The U’netaneh Tokef
Updated: Oct 1
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is customary in many Jewish services to recite the U’netaneh Tokef, a poetic prayer, or piyyut.
According to legend, many years ago, the Bishop of Mainz summoned Rabbi Amnon, who was a great Torah scholar, to his court and offered him a ministerial position so long as the Rabbi converted to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused the Bishop’s offer, but the Bishop persisted. Eventually, Rabbi Amnon asked the Bishop for three days to consider his offer.
When he returned to his home, Rabbi Amnon fell into despair at having even appeared to consider the Bishop’s offer and did not eat and sleep for three days. After the three days, the Bishop sent messengers to the home of the Rabbi, who refused their call to attend the Bishop’s court. This continued until the Rabbi was forcefully taken to the Bishop. The Bishop then demanded an answer and the Rabbi responded, “I should have my tongue cut out for not having refused immediately”. The Bishop responded by having the Rabbi’s hands and feet cut of and then sent him home.
A few days later was Rosh Hashanah, and the Rabbi asked to be carried to Shul as he wished to publicly declare his faith in God’s Kingship. With his dying words, he is said to have recited the U’Netaneh Tokef. Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam, a scholar and a poet. In this dream, Rabbi Amnon taught the poet the words to the U’Neteneh Tokef and asked that it be inserted into the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It is at times overlooked I think that the Bible stands, as above all else, a work of profound literary artistry. I do not think it hubris to express such a grand sentiment, but rather an acknowledgment that our Bible ranks amongst the greatest pieces of literary art ever produced. This of course would be no surprise to the believer, who know that every jot and tittle within its pages was ordained by God, our divine creator.
Yet while we may recognise and appreciate the beauty of the text, I often get the impression that as we turn through the pages of God’s word, we all to often neglect the sheer beauty of the prose and instead focus on whatever theological, or intellectual, facts we believe the text is pointing us to.
Yet so much of the Bible, and the truth contained within it, is intended to invite the reader to a place beyond the mere excavation of facts. Through the masterful use of poetry and other literary devices, the Bible brings us to a place beyond facticity, where the aesthetic and subjective experience reveal a deeper truth. It is for this reason that poetry is so prominent in the Bible, and in so many liturgies within the broader faith, as poetry is perhaps the supreme literary invitation where one can truly experience the true essence of things.
The U’Neteneh Tokef is a beautiful example of this. As the poem unfurls before us, we experience the tension between God's eternal sovereignty as King and Judge and our own fleeting human existence, between pre-destination and our capacity to choose our own destiny, laying bare the most fundamental essence of the religious experience, an essence that cannot be taught in Bible study, but one that can only be experienced by a believer, and entrusted to a poet who had a dream.
While the legend behind the U'Netenech Tokef is just that, a legend, it nevertheless speaks to this fundamental tension that all believers feel at one point or another, and it is because of its masterful and haunting composition, that it has became part of the liturgy on some of the most holy days in God's calendar.
The text of the U’Netenech Tokef is as follows;
Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is mighty and frightening.
On it your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness, and You will sit upon it in truth.
It is true that You alone are the One who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances – it will read itself – and each person’s signature is there.
And the great shofar will be sounded, and a still thin voice will be heard.
Angels will be frenzied, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgement; to muster the heavenly host for judgement!’ – for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgement.
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree.
For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live.
Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.
It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.
A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.
But You are the King, the Living and Enduring God.
There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and it is forbidden to pronounce Your Name. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name.