Unetanah Tokef

A religious poem that is meant to strike fear in us.

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Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once. In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. But You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days, no measure to the hosts of Your glory, no understanding the meaning of Your Name. Your Name is fitting unto You and You are fitting unto it, and our name has been called by Your Name. Act for the sake of Your Name and sanctify Your Name through those who sanctity Your Name.

These words lead directly into the Kedushah, the prayer of the sanctification of God's name.

Many consider this poem to be the pinnacle of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The poet has painted a picture of the most solemn day of the year, which to him is Rosh Hashanah, not Yom Kippur. All other concepts associated with the day have been stripped away. "Awesome and terrible" are the only fitting words to describe it. The poet's primary concern is with the Mishnah's description of the first of Tishre as the day when humanity is judged. And he fills in the details that the Mishnah only hints at to spread before us a terrifying spectacle of heaven and earth called to judgment.

But this is not a day of suffering without hope. No matter what one has done, says the poet, the severe decree‑-the penalty of death‑-can be averted. Indeed, one need only follow the advice of the Sages, "Three things cancel the decree, and they are prayer, charity, and repentance" (Genesis Rabba 44:12). This rabbinic teaching is not confined to Rosh Hashanah but speaks in general terms of what one must do to avert the consequences of sin. The poet has set it correctly in the context of the day of judgment, focusing on the ten‑day period from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah until the end of Yom Kippur as a time when these three actions must be undertaken to change the outcome of the trial.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.