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Reuven Kimelman





Unetaneh Tokef: A Commentary





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Reuven Kimelman





Unetaneh Tokef: A Commentary








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Unetaneh Tokef: A Commentary

The history, structure, poetic style, and intertextual biblical and rabbinic sources that inspired the best-known liturgical piyyut recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


Unetaneh Tokef: A Commentary

The words “Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom” on the High Holiday curtain of the ark in the Central Synagogue, Kiryat Shmuel, Haifa, Israel. Wikimedia.

Unetaneh Tokef is to Rosh Hashanah what Lekhah dodi is to Shabbat. Both poems capture the spirit of the day. Just as Lekhah dodi provides the imagery for transforming Shabbat into a rendezvous between God and Israel,[1] so Unetaneh Tokef provides the imagery for transforming Rosh Hashanah into a trial between God and humanity.[2]

In its economy of words, simplicity of rhyme, and lucidity of expression, as well as in its themes, Unetaneh Tokef was composed in the classic poetic style of the Byzantine period before the Islamic conquest of the land of Israel, evoking the period’s three outstanding representatives: Yose b. Yose of the fifth century, Yannai of the sixth century, and Eleazar Ha-Qallir of the seventh century.[3]

As the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in general and the piyyutim of Yose b. Yose, in particular,[4] Unetaneh Tokef packages its message in vivid poetry to alert us to the majesty of divine kingship, the imminence of divine judgment, and the salvific power of repentance.

Poetic Style

Unetaneh Tokef combines graphic images and stark expressions packaged in deceptively simple rhyme schemes. Rhyme structures the material by yoking strophes together lest they be wrongly associated with what precedes or succeeds. As is obvious from the layout, the multiple rhyming units form the constructive device of the poem. [5]

The layout is isosyllabic; in other words, it uses the same number of syllables for each hemistich.[6] Structuring the poem according to its rhyme scheme highlights the correlation between meaning and rhyme, showing the reinforcing convergence of sound and sense. Indeed, the sounds shape the meaning of the poem.[7]

The various uses of parallelism characterize the poetic dexterity of Unetaneh Tokef and its uncanny capacity to jolt. Sometimes it deploys parallelism for emphasis and explication; other times for yoking together disparate elements. Similar is the contrasting use of the conjunctive vav, usually meaning “and,” joining together strophes, but sometimes used to mean “but,” unyoking the parallelism.[8]

The frustration of anticipation necessitates a rereading that has to reconstruct the contrast between the ephemeral nature of humanity and the eternal nature of divinity. This style of writing involves a process of defamiliarization, forcing the reader to slow down and reread in order to figure out the flow of the strophe (“poetic line”). The result is a guarded recitation never knowing what to expect. In trepidation, we gingerly advance from strophe to strophe.

Its Introduction into Ashkenazi Liturgy

Unetaneh Tokef serves as a Silluq “Ascent,” a poem that introduces the Kedushah “Holiness” blessing. The Silluq gains its meaning from our ascension to the place of God and the angels in this prayer. Given that Unetaneh Tokef has ostensibly nothing to do with Kedushah,[9] its placement here may be due to the likely apocryphal story of martyrdom of an alleged R. Amnon of Mainz.

The Story of Rav Amnon

In his book, Or Zarua,[10] R. Yitzchak b. Moshe of Vienna (1189–1250) cites Sefer Zekhirah of R. Ephraim of Bonn, which chronicled the Second Crusade of 1146,[11] and tells how R. Amnon recited Unetaneh Tokef as he was dying.[12] Amnon is credited with instituting (תיקן, tiqein) not composing it. Since Amnon died in the name of Kedushat hashem (“the sanctification of the Name”), the Hebrew term for martyrdom, due to his refusal to apostatize by converting to Christianity, Unetaneh Tokef became associated with Kedushah[13] and his own martyrdom.[14] Indeed, it is said that he requested its recitation on Rosh Hashanah.

The Qolonymus Family

The opening strophe overlaps with the opening strophe of a piyyut by the late tenth century Italian R. Meshulam b. Qolonymus, which serves as a segue into the Kedushah of the Shacharit (morning) service of Yom Kippur:[15]

וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּֽקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם - Unetaneh Tokef kedushat hayom מִי יְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף תְּהִלָּתְךָ - Mi yetaneh Tokef tehilatekha

Now, let us proclaim the power of the holiness of the day

Who will proclaim the power of your praiseworthiness.

His son, R. Qolonymus b. Meshulam of Mainz, introduced the Erez-Yisrael piyyut Unetaneh Tokef into the ashkenazic liturgy in the next century.[16]

The Liturgical Framing

Unetaneh Tokef follows the standard opening to the Silluq of Kedushah:

וּבְכֵן וּלְךָ תַעֲלֶה קְדֻשָּׁה. כִּי אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ.
And then [uvkhein] to You may our recitation of Kedushah ascend, for You our God are King.[17]

Why use this rare biblical term, found only in Esther 4:16 and Ecclesiastes 8:10, as opposed to the more common comparable liturgical terms עַל כֵּן and לְפִיכָךְ “therefore”? As already noted by R. Eleazar b. Yehudah of Worms (born in Mainz ca. 1160)[18]—who wrote his commentary around the time Unetaneh Tokef was making its way into the ashkenazic liturgy[19]—its insertion after this standard opening evokes Esther’s statement to Mordechai, when she agrees to risk her life to save her people:

אסתר ד:טז ...וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי.
Esth 4:16 And then (uvkhein) I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!

Esther’s entrance in trepidation into the quarters of the king of Persia sets the stage for our entrance in trepidation into the presence of the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed-be-He.[20]

The strophe after Unetaneh Tokef, which transitions to Kedushah, makes the connection between the themes of martyrdom and holiness explicit:

וְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ עַל מַקְדִּישֵׁי שְׁמֶךָ.
Sanctify Your name by virtue of those who sanctify Your name (=martyrs).[21]

In short, in the wake of the horrors of the Crusades, Unetaneh Tokef was made to introduce Kedushah thereby grafting the theme of martyrdom onto the consciousness of the supplicants while still promoting the poem’s core themes, the combination of human piety and divine mercy to temper, if not to abrogate, the evil decree.

God’s Kingship

Unetaneh Tokef introduces the three special Rosh Hashanah sections of the Musaf service:

Malkhuyot—the theme of God’s kingship, which derives from God’s creation of the world.[22]

Zikhronot— showing how judgments are made and destinies determined in the book of records that chronicles our lives noting that God, who created humanity, never forgets.[23]

Shofarot— mentioning the blast of the shofar, alludes to the Sinaitic revelation, but also implies repentance, the theme of the Adam story.[24]

Thus, Pesiqta deRav Kahana (circa 500) sees Rosh Hashanah as Adam’s birthday along with his day of judgment and pardon:

פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) כג ...בראש השנה נברא אדם הראשון. בשעה ראשונה עלה במחשבה... בשביעי' זרק בו נשמה, בשמינית הכניסו לגן עדן, בתשיעית ציוהו, בעשירית עבר על ציוהו, באחת עשרה נידון, בשתים עשרה יצא בדימוס מלפני הק[דוש] ב[רוך הוא].
Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana 23 …The first human was created on Rosh Hashanah. In the first hour it occurred [to God to create him] ... in the seventh [God] gave him a soul, in the eighth [God] brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth, [God] gave him a command; in the tenth, he transgressed the command given him; in the eleventh, he was brought to judgment; in the twelfth, he was pardoned by the Holy One.
א' לו הקדוש ברוך הוא, אדם, זה סימן לבניך כשם שנכנסתה לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויצאתה בדימוס, כך עתידין בניך להיות נכנסין לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויוצאין בדימוס. אימתי, בחדש השביעי באחד לחדש (ויקרא כג: כד).
The Holy One said to him: Let this be an omen for your descendants that as you entered this day for judgment and were pardoned so will your descendants come before me in judgment on this day and be pardoned. When will this be? “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month” (Leviticus 23:24).[25]

Pesiqta de Rav Kahana doesn’t spell out what it means that Adam was pardoned—he was after all banished from Eden. Pesiqta Rabbati (circa 800?), however, found a loophole to alleviate Adam’s punishment:

פסיקתא רבתי מ בזמן שחטא דנו בשתי המדות במדת הדין ובמדת רחמים במדת הדין שאמר לו ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות (בראשית ב:יז) וכיון שאכל גזר עליו מיתה
Pesiqta Rabbati §40 When [Adam] sinned, [God] judged him according to both the measure of justice and the measure of mercy. He judged him according to the measure of justice in saying to him “For in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Indeed, as soon as he ate, he decreed death for him.
ובמידת רחמים כיצד שיתף עם מדת הדין שלא פירש לו אם יום משלו ואם יום של הקדוש ברוך הוא שהוא אלף שנים כי אלף שנים בעיניך כיום אתמול וגו' (תהלים צ:ד)...
How did He judge him according to the measure of mercy? By coupling the quality of mercy and the quality of justice. For He did not tell Adam whether [the day of his death] was to be the day that mortals know or the day of the Holy One, blessed be He, the day which is a thousand years, as it is said “For a thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday (Psalm 90:4)…[26]

Stretching the human day to the thousand-year divine day commutes Adam’s sentence without waiving it. The crime remains on the books: it is not pardoned or expunged; there is only a reprieve entailing a stay in execution.[27] Still, as an auspicious day for reduced sentencing, the midrash goes on to explain, Rosh Hashanah was selected as the day of judgment for Adam’s descendants.[28]

Strophe by Strophe

Unetaneh Tokef intensifies the drama of judgment and the ambience of a trial by partially simulating the opening chapter of the Book of Job where the judgment scenes shift back and forth from heaven to earth. The shifting of scenes takes on a narrative quality. As one passes through the vertical vector of heaven and earth one advances on the horizontal vector of time from present to future.

The first scene contrasts the awesomeness of the day with the generosity of God, setting the tone for the whole poem:[29]

וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּֽקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם.
Now, let us proclaim the power of the holiness of the day, for it is awesome and frightful.[30]
וּבוֹ תִּנַּשֵּׂא מַלְכוּתֶֽךָ וְיִכּוֹן בְּחֶֽסֶד כִּסְאֶֽךָ וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת.
On it Your kingship is exalted,[31] as Your throne is established by generosity[32] truly letting You reign from it.[33]

Divine Court

Shifting into trial mode, specifying how our deeds and intentions will be adduced in the divine court where God, who knows all, is judge, plaintiff, and witness:

אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוֹכִֽיחַ וְיוֹדֵֽעַ וָעֵד, וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם (וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה).
Truly, You are He who is judge, plaintiff, knower (of all), and witness.[34] You record and seal (count and number).[35]
וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל־הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת וְתִפְתַּח אֶת־סֵֽפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת ומֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא וְחוֹתַם יַד כָּל־אָדָם בּוֹ.
You adduce all that has been forgotten[36] by opening the book of records where each entry speaks for itself having its owner’s signature.[37]

God recalls what we prefer to suppress adducing the book of records wherein we have signed off on our every deed.[38]

The Shofar of Isaiah or Amos?

וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
And the great shofar is sounded[39] but a muted murmuring sound is heard.[40]

Some understand this as a reference to the eschatological shofar of Isaiah in messianic times:

ישעיה כז:יג וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִתָּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר וְהַנִּדָּחִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַי־הוָה בְּהַר הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּירוּשָׁלָ͏ִם.
Isa 27:13 And in that day, a great shofar shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship YHWH on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.[41]

Other commentators prefer the allusion to the shofar of Amos:

עמוס ג:ו אִם יִתָּקַע שׁוֹפָר בְּעִיר וְעָם לֹא יֶחֱרָדוּ אִם תִּהְיֶה רָעָה בְּעִיר וַי־הוָה לֹא עָשָׂה.
Amos 3:6 When a shofar is sounded in a town, do the people not take alarm? Can misfortune come to a town if YHWH has not caused it?

This allusion takes on added meaning in the light of the midrash:

פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא כד ...אם יתקע שופר בעיר, בראש השנה, ועם לא יחרדו, אילו ישראל, אם תהיה רעה בעיר וי"י לא עשה, אין הקדוש ברוך הוא חפץ במיתתו של רשע, הד"ה דכת' אמור אליהם חי אני נאם י"י אלהים אם אחפוץ במות הרשע וגומ' (יחזקאל לג:יא). עמא מה אנא מינכון בעי, אלא שובו שובו מדרכיכם הרעים ולמה תמותו בית ישראל (שם).
Pesiqta deRav Kahana §24 … “When a shofar is sounded in a town” on Rosh Hashanah, “do the people not take alarm?” this refers to Israel. “Can misfortune come to a town if YHWH has not caused it?” The Holy One does not desire the death of the wicked, this is what is written (Ezek 33:11): “Say to them: As I live—declares the Lord YHWH—it is not My desire that the wicked shall die, etc.” People, what do I want from you? Only (ibid) “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, that you may not die, O House of Israel!”[42]

The Shofar Sounds the Muted Voice

What gets heard is not the shofar but “a muted murmuring voice.”

וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
And the great shofar is sounded but a muted murmuring sound is heard.

This alludes to when Elijah encounters YHWH at Mount Horeb:

מלכים א יט:יא ...וְהִנֵּה יְ־הוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לֹא בָרוּחַ יְ־הוָה וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְ־הוָה. יט:יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְ־הוָה וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה.
1 Kgs 19:11 …And lo, YHWH passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of YHWH; but YHWH was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but YHWH was not in the earthquake. 19:12 After the earthquake—fire; but YHWH was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound.
יט:יג וַיְהִי כִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלִיָּהוּ וַיָּלֶט פָּנָיו בְּאַדַּרְתּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הַמְּעָרָה וְהִנֵּה אֵלָיו קוֹל וַיֹּאמֶר מַה לְּךָ פֹה אֵלִיָּהוּ.
19:13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: “Why are you here, Elijah?”[43]

The parallelism of the strophes in length and rhythm creates the illusion of equivalence only to be undermined by the paradox of the great sounding of a muted voice. The last words of the two strophes (yitaqaʿ/yishamaʿ) overlap phonologically and morphologically, but not semantically—the first refers to the sound being made the second to it being heard. The sounding of the great shofar is thus contrasted with the hearing of the soft sound by linking the two acoustically through an assonant rhyme.

The allusion to the small voice that Elijah heard and to the shofar conjures up a verse that combines the two, from the account of the revelation at Sinai in Exodus:

שמות יט:יט וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשּׁוֹפָר הוֹלֵךְ וְחָזֵק מְאֹד מֹשֶׁה יְדַבֵּר וְהָאֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל.
Exodus 19:19 The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God would respond to him in a voice.[44]

There it also says (v. 16): וַיֶּחֱרַד כָּל הָעָם “And the entire people shuddered.” Reading the Sinai account through that of Elijah communicates that when the great shofar is sounded, attune your ear to hear the hushed voice of God.

In fact, the Talmud (b. Berakhot 58a) cites the very verses from 1 Kings 19:11-13 to show that the norms of earthly majesty follow those of heavenly majesty.

In other words, the king’s entrance is not accompanied by a great hullabaloo but by the hushed sound of “a muted murmuring voice.”

Job’s Quiet Voice

Another intertext for the quiet voice comes from the first speech of Eliphaz in the book of Job:

איוב ד:טו וְרוּחַ עַל פָּנַי יַחֲלֹף תְּסַמֵּר שַׂעֲרַת בְּשָׂרִי. ד:טז יַעֲמֹד וְלֹא אַכִּיר מַרְאֵהוּ תְּמוּנָה לְנֶגֶד עֵינָי דְּמָמָה וָקוֹל אֶשְׁמָע.
Job 4:15 A wind passed by me, making the hair of my flesh bristle. 4:16 It halted; its appearance was strange to me; a form loomed before my eyes; I heard a murmur, a voice.[45]

The imagery of this revelation is especially apt, since the voice Eliphaz hears speaks about the correctness of divine judgment:

איוב ד:יז הַאֱנוֹשׁ מֵאֱלוֹהַ יִצְדָּק אִם מֵעֹשֵׂהוּ יִטְהַר גָּבֶר. ד:יח הֵן בַּעֲבָדָיו לֹא יַאֲמִין וּבְמַלְאָכָיו יָשִׂים תָּהֳלָה. יט אַף שֹׁכְנֵי בָתֵּי חֹמֶר אֲשֶׁר בֶּעָפָר יְסוֹדָם...
Job 4:17 Can mortals be acquitted by God? Can man be cleared by his Maker? 4:18 If He cannot trust His own servants, and casts reproach on His angels, 4:19 How much less those who dwell in houses of clay, whose origin is dust…[46]

Playing on the Elijah scene and the Job text, Unetaneh Tokef exemplifies the type of liturgical midrash of compounding meanings through multiple allusions to biblical and rabbinic sources to maximize connectivity.[47] The merging of biblical texts for liturgical meaning lies also behind the understanding of the judgment of the angels at the end of this scene.

Terrified Angels

Instead of contrasting heaven and earth, the poem follows the model of Kedushah with the earthly realm taking its cue from the heavenly one. The dread and awe of the day is now heightened by projecting the trial on high. Even the angels are terrified at the upcoming judgment:

וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
The angels panic in trepidation and trembling seizing them.[48]

Angels standing in judgment before God on the first day of the year is found in the Targum to Job, in the scene in which God first brings up Job’s righteousness:

תרגום איוב א:ו וַהֲוָה בְיוֹמָא דְדִינָא בְּרֵישׁ שַׁתָּא וַאֲתוֹ כִתֵּי מַלְאָכַיָא לְמֵקוּם בְּדִינָא קֳדָם יְיָ...
Targum Job 1:6 And it was on the Day of Judgment, on Rosh Hashanah, the groups of angels came to stand in judgment before God….[49]

The expression itself, “even the hosts of heaven are arraigned in judgment,” follows the language of Isaiah which, as here, goes on to locate the judgment in heaven.

ישעיה כד:כא וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִפְקֹד יְ־הוָה עַל צְבָא הַמָּרוֹם בַּמָּרוֹם וְעַל מַלְכֵי הָאֲדָמָה עַל הָאֲדָמָה.
Isa 24:21 In that day, YHWH will punish the host of heaven in heaven and the kings of the earth on earth.

The allusions to Isaiah, here and to the great shofar of 27:13, are to verses that begin with “in that day.” In both cases, the temporal focus moves from the eschaton to the day of judgment, but instead of the ultimate judgment, as per Isaiah, the poem makes it the imminent one: “on that day” is every year on Rosh Hashanah.

Expressions of Terror

The four expressions of the angels’ terror derive from the reactions of the kings in Psalm 48:

תהלים מח:ו הֵמָּה רָאוּ כֵּן תָּמָהוּ נִבְהֲלוּ נֶחְפָּזוּ. מח:ז רְעָדָה אֲחָזָתַם שָׁם חִיל כַּיּוֹלֵדָה.
Ps 48:6 At the mere sight of it they were stunned, they were terrified, they panicked; 48:7 they were seized there with a trembling, like a woman in the throes of labor.

The rhyming verbs, yeiḥafeizun and yoḥeizun, each appear this way but once in the Bible. The first appears in Psalm 104:7 where the waters of the flood panic at God’s thunderous voice. The other appears in Isaiah 13:8 where on the Day of the LORD people are seized by pangs and throes.

While they overlap phonologically—both have the final nun syllable—they differ syntactically: In yeiḥafeizun, the nun simply elongates the verb, whereas with yoḥeizun, the nun expresses the verb’s object (trepidation and trembling seizing them).[50] The n-sound also ends the three strophes of the final line, as all end on the same word din, underscoring the gravity of the judgment.

Even Angels Are Not Trusted

The verse in Isaiah provides no explanation for the why the angels are being judged, but in good midrashic fashion, the next strophe provides an explanation:

וְיֹאמְרוּ: הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין. לִפְקֹד עַל צְבָא מָרוֹם בַּדִּין כִּי לֹא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶֽיךָ בַּדִּין.
As they declare: “Behold, the day of judgment.” to arraign the hosts on high in judgment,[51] for in Your eyes they will not be acquitted in judgment.[52]

This is based on a scene in Job, which states:

איוב טו:טו הֵן (בקדשו) [בִּקְדֹשָׁיו] לֹא יַאֲמִין וְשָׁמַיִם לֹא זַכּוּ בְעֵינָיו. טו:טז אַף כִּי נִתְעָב וְנֶאֱלָח אִישׁ שֹׁתֶה כַמַּיִם עַוְלָה.
Job 15:15 He puts no trust in His holy ones; the heavens are not free of guilt in His sight. 15:16 What must he think of foul and disgusting man, who guzzles sin like water?[53]

The verses use the angels to present an a fortiori application to the human situation.

Humanity Passes for Review

The next scene shifts back to earth where all humanity passes in review before God:

וְכָל־בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַברוּן לְפָנֶֽיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן.
And all who have come into the world will pass before You as the angelic hosts (or: “as a flock of sheep.”)

Benei maron can either mean angels or sheep (m. Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The first is based on the Hebrew marom “high” assuming the common switch between the Hebrew nasal letters nun and mem, and connects to the previous lines of the poem that deal with the judgment of angels. The second is based on the Aramaic for sheep (b. Rosh Hashanah 18a), and connects to the next image of the poem, God as a shepherd.[54] Perhaps it is a nod to both.

God as a Shepherd

The next line presents God as a shepherd looking over the flock. In the heavenly scene from the earlier stanza, God as judge does not spare even the angels. In this earthly scene, God counts and recounts as a shepherd who makes sure that all his flock is present and accounted for. As no sheep goes uncounted, so no person goes unaccounted for:

כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּֽחַת שִׁבְטוֹ, כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶֽפֶשׁ כָּל־חָי, וְתַחְתֹּךְ קִצְבָּה לְכָל־בְּרִיָּה וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת־גְּזַר דִּינָם.
Like a shepherd who checks his flock[55] making each of his sheep pass under his staff,[56] so You will have pass as you count, number, and arraign each living being,[57] and determine each person’s sentence, and record their verdict.

The transition to the human realm takes place through the word כֵּן “so.” There follow six second-person verbs in the future tense creating a pounding alliteration of ta[avir], veti[spor], veti[mneh], veti[fqod] followed by vetaḥ[tokh] and vetikh[tov]. The last three are each followed by four words for perfect symmetry. The sheep and human experience are connected by the verb “pass,” while the fourth verb “arraign”[58] points back to its use regarding the hosts of heaven. As God’s flock, all humanity will be sentenced.[59]

The passage ends with every person’s verdict determined and recorded. The association of “recorded” with “sealed” in the earlier strophe about God’s record book creates the impression of finality, following the position in rabbinic literature that national and individual destinies are judged and sealed on Rosh Hashanah (j. Rosh Hashanah 1:3, 57a).[60]

Introducing Yom Kippur

Precisely when it seems that it is all over, the next strophe startlingly proclaims that the verdict is only recorded on Rosh Hashanah, but not signed and sealed until Yom Kippur:

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן.
On Rosh Hashanah it is recorded but on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed.[61]

Indeed, while Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), the גְזַר דִּין “verdict” happens on Yom Kippur. What was perceived in the previous line as the ultimate stage now becomes the penultimate. What a relief! There is still time to make amends.[62]


The drama moves into high gear, shifting from verdict to implementation. The opening line links up with the rhyme scheme of the previous strophe (-oon).

כַּמָּֽה יַעֲבֹרוּן וְכַמָּֽה יִבָּרֵאוּן.
How many shall pass on,[63] and how many shall come into being?[64]

The two verb oon ending come from Psalm 104:

תהלים קד:ט גְּבוּל שַׂמְתָּ בַּל יַעֲבֹרוּן בַּל יְשׁוּבוּן לְכַסּוֹת הָאָרֶץ.
Ps 104:9 You set bounds they must not pass so that they never again cover the earth.
תהלים קד:ל תְּשַׁלַּח רוּחֲךָ יִבָּרֵאוּן וּתְחַדֵּשׁ פְּנֵי אֲדָמָה.
Ps 104:30 Send back Your breath, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth.

In Psalm 104 they appear in separate verses, here they are linked antonymically.

The next twelve couplets, all beginning with “Who shall… and who shall.”[65] The first two deal with life, death, and untimely death:

מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת,
Who shall live and who shall die?[66]
מִי בְקִצּוֹ וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּוֹ:
Who shall reach his end and who shall not?

This is followed by five couplets exemplifying untimely deaths:

מִי בָאֵשׁ וּמִי בַמַּֽיִם,
Who by fire and who by flood?[67]
מִי בַחֶֽרֶב וּמִי בַחַיָּה,
Who by war and who by beast?[68]
מִי בָרָעָב וּמִי בַצָּמָא,
Who by starvation and who by dehydration?[69]
מִי בָרַֽעַשׁ וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה,
Who by shattering events[70] and who by plague?
מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה,
Who by choking and who by pelting?

Then another five, also structured antonymically, reflect on the quality of life, pointedly shifting from the positive to the negative.[71] They take up our physical, mental, psychological, material, and social situation by spelling out the vagaries of human stability, serenity, suffering, salary, and status:

מִי יָנֽוּחַ וּמִי יָנֽוּעַ,
Who shall be at rest and who restless?
מִי יַשְׁקִיט וּמִי יְטֹרַף,
Who shall be tranquil and who tormented?
מִי יִשָּׁלֵו וּמִי יִתְיַסֵּר,
Who shall be at ease and who at dis-ease?
מִי יַעֲשִׁיר וּמִי יַעֲנִי,
Who shall wax rich and who shall wane poor?
מִי יָרוּם וּמִי יֻשְׁפַּל.
Who shall have an upturn and who a downturn?

They are connected by final rhyme, beginning rhyme, or the consonance of letters. All are asyndetic, i.e., the couplets are not connected to each other by conjunctions. The omission of the expected conjunction between the couplets creates a staccato-like effect to shake us up with what is at stake. Coming in clipped phrases of four words divided into couplets, they sound out the fragility of life and its unforeseen twists. They are a verbal demonstration of how even the spared can be rocked by downturns exposing the vulnerability and frailty of the human condition.

The Three Necessary Behaviors

The poem then turns to explain why it is we are now granted an extension from the recording of Rosh Hashanah to the sealing of Yom Kippur, informing us that not only is everything not foreordained, but we have a hand in the outcome.:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת־רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
But repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedaqah) make the severity of the decree pass.

The list of necessary acts, uteshuvah, utefillah, utzedaqah, is a catchy, alliterative, rhyming, four-syllabic triad.[72] The signature line of the Unetaneh Tokef represents a revision of several rabbinic antecedents. For example, the Jerusalem Talmud offers a close parallel:

ירושלמי תענית ב:א (סה:) א"ר לעזר שלשה דברים מבטלין את הגזירה קשה ואלו הן תפלה וצדקה ותשובה
j. Taanit 2:1 (65b) Rabbi Lazer said: “Three things abrogate the harsh decree: prayer, charity, and repentance.”[73]

Similar is the version in the Babylonian Talmud:

בבלי ראש השנה טז: [ביהמ"ל 1608] אמ[ר] ר' יצחק: "ארבעה דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, ואילו הן: צדקה, צעקה, ושינוי השם, ושינוי מעשה."
b. Rosh Hashanah 16b R. Isaac said: "Four things tear up a person’s decree: charity, crying out, change of name, and change of deed."[74]

Other later midrashim[75] also include changing of name, deed, and place, probably indicating the adoption of a new persona, the embracing of a corrective lifestyle, and a change of venue. But unlike its sources, Unetaneh Tokef prioritizes repentance.

The superscripts, found in many a Mahzor, specify the three by terms for “fasting,” “voice,” and “money,” point to the Minchah haftarah of Yom Kippur where the Book of Jonah (3:5–8) records that Nineveh first fasted, then voiced their appeal to God, and finally restored ill-gotten goods. The prioritizing of Teshuvah also paves the way to the rest of Unetaneh Tokef, as there is no further mention of tefillah and tzedaqah.[76]

Making the Severity of the Decree Pass

The poem uses the verb “to make pass” instead of “abrogate” or “tear up,” and it adds the word roʿa “harshness” to “the decree.”[77] The unique verb choice in the poem weakens the force of the claim. The decree is mitigated not abrogated. The allied expression, ma‘avir rishon rishon, found in the Talmud[78] and in the Maḥzor[79] also denotes mitigation;[80] the charges are not dropped, only reduced, as in the case of Adam in the Midrash.[81] Similarly, based on the expression in Micah 7:18 נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וְעֹבֵר עַל פֶּשַׁע (nosei avon ve-oveir al pesha) “forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression,” the Midrash argued that Cain’s punishment was reduced due to his repentance.[82]

The word maavirim, however, makes the word “decree” problematic since decrees, as mentioned in the Avinu Malkeinu,[83] are torn up or abrogated, not made to pass or mitigated. This is solved by the addition of roa, since the harshness or the misfortune that results from a decree can be mitigated, either by leading to a reconsideration of the original judgment of Rosh Hashanah, or by providing the resilience to withstand the ups and downs of life.[84]

To mitigate the decree, Unetaneh Tokef suggests three human initiatives.[85] Teshuvah is inner-directed (the mind), tefillah is God-directed (the tongue), and tzedaqah is other-directed (the hand), advancing from thought to word to deed. Putting ourselves in order involves repairing our relationship with God and improving our relationship with others. Generosity to others makes us worthy of generosity from God. All three together can cushion and/or mitigate life’s tragedies.

God’s Merciful Nature

God’s receptivity to our teshuvah is then explained by noting that God’s nature is to be merciful:

כִּי כְשִׁמְךָ כֵּן תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ: קָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וְנֽוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת.
For as Your (four-lettered) name (is one of mercy), so is Your reputation:[86] hard to anger and easy to appease,[87]

Unetaneh Tokef is using phrases from Psalms:

תהלים מח:י דִּמִּינוּ אֱלֹהִים חַסְדֶּךָ בְּקֶרֶב הֵיכָלֶךָ. מח:יא כְּשִׁמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כֵּן תְּהִלָּתְךָ עַל קַצְוֵי אֶרֶץ צֶדֶק מָלְאָה יְמִינֶךָ.
Ps 48:10 In Your temple, God, we meditate upon Your faithful care. 48:11 Like Your name, God, the praise of You reaches to the ends of the earth; Your right hand is filled with beneficence.

The poem plays with this phrase by cutting out the name Elohim and ending with “the praise of you,” reinterpreting it to mean that God’s name, that is identified with mercy, is His praise. This is a reference to the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the name the rabbis associate with מידת הרחמים, the attribute of mercy. The phrase is parsed immediately by a reference to m. Avot 5:11: קָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וְנוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת, “hard to anger and easy to appease,”[88] except there it refers to a חָסִיד, pious person, and here it refers to God whose kingship is established on חֶֽסֶד.

Repentance over Punishment

The poem continues:

כִּי לֹא תַחְפֹּץ בְּמוֹת הַמֵּת כִּי אִם בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדַּרְכּוֹ וְחָיָה.
For You desire not the sinner’s death, but that in turning from his path he might live.[89]

Unetaneh Tokef is prodding God to live up to His claim by reformulating in the second person God’s first-person statement in Ezekiel:

יחזקאל יח:כג הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה.
Ezek 18:23 “Is it my desire that the wicked shall die?”—says the Lord YHWH. “It is rather that he turn from his ways and live.”[90]

The line also answers “who shall live and who shall die?” Those who repent shall live. The wicked are not mentioned since the ten days of repentance are not for the presumed wicked or the presumed righteous but for those middling in between, namely, everybody.[91]

Death, Not Yom Kippur, Is the Last Chance

וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ תְּחַכֶּה־לּוֹ, אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ.
Indeed, to his dying day You await him, were he to return You would welcome him at once.

Since mercy, as it were, is God’s middle name,[92] the gates of repentance never close.[93] This divine perspective on teshuvah paradoxically undermines the very idea of a verdict’s irrevocability. The point is powerfully expressed in a rhyming couplet reverting to the life and death option that initiated the twelve doublets. Suddenly, we discover that even Yom Kippur is not the final chance, for the final deadline is the day we die.

No longer in the dock at our annual assessment, anxious about the upcoming year, we find ourselves projected forward to the ultimate Day of Judgment. As Unetaneh Tokef had used the day of judgment on high to adumbrate the one below, so here it anticipates the final judgment, assuming that the annual day of judgment prefigures the final one.

It is precisely the folding of the one into the other that had allowed the poet to apply images from “on that day” to this day of judgment. The final day of judgment casts its shadow back on the annual day of judgment and vice-versa. In both, teshuvah makes the difference.

Our Creator Understands Us

Knowing our shortcoming, God is forgiving till the very end.[94]

אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא יוֹצְרָם וְיוֹדֵֽעַ יִצְרָם כִּי הֵם בָּשָׂר וָדָם.
Truly, You are their Maker and know of what they are made,[95] that they are (but) flesh and blood.[96]

The poem here reproduces the construction of an earlier strophe אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן “Truly, You are He who is judge.” The lexical, semantic, phonological, and grammatical equivalence between the lines[97] merge the two salient images of God on Rosh Hashanah – judge and creator.[98] Together they appeal to God the judge to take into consideration the frailties of the accused in which God their creator had a hand. The goal is to enhance God’s forbearance by having God adjust His expectations. As master of all, nothing impedes God’s forgiveness.

That God is merciful because he understands the nature of humanity appears in the Psalms:

תהלים קג:יג כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם יְ־הוָה עַל יְרֵאָיו. קג:יד כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנוּ.
Ps 103:13 As a father has compassion for his children, so YHWH has compassion for those who in awe of Him. 103:14 For He knows how we are made, mindful that we are dust.

Yetzer refers to God’s understanding of our yetzer (= yetzer hara, “evil inclination,” as in Genesis 8:21), while the assonant verb yatzar “created,” refers to God having created (yatzar) humanity from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). The poet uses rhyme to integrate the three strophes into a single thesis: God is their creator (yotzram) thus he knows their (evil) inclination (yitzram) that they are but flesh and blood (basar ve-dam). If anybody should be sympathetic to the machinations of human creatureliness, surely it is their Creator.

While Psalm 103 (above) is not about teshuvah but simple mercy of a father to his children, this is not enough for Unetaneh Tokef. Teshuvah tilts the scales. We dare not procrastinate. When Rabbi Eliezer (m. Avot 2.10) urged his students to repent one day before their death, they asked how does one know when they will die? Precisely. Repent every day; tomorrow may be too late.[99]

Humans Are but Dust

The penultimate section focuses on our dusty origins and destination underscoring the precariousness of eking out a living :

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לְעָפָר. בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ.
One’s origin—from dust; one’s end—to dust.[100] At the risk of one’s life one earns one’s bread.[101]

The next lines visualize and vocalize images of human brittleness, following the structure of Psalm 103 (referenced above) in highlighting God’s compassion, human fragility, and God’s eternal kingship over all. Indeed, it builds the very next verses of that Psalm:

תהלים קג:טו אֱנוֹשׁ כֶּחָצִיר יָמָיו כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה כֵּן יָצִיץ. קג:טז כִּי רוּחַ עָבְרָה בּוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ...
Ps 103:15 Man, his days are like those of grass; he blooms like a flower of the field; 103:16 wind passes by and is no more ...

Unetaneh Tokef develops the images from this psalm and other biblical passages (see below), including a total of eight similes of evanescence and/or irreversibility,[102] beginning with two alliterative units:

מָשׁוּל כַּחֶֽרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
(In Scripture, life) is said to be like a shard—shattered;[103]
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ
Like grass—withering;[104]
וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
Like a flower—wilting;[105]
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר
Like a shadow – passing;[106]
וּכְעָנָן כָּלֶה
Like a cloud—fading;[107]
וּכְרֽוּחַ נוֹשָֽׁבֶת
Like a breeze—fleeting;[108]
וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵֽחַ
Like dust—flittering;[109]
וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף.
Like a dream—flying off.[110]

The various forms of alliteration link the sounds together forging a verbal chain on human fragility.

Proclaiming Divine Eternity

Psalm 103, which speaks about YHWH understanding human frailty, then turns to YHWH’s power and kingship:

קג:יז וְחֶסֶד יְ־הוָה מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם... קג:יט יְ־הוָה בַּשָּׁמַיִם הֵכִין כִּסְאוֹ וּמַלְכוּתוֹ בַּכֹּל מָשָׁלָה.
103:17 But YHWH’s generosity is for all eternity... 103:19 YHWH has established His throne in heaven, and His kingship extends over all.

Similarly, Isaiah 40, which also includes the image of man is grass, contrasts human ephemerality with God’s eternality:

ישעיה מ:ז יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ כִּי רוּחַ יְ־הוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ אָכֵן חָצִיר הָעָם. מ:ח יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ וּדְבַר אֱלֹהֵינוּ יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.
Isa 40:7 Grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of YHWH blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass: 40:8 Grass withers, flowers fade— But the word of our God is always

Unetaneh Tokef concludes noting that humans are here today and gone tomorrow, whereas God’s sovereignty lasts forever:

וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶֽלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם.
But You are king everlasting God.

The Case for God’s Mercy

The case for God’s mercy is made obliquely. By underscoring the gap between the human and the divine, Unetaneh Tokef intimates that God should consider our shortcomings in judging us,[111] shifting the focus from the wicked to everyman. Throwing of divine compassion into relief brings us full circle to the opening lines regarding securing God’s throne through generosity.[112]


September 24, 2023


Last Updated

November 29, 2023


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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.