Unesaneh Tokef Prayer

Unesaneh Tokef is one of the most stirring compositions in the entire liturgy of the Days of Awe. It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany about 1000 years ago. Here is the prayer itself and the powerful story behind the prayer.

3 min

Breslev Israel staff

Posted on 04.09.23

Unesaneh Tokef . . .

This prayer is one of the most stirring compositions in the entire liturgy of the Days of Awe. It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany about 1000 years ago. Here is the story behind this prayer:
The bishop of Mainz insisted that his friend and advisor, R’ Amnon, convert to Christianity. In order to buy time, R’ Amnon asked for three days of grace to meditate upon the question. Upon returning home, he was distraught at having given the impression that he even considered betraying his God.
R’ Amnon spent the three days in solitude, fasting, and praying to be forgiven for his sin. He did not return to the bishop. Finally, the bishop had him brought and demanded an answer. R’ Amnon replied that his tongue should be cut out for the sin of saying that he would consider the matter. Furious, the bishop said that the sin was not in what he said, but in his legs for not coming as he had promised. The bishop ordered that R’ Amnon’s feet be chopped off, joint by joint. They did the same to his hands. After each amputation, R’ Amnon was asked if he would convert, and each time he refused. Then the bishop ordered that he be carried home, a maimed and mutilated cripple, together with the amputated parts.
When Rosh Hashanah arrived a few days later, R’ Amnon asked to be carried to the Ark. Before the congregation recited Kedushah, he asked to be allowed to sanctify God’s Name in the synagogue as he had in the bishop’s palace. He recited Unesaneh Tokef, and then died.
Three days later, R’ Amnon appeared in a dream to R’ Klonimos ben Meshullam, a great Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar of Mainz, and taught him the text of Unesaneh Tokef, and asked him to send it to all parts of Jewry to be inserted into their liturgy. R’ Amnon’s wish was carried out, and the prayer became an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening.  On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth.  It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles – it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it.  The great Shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard.  Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!” – for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.
All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock.  Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdicts.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, who by stoning.  Who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree!
Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for Your do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from is way and live.  Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.
It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.  A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread, he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.
But You are the King, the living and enduring God!
From the ArtScroll machzor for Rosh Hashanah

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