Rabbi Eldad Zamir
Former shaliach in Cape Town (1997 -1998)
Currently Senior Instructor at the Nativ ’Giyur” program in the IDF
One of the highlights of the High Holidays is the time when we say the prayer “Unetaneh Tokef”. “Unetaneh Tokef” was written by Rabbi Amnon from the city of Mainz, Germany about 1000 years ago.
The bishop of Mainz insisted that his friend and advisor, Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. In order to buy time, Rabbi Amnon asked for three days of grace to meditate upon the question. Upon returning home he was very upset at having given the impression that he even considered betraying his G-d.
Rabbi Amnon spent the 3 days alone, fasting and praying to be forgiven for his sin, and did not return to the bishop. Finally the bishop had him brought and demanded an answer. Rabbi Amnon replied that his tongue should be cut out for the sin of saying he would consider the matter. Furious, the bishop said that the sin was not in what he said, but in his legs for not coming as he had promised. He ordered that Rabbi Amnon’s feet be chopped off, joint by joint. They did the same to his hands. After each amputation Rabbi Amnon was asked if he would convert, and each time he refused. Then the bishop ordered that he be carried home, a maimed and mutilated cripple, together with the amputated parts.
When Rosh Hashanah arrived a few days later Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to the Ark. Before the congregation recited Kedushah, he asked to be allowed to sanctify G-d’s Name in the Synagogue as he had in the bishop’s palace. He recited ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ and then died.
Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam, a great Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar of Mainz, and taught him the text of ‘Unetaneh Tokef’, and asked him to send it to all parts of Jewry to be inserted in their prayers. Rabbi Amnon’s wish was carried out, and the prayer became an important part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
Rabbi Amnon’s prayer is very powerful. “BeRosh Hashana Yekatevun, Uveyom Tzom Kippur Yechatemun” – “On Rosh HaShana you will be inscribed and on the Fast of Yom Kippur you will be sealed… who will live and who will die… who will be degraded and who will be exalted”.
There is no doubt that Untanei Tokef is a very emotional and strong prayer.
At this point the chazan, followed by the community, shout 3 words that are supposed to get rid of our fears and bring about hope, enabling a chance of forgiveness for our sins. “UTESHUVA, UTEFILAH, UTZEDAKAH” – “but repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree”.
How could it be that these actions have got the power to change the decree?
Logically – there is no right for this declaration. If we had to judge ourselves in a court of normal human beings, there is no justification to remove the evil of the decree.
Yet in G-d’s court we are forgiven, only thanks to his special kindness.
G-d is doing us a big favour by giving us three windows of hope, a life-jacket with special power, to remove the decree.
The first one – “TSHUVA’ (repentance): is not a positive mitzvah like the other mitzvot. Tshuva is a pure gift given by G-d to his people, starting with the sin of Adam the first man on earth, going through history, to all of us today. We hear G-d call: “SHUVU BENEI ADAM” “Return and Repent My people”.
Number Two – “TEFILAH” (prayer): We are promised that the gates for Tefilah will never be locked. Tefilah is another example of the kindness bestowed upon us by the Master of the Universe.
“TZEDAKAH” (charity): “Tzedakah” is very powerful in its ability to erase sins. Tzedakah is the direct fulfilment of the mitzvah: “VEHALACHTA BE’DRACHAV” “You shall walk G-d’s ways”. G-d is merciful – so should you be merciful!
We must always remember that we were created in G-d’s image. If we (always) say to ourselves that we have the merit of being human, then we shall do positive and good deeds, but if we were to say to ourselves that we are only human, then we won’t reach our potential – and even worse than that.
Although we might think that we have reached ‘rock bottom’ in our daily life, the Musef prayer is supplying us with the opportunities to leave this low place we are at and to elevate ourselves to a more meaningful life.