One of the most stirring and thought provoking prayers which is recited both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the “Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom” — “Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness.” It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany approximately one thousand years ago, and it has become one of the highlights of the repetition of the Musaf. There is a fascinating story behind this prayer and its originator.

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 to meditate upon the question. Upon returning home he was distraught at having given the impression that he even considered betraying his G‑d.

Rabbi Amnon spent the three days in solitude, fasting and praying to be forgiven for his sin, and he 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 the Kedushah, he asked to be allowed to sanctify Hashem’s name in shul, as he had in the bishop’s palace. He recited “Unetaneh Tokef” and then upon completing the prayer, returned his soul to Hashem.

Three days later, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam, a great Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist of Mainz, and after teaching the text of Unetaneh Tokef, asked him to send it to all parts of Jewry to be inserted into the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. Rabbi Amnon’s wish was carried out, and the prayer became an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah service. Some time later it was included in the Yom Kippur service as well in most communities.

In the middle of this prayer everyone screams out with all their might, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah” — which is popularly translated to mean, “And repentance, and prayer, and charity, remove the evil decree.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe in one of his discourses, called to the listeners attention that when one carefully analyzes this translation and looks up the meaning of the words in the dictionary, he will be surprised to learn that it is inaccurate and that it does not in any way convey the profound meaning of teshuvah,or tefillah, or tzedakah.

The popular translation for “teshuvah” is “repentance,” which means regret and contrition for sins or omissions of good deeds; and the resolve to start afresh. The term repentance is conceived as, “to turn over a new leaf” — to become a new man.

“Teshuvah” means something very different. It emphasizes not the idea of “newness,” but of “return.” A Jew is intrinsically good and wants to do good; sin is completely antithetical to his nature. If he does transgress, the transgression does not affect his essential self, but remains a foreign thing that has adhered to him.

Teshuvah, then, is the return to that essential, real self of a Jew. While a person is a composite of body and soul, in a Jew the soul is primary and the body secondary; and that soul is (no less than) a part of Hashem above. Teshuvah is therefore the reforging of the essential union between the soul and its source, a union which was temporarily in abeyance through sin. In other words, a Jew, through teshuvah, reveals his true self and reasserts the soul’s mastery over the body.

Teshuvah is relevant also to the completely wicked. No matter how low a person has fallen, hope is never lost. He can always do teshuvah since he does not need to perform any revolutionary act or create a new existence. He need merely return to his inner self.

“Prayer” according to the dictionary is the idea of supplication, petition; one entreats Hashem to grant one’s requests. If nothing is lacking, or there is no desire for anything, there is no “prayer.”

“Tefillah,” on the other hand, means “union.” A similar expression is found in the Torah. When Bilhah gave birth to a second child, Rachel said “Naftulei Elokim niftalti im achoti” — “[with] attachments from the Omnipresent I have become attached to my sister” (Bereishit 30:8, Rashi). Through Tefillah, one becomes united and attached to Hashem.” In contrast to prayer, with its emphasis on Hashem’s fulfilling one’s request, tefillah stresses man’s striving to achieve union with Hashem.

Thus, unlike prayer, tefillah is fully relevant even to those who are not in any obvious need. Tefillah is not only the requesting of one’s needs (although this is certainly a part of tefillah), but principally the instrument whereby a Jew and his Maker are joined.

“Charity” is commonly defined as alms, gratuitous benefactions for the poor. The giver of charity is a benevolent person, giving although he is not obligated to do so. He does not owe the poor anything, but gives because of his generosity.

“Tzedakah” has a completely opposite meaning. Its root word is “tzedek” which means “justice.” Thus, instead of connoting benevolence, it is the idea of justice — that it is only right and just that one give tzedakah. There are two reasons for this:

1) A person is obligated to give to another, for the money is not his own. Hashem has given the money to him on trust so that he can give it to others.

2) Hashem is not beholden to man, yet gives him what he needs. A Jew must act in the same way, He must give to others although not beholden to them. In return, Hashem rewards him in like manner. Because he has transcended his natural instinct and given when not beholden, Hashem in turn grants him more than he is otherwise worthy of receiving.

The true meaning of “teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah,” then, is a Jew returning to his true self — teshuvah — a Jew achieving union with Hashem — tefillah — and a Jew acting justly — tzedakah.

In merit of our conducting ourselves in accordance with the profound meaning of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, we will not be exposed to anything unfavorable, but only Hashem’s goodness and kindness will follow us all the days of our lives.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ב)