Unetanah Tokef

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

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There is a further note of hope expressed in this poem. God is depicted as a merciful judge who understands the frail nature of human beings. The pathetic description of the transitory nature of life and the heartrending comparison between eternal God and human beings who are no more than "a dream that flies away" or a speck of dust that is gone with the wind are not intended to depress us but to impress God, as it were, and make Him incline toward forgiving us.

It is little wonder that this poem gave birth to legend. It is said that it was recited by Rabbi Amnon (Mainz, c. 11th century), who had failed to reject a proposal of apostasy immediately and instead asked for three days to consider it. When he did not agree to give up his faith, he was taken away and tortured brutally. It was Rosh Hashanah, and he asked his disciples to take him to the synagogue, where he interrupted the service and recited this prayer in order to sanctify the name of God. Upon completing the recitation, he died. Later, the legend continues, he appeared to Rabbi Kalonymus in a dream and asked that this prayer be recited each year. Moving as this legend is, it should not distract us from the piyyut itself, the subject of which is not martyrdom, but human responsibility and the possibility for change, as we face the judgment of our creator.

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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.