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Do “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah Avert the Severe Decree”?

Last September, I explained one difficult word – kivinumeron – in the High Holiday poem Unetane Tokef  (Insight Israel , Volume 5, Number 1 (September 2004)). This year, I would like to tackle a much tougher topic: the theology of Unetane Tokef (This article is based on a lecture which I gave to the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, September 5, 2004 and to 450 rabbis via the United Jewish Community’s “Torah from Jerusalem” video conference on September 8, 2005).

1) A Summary of the Piyyut (Translations of Unetane Tokef can be found in any mahzor such as Silverman (pp. 147-148, 357-358) or Harlow (240-243, 536-539). For a new translation, see Raymond Scheindlin, Conservative Judaism 50/4 (Summer 1998), pp. 48-50).

Unetaneh Tokef has six parts:

  1. God and the heavenly court judge all living creatures on Yom Hadin , the day of judgment.
  2. one by one kol ba’ey olam , all who enter the world, pass before God kivinumeron , like a cohort of soldiers being counted, or like a shepherd counting his sheep and He decrees their destiny.
  3. on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by earthquake and who by plague.
  4. but repentance, prayer and tzedakah “avert the severe decree”.
  5. God wants the sinner to repent.
  6. Man’s origin is but dust and his end is dust, but God is the ever-living King.

2) Who Wrote Unetane Tokef ?

According to most Mahzorim and reference works, Unetane Tokef was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the tenth or eleventh century (See, for example, the Silverman mahzor , p. 355; Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy , New York, Chicago, San Francisco, 1963, p. 167; Hayyim Herman Kieval, The High Holy Days , second edition, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 142). The source of this attribution is a story quoted by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (ca. 1180-1250) in his halakhic work Or Zarua who says that he copied it from a manuscript written by Rabbi Efrayim of Bonn (1132-1197). Rabbi Efrayim in turn says that the ultimate source of the story was Rabbi Kalonymos of Mainz who died for the sanctification of God’s name in 1096 or 1100; Rabbi Amnon came to him in a dream after his death, taught him the poem Unetane Tokef and ordered him to send it out to the entire Diaspora (Sefer Or Zarua , Zhitomir, 1862, end of Hilkhot Rosh Hashanah , Part 2, parag. 276, fol. 63b). The story is a very moving, written in a beautiful Hebrew with many allusions to biblical verses. An English translation by Prof. Ivan Marcus is reproduced in Appendix A.

However, as many scholars have pointed out, the Rabbi Amnon narrative is fiction, not history, for the following reasons:  (Gotthard Deutsch, The Jewish Encyclopedia , Vol. 1, pp. 525-526; Israel Davidson, Otzar Hashirah V’hapiyyut , Vol. 2, New York, 1929, pp. 199-200; Shelomo Eidelberg, Bintivei Ashkenaz , Brooklyn, 2001, pp. 23-28; Avraham Frankel, Zion 67 (5762), pp. 125-138 and all of the literature cited there in note 1; Ya’akov Spiegel, Netu’im 8 (Marheshvan 5762), pp. 23-42; Ivan Marcus in: Zvia Ben-Yosef Ginor, ed., Essays on Hebrew Literature in Honor of Avraham Holtz , New York, 2003, pp. 28-46. Subsequent notes refer back to this note).

1. Rabbi Amnon, who is described as “the great one of his generation and wealthy and of good lineage”, is not mentioned in any other source in all of medieval Jewish literature.

2. The name, in any case, sounds like an etiological name derived from the narrative i.e. he was called Amnon ” kee heemeen b’el hai “, because he believed in the living God.

3. The introduction says that he ” yassad ” = founded or composed Unetane Tokef , but the end of the story says that he ” amar ” = said it, which seems to imply that it was an already existing poem.

4. Unetane tokef is a type of poem called a ” silluk ” which leads into the kedushah , (See Kieval (above, note 4), p. 186). but the story says that Rabbi Amnon recited it as the cantor was about to recite the poem ” V’hayot asher heinah ” which is in the middle of the kedushah ! (Daniel Goldschmidt, Mahzor Layamim Hanora’im , Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1970, p. 216 and cf. Frankel, p. 134).

5. Rabbi Amnon says to the cantor: “Wait a bit and I will sanctify God’s great name, and he said in a loud voice: ‘May our kedushah ascend unto You’ “. In other words, according to the story, he said the introductory sentence to the poem as a lead-in to dying al kiddush hashem , for the sanctification of God’s name. This sentence, however, is not necessarily connected with dying for the sanctification of God’s name since it is recited at the beginning of every silluk !

6.The story concludes: “When he finished the silluk, nistalek (he died) and disappeared from the world in front of all”. This is a clever play-on-words, but does not need to be taken literally.

7.The gruesome punishment of dismemberment described did not exist in Germany at that time.

8. There was a medieval Ashkenazic rabbi who asked to think for a day about converting to Christianity; he was none other than Rabbi Kalonymos son of Meshulam who is mentioned at the end of the story (A. M. Haberman, Sefer Gezeirot Ashkenaz V’zarefat , Jerusalem, 1945, p. 41).

9. Amnon is not an Ashkenazic Jewish name; it is an Italian name mentioned once ca. 925 c.e. by Rabbi Shabetai Donolo (Hakmoni , Florence, 1881, p. 4).

3) Unetane Tokef was Composed in the Land of Israel in the Byzantine Period

In the second volume of his magnum opus Otzar Hashirah V’hapiyyut published in 1929, Israel Davidson already realized that this poem was not written in medieval Ashkenaz. He wrote: “its simplicity of style and lucidity of expression are reminiscent of the most ancient prayers” (Davidson, p. 200). Indeed, we now know that this is true:

  1. Armand Kaminka and Eric Werner have shown that Unetane Tokef bears striking similarities to the “Hymn of Romanus upon Christ’s Reappearance” (Armand Kaminka, Freie Judische Lehrerstimme , Vienna, 1906, p. 63; Aharon Kaminka, Moznayim 18 (1944), pp. 410-410; Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge , London and New York, 1959, pp. 252-255). Romanus lived in the sixth or eighth century and was of Jewish extraction. Here are a few of the parallels as arranged by Werner:

Unetane Tokef




the angels shudder, fear and trembling sieze them


everything trembles


you open the book of records;

you call to mind all things long forgotten


the books are opened, the hidden things are made public


the angels shudder,

they say it is the day of judgment


the angels are dragged before the throne

they cry: glory to Thee, most just judge!


the great trumpet is sounded


upon the sound of the trumpet


they are not pure before thee


nobody is pure before thee


as the shepherd musters his flock, so do You
cause to pass, number every living soul


like a shepherd he will save


but repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree.


Therefore, penitence and prayer will save you.

  1. Menachem Zulay already pointed out to Eric Werner in the 1950s that Unetane Tokef is found in a very ancient Genizah fragment from the late eighth century, 200-300 years before Rabbi Amnon was supposed to have composed the poem! ( Werner, p. 253). In a recent article, Ya’akov Spiegel also refers to an early Genizah fragment and suggests that Unetane Tokef was written by none other than the famous poet Yannai, who lived in Eretz Yisrael in the sixth century (Spiegel, pp. 27-29).
  2. As I explained last year, Unetane Tokef contains the Greek word ” kivinumeron “, like a cohort of soldiers being counted, which is taken from Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (1:2). It is possible that a medieval Ashkenazic poet used this Greek word in his poem; it is much more likely that it was used by a poet in Eretz Yisrael in the Byzantine period who understood the word in Greek.
  3. Most importantly, many commentators have pointed out that the climactic sentence “but repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree” contradicts the Babylonian Talmud ( Rosh Hashanah 16b) which says that ” Four things tear up the verdict against a person, to wit: tzedakah , shouting [=prayer], changing one’s name and changing one’s actions. and some say changing one’s place ” (Ibid. , pp. 23-27). This is because Unetane Tokef is based on the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud, Ta’aniyot, Chapter 2, fol. 65b) and/or Bereishit Rabbah (44:13, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 434) which were written in the Land of Israel ca. 400 c.e. The Yerushalmi says: ” Three things annul the evil decree, to wit: prayer, tzedakah, and repentance”. Unetane Tokef is clearly based on the Yerushalmi and not on the Bavli and this makes perfect sense if it was written in Eretz Yisrael in the Byzantine period.

4) The Theology of Unetane Tokef

The main challenge of this poem for a modern Jew is the theology of the climactic sentence as usually translated: “but repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree”. As we all know, this is frequently not the case. A young mother with children lies in the hospital with cancer. Her friends recite Tehillim (Psalms) and the Mee Shebeirakh prayer for her recovery and give tzedakah , yet she does not recover. The same holds true for current events. Tens of thousands of Israelis opposed to the disengagement from Gaza prayed to God “to cancel the decree” and gave tzedakah, yet the disengagement took place nonetheless. Similarly, we are now witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There must have been many people who prayed to God to stop the hurricane or lessen its devastation, yet their prayers do not seem to have been answered.

Rabbi Marc Saperstein, a Reform rabbi and a scholar, dealt with this problem in an article published in 1981 (Marc Saperstein, “Inscribed for Life or Death?”, Journal of Reform Judaism 28/3 (Summer 1981), pp. 18-26). He points out that the standard translation of the problematic sentence is not accurate and that the poet changed the wording of the Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi says: Sheloshah devarim mevatlin et hagezeirah – “three things annul the evil decree”, whereas the poem says that three things ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah – “make the evil of the decree pass”.

Rabbi Saperstein explains:

Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not identical with evil. They do bear a potential for truly evil consequences. They can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity, destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most fearsome decree are not inevitable. If penitence, prayer and charity cannot change the external reality, if they cannot arrest the malignant cancer, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become actual and enduring, but will pass. They can enable us to transcend the evil of the decree. This, I believe, is the simple meaning of the Hebrew words. And this is a meaning which I can, in conscience, share with that eleven year old girl [whose mother died of cancer] (ibid. , pp. 24-25).

In other words, the Yerushalmi (and the Bavli too) had a very simple yet problematic theology: if you do X, Y, and Z you will annul the severe decree. The author of Unetaneh Tokef , who lived in the Land of Israel at the time of the Yerushalmi , did not agree with that theology. In his opinion, repentance, prayer and tzedakah cannot annul or eliminate evil, but by searching our souls through teshuvah , praying to God through tefillah and helping other people through tzedakah we help ourselves and others cope with evil and “make the evil of the decree pass”. This is the peshat (simple meaning) of Unetane Tokef which, I believe, most modern Jews can relate to.

Appendix A

A Translation of the Rabbi Amnon of Mainz Narrative

by Prof. Ivan Marcus

(from: Zvia Ben-Yosef Ginor, ed., Essays on Hebrew Literature in Honor of Avraham Holtz , New York, 2003, pp. 35-37)

(The following translation of the text of the earliest version of the Amnon narrative is based on ed. Zhtomir, based on an Amsterdam Ms., with corrections from it and from Ms. Frankfurt.)

I found in the handwriting of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn bar Jacob that Rabbi Amnon of Mainz wrote (the liturgical poem beginning) “And let us affirm (the holiness of the day”: unetaneh toqef qedushat hayom ) because of a wicked incident that happened to him and these are his words:

An incident involving Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, the greatest figure of his generation ( gedol ha-dor ) and (a man of) wealth and family lineage, (who was also) “Well built and handsome” (Genesis 39:6). It happened that the ruler and (his) officials tried to persuade him to convert to their error [=religion]. “He refused” (Genesis 39:8) to listen to them. “It happened as” they “would talk to him about this, day in and day out, that he would ignore” them (from Genesis 39:10).

But the ruler pressed him and “one such day” (Genesis 39:11) (the ruler) forced (the officers) on Amnon so much that he said to them, “I want to consult (with others) and think it over for three days.”

He said that only to get them off his back, but as he left the ruler, he remembered that [he had answered the ruler the way he had – by saying the obscenity ( nibbul hapeh ) to the ruler, that he would take counsel concerning this and (he realized) that it sounded as though he actually were uncertain. Did he really need any advice or further thought about denying the living God? He returned home and could not eat or drink. He grew ill and relatives and friends came by “to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning over my words in Sheol.’ And he wept” (Genesis 37:35) and grew despondent.

On the third day, as he was writhing in agony, the ruler sent for him, but he said, “I will not go.” The enemy sent many more dignitaries to him, each one more distinguished than the other, but he still refused to go to him.

The ruler (finally) said, “Bring Amnon to me, right now, even against his will!” They rushed out and got him. He said to him, “What is the matter, Amnon? Why did not you come on the day that you said you would, after getting advice, and answer me in obedience to my demand?”

Amnon answered him, “I will determine my punishment. The tongue that lied to you should be cut out.” Rabbi Amnon wanted to sanctify God for having said what he said.

But the ruler replied, “No, I will not cut off the tongue, because it spoke well. Rather, I will cut off the feet which did not come when you said they would, and I will torture the rest of (your) body.”

The enemy then ordered that his fingers, hands, and feet be cut off, joint by joint. At each stage they asked him, “Do you want to convert to our faith?” And he said, “No.”

When they had finished cutting them off, the wicked one commanded that Rabbi Amnon be laid out on a shield, his severed fingers next to him, and he sent him home.

Now the reason he is called Rabbi Amnon is because he believed ( he’emin ) in the Living God and suffered severe tortures out of the love for his faith, all because of what he had said.

Afterwards, the time of Rosh Hashanah was approaching. He asked his relatives to carry him to the synagogue with the preserved parts of his fingers and to place him near the cantor. They did so.

When the cantor was about the recite the Qedushah , (and the liturgical poem that begins,) “And the beasts which are.”, Rabbi Amnon said to him, “Wait a moment, and I will sanctify the Great Name. And he replied in a loud voice, “And so, may Holiness rise up to You,” meaning, I have sanctified Your Name on account of Your Kingdom and Unity.

Afterwards he said, “And let us affirm ( unetaneh toqef ) the Holiness of the day,” and he said, “It is true that You are a judge and a rebuker” in order to justify God, that all his finger and foot parts should rise before Him as well as the entire episode. And he said, “everyone’s seal is on (his sinful deed)”; “and You will remember (to reward or punish) every living being,” for one’s (future) is decided on Rosh Hashanah.

When he had finished the whole silluq (prayer), he vanished ( nistaleq ) and disappeared from the notice of everyone in the world; “then he was no more, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24).

About him is written, “How abundant is the good that You have in store for those who fear you, etc.” (Psalms 31:20).

After all this happened, and the truth (was realized?) that Rabbi Amnon had been elevated and requested at the Court on High on the third day of his purification, he appeared in a night vision to Rabbenu Qalonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam ben Rabbi Qalonimos ben Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Qalonimos. He taught him that piyyut (that begins), “And let us affirm the holiness of the day” ( unetaneh toqef ), and (Amnon) commanded that (Rabbenu Qalonimos) disseminate it throughout the Exile as a memorial to him, and the Gaon did so.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.


Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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