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The Unetaneh Tokef Prayer

The Unetaneh Tokef Prayer

The Story


More than eight hundred years ago there lived a great man in the city of Mayence (Maintz). His name was Rabbi Amnon. A great scholar and a very pious man, Rabbi Amnon was loved and respected by Jews and non-Jews alike, and his name was known far and wide. Even the Duke of Hessen, the ruler of the land, admired and respected Rabbi Amnon for his wisdom, learning, and piety. Many a time the Duke invited the Rabbi to his palace and consulted him on matters of State.

Rabbi Amnon never accepted any reward for his services to the Duke or to the State. From time to time, however, Rabbi Amnon would ask the Duke to ease the position of the Jews in his land, to abolish some of the decrees and restrictions which existed against the Jews at the time, and generally to enable them to live in peace and security. This was the only favor that Rabbi Amnon ever requested from the Duke, and the Duke never turned down his request. Thus, Rabbi Amnon and his brethren lived peacefully for many years.

Now the other statesmen of the Duke grew envious of Rabbi Amnon. Most envious of them all was the Duke's secretary, who could not bear to see the honor and respect which Rabbi Amnon enjoyed with his master, which was rapidly developing into a great friendship between the Duke and the Rabbi. The secretary began to seek ways and means to discredit Rabbi Amnon in the eyes of the Duke.

One day, the secretary said to the Duke:

"Your Highness, why should you not persuade Rabbi Amnon to become a Christian, like ourselves? I am sure that considering the honor and many favors he has enjoyed at your generous hand, he will gladly abandon his faith and accept ours.

The Duke thought it was not a bad idea. When Rabbi Amnon came to his palace the next day, the Duke said to him:

"My good friend, Rabbi Amnon, I know you have been loyal and devoted to me for many years. Now I wish to ask you a personal favor. Abandon your faith, and become a good Christian like me. If you do, I shall make you the greatest man in the whole of my State; you shall have honor and riches like no other man, and next to me, you shall be the most powerful man in my land . . "

Rabbi Amnon grew very pale. For a moment he could find no words to reply to the Duke, but after a while he said:

"O, illustrious Monarch! For many years I have served you faithfully, and my being a Jew in no way lessened my loyalty to you or to the State. On the contrary, my faith bids me to be loyal and faithful to the land of my sojourn. I am ready and willing to sacrifice everything I possess, even my very life, for you as well as for the State. There is one thing, however, that I can never part with - this is my faith. I am bound by an unbreakable covenant to my faith, the faith of my forefathers. Do you want me to betray my people, my G‑d! Would you want a man to serve you that has no respect for his religion, for the bonds and ties he holds most sacred! If I betray my G‑d, could you ever trust me never to betray you! Surely, the Duke cannot mean it. The Duke is jesting! "

"No, no," the Duke said, though he sounded a little uncertain, for inwardly the Duke was pleased with Rabbi Amnon's reply. Rabbi Amnon hoped the matter was settled, but when he arrived at the palace the next day, the Duke repeated his request. Rabbi Amnon became very unhappy, and began to avoid visiting the palace, unless it was absolutely necessary.

One day, the Duke, impatient at Rabbi Amnon's obstinacy, put it very bluntly to him; he must either become a Christian or suffer the consequences.

Pressed to give his answer immediately, Rabbi Amnon begged the Duke to allow him three days in which to consider the matter. This, the Duke granted him.

No sooner did Rabbi Amnon leave the Duke, than he realized his grave sin. "My G‑d!" he thought. "What have I done?! Am I lacking in faith and courage that I requested three days for consideration! Can there be any but one answer! How could I show such weakness even for one moment! O, gracious G‑d, forgive me . . ."

Rabbi Amnon arrived home brokenhearted. He secluded himself in his room and spent the next three days in prayer and supplication, begging G‑d's forgiveness.

When Rabbi Amnon did not arrive at the palace on the third day, the Duke became very angry, and ordered his men to bring Rabbi Amnon in chains.

The Duke hardly recognized Rabbi Amnon; so much did the venerable man change in the course of the last three days. However, the Duke quickly brushed aside whatever feeling of sympathy he might have felt for his erstwhile friend, and said to him sternly:

"How dare you disregard my command! Why did you not appear before, in time to give me your answer! For your sake, I trust you have decided to do as I tell you. It will be bad for you otherwise. "

Although Rabbi Amnon was now a broken man physically, his spirit was stronger than ever.

"Your Highness," Rabbi Amnon answered him fearlessly, "There can be but one answer: I shall remain a loyal Jew as long as I breathe!"

The Duke was beside himself with wrath. "It is now more than the question of your becoming Christian. You have disobeyed me by not coming voluntarily to give me your answer. For this you must be punished . . ."

"Your Highness," Rabbi Amnon said, "By requesting three days for consideration, I have sinned gravely against my G‑d."

These brave words enraged the Duke even more. "For sinning against your G‑d," the Duke said angrily, "let Him avenge Himself. I shall punish you for disobeying my orders. Your legs sinned against me, for they refused to come to me; therefore your legs shall be cut off!

With very faint signs of life, the legless body of Rabbi Amnon was sent back to his home, to his grief-stricken family. It was the day before Rosh Hashanah.

The news about Rabbi Amnon's dreadful fate spread throughout the whole city. Everyone was horrified and distressed. It was a very tragic Day of Judgment for the Jews of Maintz, who assembled in synagogue the following morning.

Despite his terrible suffering, Rabbi Amnon remembered that it was Rosh Hashanah, and he requested to be taken to synagogue. At his request, he was placed in front of the Holy Ark.

All the worshippers, men, women and children, wept terribly seeing their beloved Rabbi in such agony, and never were any more heart-rending prayers offered than on that day of Rosh Hashanah.

When the cantor began to recite the Musaf prayer, Rabbi Amnon motioned that there be made an interval while he offered a special prayer to G‑d. Silence fell upon the worshippers, and Rabbi Amnon began to recite Unetanneh Tokef ("Let us express the mighty holiness of this day"). The congregation repeated every word, and their hearts went out to G‑d in prayer and tears. "Kedusha" was then recited, followed by the prayer of "Oleinu". When the words "He is our G‑d, and no other" were reached, Rabbi Amnon cried them out with his last remaining strength, and passed away.

The prayer 'Unetanneh Tokef' is now one of the most solemn prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It includes the stirring passage:

"On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, and how many shall be born; who shall live, and who shall die; who in his time, and who before his time; who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by storm and who by plague; who by choking and who by stoning... Who shall rest, and who shall wander; who shall be tranquil and who shall be harassed; who shall be at peace and who shall suffer; who shall become poor, and who shall become rich; who shall fall and who shall rise... But repentance, prayer and charity revoke the evil decree!"

The undying courage of Rabbi Amnon, the author of this prayer, serves as an inspiration to all of us.

Join the Discussion
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Annie Toronto July 24, 2016

Repentance, charity, prayer the whole point of Repentance is not just lip service, but to actually change ones' ways - at least in the jewish way of repentance!
giving charity helps us stop thinking about ourselves so selfishly and allows us to see 'outside' of ourselves
prayer is our conversation with God and helps us develop better understandings; whom you talk with is whom you develop a relationship with; and how we speak is how we 'become'
we are what we say
we are what we eat
we are whom we hang out with
we are what we read
we are creatures of habits
but when the habit needs changing, we change the above Reply

Sabra Australia September 8, 2014

Shocking story. High impact. How can people be so cruel? Nothing's changed in 800 years. Cruel and horrific 800yrs ago, still cruel and unbelievably barbaric today. Reply

Artem Khaimov Flushin ny January 30, 2014

AMNON story I read the story very clearly I think it's great to know that there are great people with great faith in God
Though, I believe and know that Rabbi AMNON was a talmudist couldn't he found another way to avoid the situation of his death Reply

Eliahu Rochlin Rio de Janeiro, Brazil August 28, 2013

A problem with this story According to Prof. Jane Bichmacher de Glasman, this prayer was found in the genizah of Cairo, which remits its origin supposedly 1000 years ago, to 1300 years ago approximately. So hardly it could be authored by Rabbi Amnon, which is also depicted as a giant in Torah, but has no other reference than this legend. Its origin seems to be from a paytan (liturgy poet) from Israel, 1700 years ago.
Authorship in Israel is also corroborated by internal evidence, as the solution of three to undo a grave divine decree: "Three things cancel the decree, and they are prayer, charity and repentance" (Bereshit Rabbah 44: 12), found in Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem), but not in Babylonian sources. In the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian), Rosh Hashanah 16b, "four things nullify the verdict against a person: charity, prayer, change its name and change their actions, and some say change places." Reply

Glenda Cordray Spring, Texas September 16, 2012

Link To This Page I am Lutheran; however, I am curious about other religions/faiths and the what/why they believe as they do. When a "Happy Rosh Hashanah!" and link to this page was posted on my Facebook page, I followed the link. I have found this posting and why "G-D" is used quite interesting. I shall be back to read more. Thanks for giving me a very tiny look into the Jewish world. Happy Rosh Hashanah! Reply

Sholly Safed, Israel September 10, 2012

Re: Interesting version of the Story The story is told in the Halachic work titled Or Zarua (13th century), in entry 276 on the laws of Rosh Hashana. There it is told that Rabbi Amnon himself requested that his tongue be cut off, as a way of sanctifying G-d's name before the ruler by showing how regretful he was of the very words which he uttered, but his request was denied. Rather, the ruler cut of his toes and fingers. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn September 20, 2009

Question I once heard an explanation regarding "who by fire and who by water..." and how all of these things are not as horrific as they sound according to Chassidus. I can no longer recall the details- does anyone know anything about this? Reply

Dvorah Lakeville, PA September 20, 2009

Many thanks I never knew this story. This prayer, which has always held great depth of meaning for me, becomes now deeper for me still. Thanks for your informative and inspiring website, and thanks to Chabad of Port Washington NY and Rabbi Palteil for helping me to find the beauty in my Judaism that my upbringing failed to show me. Reply

Yosef Marcus S. Mateo July 22, 2009

Interesting Version of the Story It is interesting to note that this version of the story differs from the popular one which has Rabbi Amnon actually requesting of the Duke that his body be mutilated. In your version, however, he makes no such request.

This accords well with Jewish tradition, which does not allow for self-mutilation.

Thank you for clarifying the story! Reply

Rodney Hickman henderson, nevada May 31, 2008

unetaneh tokef No man will ever leave his G-d. G-d may have left him, but we, never Him.
Many Christians in Africa each night are suffering the same choices and fate from the Muslims and Nativists.
Thank you for the Web page. Reply

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