U’Netaneh Tokef: Repentance, Prayer and Charity Cancel the Decree?
One of the most famous prayers on the High Holidays is U’Netaneh Tokef, “Let us Ascribe Power.” The history of this prayer and its authorship are quite complicated. It appears that the version of U’Netaneh Tokef that we have derived originally from Palestine, and was written by (or influenced by) either Yannai or Yossi ben Yossi, but this is not certain. Moreover, the piyyut may well have been revised, edited, or changed over time until it entered Ashkenazic High Holiday liturgy in the form that we have it.
The piyyut is recited as part of the Chazan’s repetition of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. It has become famous because of its dramatic – in fact, melodramatic – lines:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן
וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
and on Yom Kippur it is sealed –
כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת.
מִי בְקִצּוֹ וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּוֹ
Who will live and who will die;
Who (will die) at the end of his days,
and who (before) the end of his days;
מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ
מִי בַחֶרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה
מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא
מִי בָרַעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה
מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה...
Who by fire and who by water;
Who by sword and who by beast;
Who by hunger and who by thirst;
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning…
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
But repentance, prayer and charity cancel the harsh decree.
For many generations, there have been commentators – including Ramban (12th c.) and R. Yitzchak Arama (15th c.), among many others – that have taken issue with the theology of the prayer. Many worshipers, too, have had trouble believing its main thrust. After all, don’t we all know pious people who involve themselves passionately with repentance, prayer, and charity, and yet who nevertheless have died young, or who have died violently?
This prayer promises exactly the opposite! It is hardest on people who have lost loved ones soon after Rosh HaShanah because, in the wake of experiencing this central prayer, they are challenged to believe that their loved one was sentenced to die as heavenly punishment.
Averting the Harshness of the Decree vs. Cancelling the Harsh Decree
One of the ways that some modern machzorim have dealt with the issue is to “translate” the problem away, whether or not they are doing so consciously. For example, the ArtScroll Machzor (1985) translates the climactic line of the prayer as “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.” Similarly, the Koren Machzor (2011), translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, renders “But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree.” There is a subtle, but crucial interpretation in these translations. Instead of the three pious actions – repentance, prayer, and charity – actually canceling the harsh decree itself, they cancel the harshness of the decree.
Some translations take this point even further by translating the term מעבירין not as “cancel” but as something like “mitigate.” For example, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Tov translates “…have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” Similarly, Reuven Kimelman, in his article on U’netaneh Tokef, suggests, “let the harshness/hardship of the decree pass.”
The claim of these translations is that the prayer is not saying that repentance and other measures convince God to cancel a harsh decree of a painful death, but rather that these three pious actions simply mitigate the harshness of a painful death on the worshiper. In other words, the pious acts won’t actually cancel the terminality of a disease, but rather they will make it possible for the stricken person to cope more easily with the agony and discomfort of the disease. Such a message accords more closely with the life experience of many people and is therefore, more believable, and less discomfiting.
But are these translations accurate? Is this actually what the prayer is saying? I don’t think so. Translating is not the same as offering an interpretation in a commentary. While all translation involves some interpretation, a reader should be able to trust that the meaning of the original language is not being translated through a filter with an agenda. A translation should preserve difficulties in the text, including those that challenge contemporary attitudes. A commentary is the place to express problems the commentator may have with the text.
The message of the above translations, that God will soften the blow without changing the reality, seems filtered through a modern approach to life that we rarely find in pre-modern teachings. This conclusion will be supported by comparing the wording of our prayer to its sources in rabbinic literature, as well as to the wording of other High Holiday prayers. I believe we’ll find that the prayer actually is saying that these three pious actions will, indeed, cancel the decree (of death) itself, and not merely mitigate the harshness of the decree.
Mistranslating Two Key Terms
Those translations that interpret the more easily believable position – that pious actions simply help us deal with harsh punishments – rely on unsustainable renderings of two key terms at the end of the sentence, מעבירין (ma’avirin) and רוע הגזרה (ro’a hagezeirah).
The ArtScroll and Koren machzorim, along with some others, understand the word ma’avirin, literally “cause to pass away,” as “soften, or mitigate”, as oppose to actually “cancel.” They further understand רוע הגזרה as “the evil of the decree.” On the basis of modern Hebrew, these renderings may seem quite accurate. However, our prayer was written in early medieval Hebrew, close to ancient, Rabbinic Hebrew, and it is there that we must search for meaning.
Cancellation of Punishments: The Rabbinic Evidence
The teaching that pious actions cancel – not mitigate – God’s harsh punishments is found in several places in rabbinic literature. Some of these sources posit three actions, as in our prayer, and others four. But all make it clear that the pious actions are actually canceling something, not merely softening, easing, or mitigating something. Furthermore, they make clear that the pious actions cancel the harsh or evil decrees themselves, and not the harshness of these decrees.
According to the sources, pious acts:
- “Cancel (מבטלין) the harsh decree” (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 2:1, 65b).
- “Cancel evil decrees” (Genesis Rabba 44:12; Theodor-Albeck edition, 1:434).
- “Cancel a harsh decree” (Midrash Tanchuma, Noah 13, S. Buber edition, 19a).
- “Cancel evil decrees” (Ecclesiastes Rabba on Ecclesiastes 5:6).
- “Cancel evil and harsh decrees” (Midrash Zuta on Ecclesiastes, Buber ed., 5:6).
- “Tear up (מקרעין) one’s decree” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b).
Every one of these rabbinic sources that stand behind U’Netaneh Tokef support the difficult theology that the pious actions actually cancel, and do not merely mitigate, the harsh decree of punishment.
מעבירין - A literary Leitmotif
Why does our prayer use the term מעבירין, “cause to pass away,” as opposed to the two more unambiguous terms in the rabbinic sources, namely מקרעין , “tear up” or מבטלין , “cancel”? The answer, I believe, is that the root ע-ב-ר meaning “to pass” or “to cause to pass away” is a literary Leitmotif that recurs over and over again for poetic effect in our prayer, and so the poet used it here as well.
Moreover, in rabbinic literature, this term appears to mean “cancel,” among other things. For example, in m. Peah 4:3, the peah is “taken away” from the poor person. In m. Abot 3:5, the yoke of government and hard labor is “removed” from the Torah scholar. In m. Shabbat 21:3, crumbs are “removed” from the table. In m. Sotah 1:6, jewelry is “removed” from the woman. Although it is true that this term has other meanings in rabbinic literature, most commonly to physically pass something, as far as I can see it never has the meaning “soften” or “mitigate.”
In addition, a search of the ways in which מעבירין is used in the Babylonian Talmud (including the mishnayot) yields further evidence for my translation. Of the 40 instances – most of which are Amoraic usages – 28 instances clearly mean “remove” – physically or metaphorically, another 11 yield meanings very close to “remove,” and one seems to mean something else entirely (“apply”).
One of these examples parallels the language of the piyyut quite nicely: Eruvin 41b – “Three things deprive (i.e., remove; מעבירין) one of one’s senses and knowledge of one’s creator…”
Considering all this, translating “מעביר” as “remove” or “cancel” seems well supported and in line with rabbinic conceptions of how these things function. On the other hand, it does not seem warranted to argue, as some have, that the payyetan (poet) used מעבירין in order to disagree with the talmudic and midrashic sources on which he relied.
The Harsh Decree
Even accepting my argument, it would still be possible to translate the phrase like the Koren and ArtScroll translations, that “repentance, prayer, and charity cancel the harshness of the decree.” Thus, the crux of the issue surrounds the phrase רוע הגזרה. Why does the prayer use the term רוע הגזרה, which is grammatically ambiguous, as opposed to the terms in the rabbinic sources which, even in modern Hebrew, mean unambiguously “the harsh decree,” such as גזרה קשה, “difficult decree” or גזרות רעות, “evil decrees.” I believe the answer is quite simple: In medieval Hebrew, רוע הגזרה means exactly the same thing as גזרה קשה or גזרה רעה, namely, “harsh decree,” and not “the harshness of the decree.”
Avinu Malkeinu – A Prooftext
Support for this claim comes in Avinu Malkeinu, where the following phrase occurs: אבינו מלכינו, קרע רוע גזר דינינו, which translates as: “Our Father, Our King, tear up the evil decree against us” (Koren trans.) It seems more than likely that this is the correct translation, since the idea fits well with other lines in that same prayer, all of which reflect the rabbinic idea of cancelling the decree in its entirety.
For example, the line “erase in Your abundant mercy all records of our sins (מחוק ברחמיך הרבים כל שטרי חובותינו)” or “wipe away and remove our transgressions and sins from your sights (מחה והעבר פשעינו וחטאתינו מנגד עיניך).” The latter is particularly telling, since it uses the same verb (מעביר) as the U’Netaneh Tokef line. Finally, just based on the metaphor itself, it is easier to picture God tearing up a decree than tearing up “the harshness of a decree.”
The term רוע גזר דינינו, “the evil decree against us” parallels almost exactly the term רוע הגזרה in U’Netaneh Tokef. Nevertheless, when this term occurs in Avinu Malkeinu, ArtScroll and Koren (and virtually all other machzorim) translate it as something synonymous with “our harsh decree,” and not “the harshness of our decree”! And it is not surprising that they translate in this way because while there seem to be few examples of this expression in Rabbinic Literature, there are biblical precedents.
For example, the phrase רוע לב “impudence” in I Samuel 17:28; רוע מעלליכם “evil doings” in Isaiah 1:16; רוע פנים “sad face” in Ecclesiastes 7:3. In all of these examples, despite the grammatical form being a construct state (X of Y) the meaning is equivalent to a standard noun with adjective as modifier. “Evilness of heart” means “an evil heart (= impudence),” “evilness of doings” means “evil doings,” and “evilness of face” means “an evil (= sad) face.” It is likely that the construct continues to function the same way in later Hebrew.
But the reason for the near consensus in translating this expression in Avinu Malkeinu , I believe, is that this line in Avinu Malkeinu does not pose such a threat to modern sensibilities and so, it is translated accurately. I submit that it is this very threat to the faith of modern Jews in the use of the virtually identical phrase in U’Netaneh Tokef that motivates those same machzorim to veer from accuracy in their translation.
Taking Teshuva Seriously
So, if the central prayer of U’Netaneh Tokef is, indeed, saying that repentance, prayer and charity actually cancel the harsh decree, how do we pray a line that contradicts our daily reality? First of all, it is important to acknowledge that what the prayer says does not accord with what most of us experience in life. We all know too many people who have faithfully been committed to these pious actions and who, nevertheless, suffer painful deaths. But reading a prayer is not is not the same as davening a prayer. What strategy might allow us to say this prayer with kavvana (intention) but remain faithful to reality as we understand it?
I suggest that we take this prayer not as a statement of theological reality (even if the payyetan may have meant it as that), but rather as a dramatic goad to do teshuvah, repentance (and the payyetan certainly meant it as that as well). In other words, don’t take it literally, but do take it seriously. Whether or not pious acts prolong our lives, Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time for introspection and to resolve to act more piously. To paraphrase a rabbinic colleague, instead of focusing on adding more years to our life, let us focus on adding more life to our years!
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Dr. Rabbi Jeff Hoffman is Rabbi-in-Residence and Professor of Liturgy at The Academy for Jewish Religion. He holds a D.H.L in liturgy, rabbinic ordination, and an M.A. all from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Hoffman is the editor of Siddur Tisha B’Av for the Rabbinical Assembly. His article, “The Image of the Other in Jewish Interpretations of Alenu” will appear in the online journal Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations.
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