There is clearly a lot of trepidation and enthusiasm surrounding the “U’netane Tokef” liturgy in the Rosh Hashana prayer service. I’m wondering what it means and why it seems to be treated with extra special reverence.
Indeed the U’netane tokef prayer is considered to be one of the more beautiful and moving piyutim poems in the liturgy of the High Holy Days.
While it is beyond our scope to translate the prayer word for word, as it is amply available in translation in all standard High Holiday prayer books, some of its major themes include: The awesome holiness of the day; G‑d’s judgment of the entire world such that even the angels tremble with fear; His precise reckoning of every deed for reward or punishment; Who and how many people will be born or die during the year, and in what way they will die; The power of repentance, prayer and charity to mollify Divine judgment; And the frailty of mankind and the greatness of G‑d and His mercy for those who repent.
According to tradition, U’natane tokef is a very old prayer, dating to the early Middle Ages, c. 1100 CE. It introduces the kedusha of musaf for the High Holiday prayers and is chanted responsively while the Torah ark is open and the congregants are standing in awe and anticipation of sanctifying G‑d’s name together with the angels.
In addition to the very moving and heart-piercing words and message of the prayer, the story behind its composition and inclusion into the liturgy greatly adds to the emotional reverence and trepidation with which it is recited, chanted and tearfully offered before G‑d.
According to tradition (brought in Or Zarua on Rosh Hashana), a great and pious Torah scholar of his times, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, was pressed upon by the local ruler to convert to Christianity, but to no avail. One day, when the ruler’s pressure was particularly pernicious, Rabbi Amnon requested to deliberate on the matter for three days, intending to push him off. Afterward, he bitterly regretted giving the impression that he might possibly deny G‑d, so he fasted the three days and refused to appear until the ruler had him brought by force.
There, he pleaded that as punishment, the tongue which expressed doubt in G‑d be cut out. But the ruler, insisting that Rabbi Amnon spoke well, instead ordered that he be dismembered limb by limb for not coming forward to convert – until he would concede. However, Rabbi Amnon was steadfast until, maimed and mutilated, he was sent home with his severed limbs at his side.
This occurred shortly before Rosh Hashana and on that holy day Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue together with his severed limbs. When the cantor neared the recitation of kedusha for musaf, Rabbi Amnon cried out the U’natane tokef prayer which he had composed in his misery and repentance. As he concluded it, he breathed his last breadth and expired. Three days later, Rabbi Amnon’s soul appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam, one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, taught him the prayer and bade him to include it in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus U’netane tokef became a part of the standard liturgy, and this moving, tragic story of penitence serves as backdrop to its inspiring recitation.