Unetanneh Tokef

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ונתנה תוקף

This medieval prayer is attributed to Rabbi Amon of Mainz. It is associated with Rosh Hashanah as it introuduces  the Kedusha of Musaf on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The story behind its composition and the reason why we now sing this prayer is quite dramatic.

“The great shofar is sounded… A still small voice is heard…
Even the angels are frightened… the Day of Judgment is here…
Who shall live? And who shall die?
Who shall find rest? And who shall be restless?
Who shall be raised up? And who shall be humbled?
Who shall be rich? And who shall be poor?
But – Atonement, Prayer and Good Deeds deflect the harsh decree!
As for Man, he comes from dust
And to dust he shall return…”

Man is like…
Grass that withers… A flower that fades… A shadow that passes…”

You can hear a variety of versions of this beautiful and moving piyyut by clicking here. Even Leonard Cohen wrote his own version, better-known as Who by Fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling ?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling ?
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 ?

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4 thoughts on “Unetanneh Tokef

  1. Ilana-Davita,

    I am finding a lot of good blogs…so many blogs, so little time…

    Unetaneh Tokef is the one prayer that sums up the High Holidays for me. It makes me think of the Baron Hirsch choir (both the versions from the past and the present) performing it, along with the cantors from the past (Rabbi Skopp) and present (Ricky Kampf). And I remember reading the story of the prayer in religious school years ago.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading you in the future. G’mar Chatima Tova.

    Sheldon Dan
    Memphis, TN

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