Like other poems in the prayerbook, it is not meant as a precise statement of Jewish belief. Rather, it is intended to move us to faithful devotion and spiritual awakening. You do not have to literally believe the words in order to pray it.
There is a legend that the prayer was written by an 11th century German rabbi, Amnon of Mainz, after he was tortured for his refusal to convert to Christianity. In fact, the prayer is much older. Most scholars believe that it was written in the land of Israel around the 6th century.
The poem begins with a retelling of a story from the Talmud in which God writes in three books on Rosh Hashanah, one with the names of the completely righteous, one with the names of the completely wicked, and one with the names of everyone in between. The righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished immediately. Everyone else has ten days to tip the scales in their favor by Yom Kippur (B. Rosh Hashanah 16b). In Unetaneh Tokef, the three books are combined into one “Book of Memories,” and it is not God, but we ourselves, who write our names into it.
The poem then describes how God decides who will die in various ways – who by fire, who by water, who by war, who by beast, and so on. This section concludes by stating that each of us can soften God’s judgment through t’shuvah, prayer, and acts of righteousness.
The poem states that God does not wish to punish us, but hopes for us to live by returning to God. It concludes by recalling that our lives are temporary and fragile – “a cloud passing by, mere dust on the wind, a dream that flies away” – but that God is limitless and infinite, “a glorious mystery none can decipher.”
The popularity of Untaneh Tokef is undoubtedly related to the beauty of the language and to the powerful image of God ruling over life and death. It is a poem intended to move us toward t’shuvah by making us mindful of our mortality and our need to change our ways to escape death.
Practice for this day:
Recall how Untaneh Tokef has struck you in the past. What is moving? What is disquieting?