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.