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High Holy Days: Who shall live and who shall die

“On New Year’s Day the Decree is inscribed
And on the Day of Atonement it is sealed
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die.” [http://bit.ly/tokef10]

 

"On New Year’s Day the Decree is inscribed And on the Day of Atonement it is sealed How many shall pass away and how many shall be born Who shall live and who shall die."

They are perhaps the most moving words of the High Holiday services. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is recited on Rosh Hashanah and then again on Yom Kippur. In startling detail, it tells how our fate is inscribed and sealed during these Days of Awe – and lists in detail the destiny that may await us over the coming year. Despite the horrors mentioned, the poem continues to grip worshipers and composers centuries after it was written.
Unetaneh Tokef is attributed to Rabbi Amnon who lived in Mainz, Germany about a thousand years ago. Rabbi Ammon had been repeatedly summoned by the Bishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Eventually the bishop had Rabbi Amnon’s hands and feet cut off for refusing to convert. Tradition has it that after Rabbi Amnon died of his injuries, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam and taught him the text of the prayer. [http://bit.ly/tokef2]
We say “attributed to Rabbi Amnon” because as Eliezer Segal points out, the “poem was likely composed in the Land of Israel up to five centuries before the date when Rabbi Amnon purportedly recited it in the synagogue of Mainz. It was well known to the Jews of Italy in earlier generations, and allusions to it were embedded into subsequent liturgical poems composed by their prolific poets.” Segal adds that “It is in fact questionable whether there ever was a rabbi named Amnon from Mainz. The name Amnon was not in use among the Jews of central Europe – and never achieved widespread popularity, even after the proliferation of this tale.” Regardless, the text of Unetaneh Tokef continues to have a “profound and lasting impact.” [http://bit.ly/tokef3]
The various authors of the Wikipedia entry on the prayer have done a wonderful job exploring its composition and history. But where the page really excels is that they have laid out the text in its entirety in three parallel columns: Hebrew Text, English Translation, and Biblical/Rabbinical Sources of key phrases. [http://bit.ly/tokef4]

The site piyut.org.il is the single best place to hear how these lyrics have been delivered by various composers. The site has dozens of recordings of Unetaneh Tokef including:
• Persian, Yemenite and Hasidic versions
• Two renditions by the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt
• Yair Rosenblum’s remarkable, contemporary – and at times upbeat – version. Rosenblum was musical director of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1960s and 70s. He composed his version in memory of 11 soldiers from Kibbutz Beit Hashitah who fell during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. [http://bit.ly/tokef5] (Be sure to click on the “More Renditions” button to see all the choices.)
Speaking of contemporary, a version of Unetaneh Tokef entered popular culture in 1974 when Leonard Cohen released “Who By Fire.” [http://bit.ly/tokef11]
“…And who by brave assent, who by accident, who in solitude, who in this mirror, who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand, who in mortal chains, who in power, and who shall I say is calling?”
Cohen explained that he derived his song “from the melody which I heard when I sat in a synagogue. And of course the ending of my song is something different. Who shall I say is calling? – This is my kind of prayer: Who is it, or what is it, which determines man’s life?” [http://bit.ly/tokef12]
In a podcast about the poem, Rabbi Daniel Landes suggests that Unetaneh Tokef is somewhat of a paradox. “We enter the prayer reluctantly knowing that it contains harsh judgments about the reality of our lives because it speaks about how life passes very quickly. But somehow we emerge drained but at the same time uplifted.” [http://bit.ly/tokef8]
And in his commentary on Unetaneh Tokef in his new Rosh Hashanah machzor, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores why a poem that may initially seem morbid is in fact life affirming. (To read more by Rabbi Sacks, click go to this link: [http://bit.ly/tokef9] and type “tokef” in the search box.)
“Then comes the great outburst of faith that defines Judaism as a religion of hope. No fate is final. Repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree… God forgives; God pardons; God exercises clemency – if we truly repent and pray and give to others.”

Mark Mietkiewicz writes about the Internet.  He can be reached at highway@rogers.com.

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