The Message and its Messenger
We have the opportunity to become the “authors” of the prayers we read and the Torah we study through internalizing their messages and personifying their ideals.
By Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander – September 4, 2018
With the long days of summer winding down, we can anticipate the swelling of our synagogue pews as the High Holiday melodies draw us in for our annual rendezvous with God. Assuming an almost mythical place in the holiday liturgy is the U’Netaneh Tokef, one of the most majestic prayers recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
As told by Rav Yitzchak of Vienna (1180 to 1250) in his famous work Ohr Zarua, the U’Netaneh Tokef was established by Rav Amnon of Mainz. Indeed, the story accompanying the prayer for the past 800 years tells us how, in his campaign to convert all the Jews, the Bishop of Mainz decided to start with his friend and advisor, Rav Amnon. Trapped in a predicament from which there was no escape, Rav Amnon asked for three days to meditate upon the request.
Rav Amnon was so distraught at having even given the impression that he would consider betraying God that he sequestered himself in his home for three days of intense fasting and prayer. The third day arrived and Rav Amnon did not return to the bishop. Not one to be ignored, the bishop had Rav Amnon arrested and brought to the court, where he was expected to accede to the bishop’s request. Steeling himself in preparation for the punishment he was sure to receive, Rav Amnon proposed that his tongue should be cut out for even suggesting the possibility that he could consider converting. Furious at this response, the bishop replied that it was not Rav Amnon’s tongue that must be punished, but rather his arms and legs which must be amputated, for it is their fault that Rav Amnon did not return as promised.
According to the story, Rav Amnon’s mutilated body was returned home a few days before Rosh Hashana; he requested to be brought to the synagogue and placed beside the hazan. As the congregation recited the kedusha prayer, Rav Amnon mustered his last ember of strength and uttered the sacred words of the U’netaneh Tokef – at which point he took his final breath and perished.
Especially fascinating is compelling research that indicates a different origin for the U’Netaneh Tokef payer. Although attributed to Rav Amnon for nearly a millennium, evidence suggests that the ancient words were most likely written by the great poet Yannai, who lived in Israel sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries.
Why would the U’Netaneh Tokef be proactively attributed to Rav Amnon of Mainz by people who had knowledge of the prayer’s actual author and origin?
Rather than crumble at the notion that this sacred prayer is built on a fiction, I offer for your consideration the following idea. There are occasions in our tradition when a person identified as the author of a prayer or rabbinic idiom is, in fact, not its actual composer. Rather, the person is described as the author because he or she is so closely identified with the prayer and thus embodies the prayer’s message.
One example of this is found in a statement attributed to the humble tanna (rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10 to 220 CE), Shmuel HaKatan. Accordingly, Shmuel HaKatan is quoted in Avot 4:19 as having stated, “In the downfall of your enemy, do not rejoice.” While this is surely a beautiful sentiment, it was notably first stated by King Solomon thousands of years earlier in Proverbs 24:17; perhaps it is attributed to Shmuel HaKatan because he personified the dictum’s ideals through his deeds and actions, as recorded several times in the Talmud.
Similarly, the Hanukkah prayer of Al Ha’Nissim finds Mattathias referred to as a kohen gadol (high priest) although he never officially served in this capacity. Rather, our tradition attributed this honorific to him because he modeled the deeds and actions of a high priest by virtue of his seminal leadership during the Hasmonean rebellion.
In parallel, Rav Amnon personifies the conduct attributed to him in the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer. Remembered with a name that clearly derives from the word emunah, faith, Rav Amnon is memorialized in the ancient prayer as a tribute to the countless Jews who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the horrific years of the bloody Crusades. Rav Amnon may not have composed the words of the U’Netaneh Tokef, but he most assuredly “established” them through his outlook and actions.
Adding a contemporary dimension to the unfolding story of the U’Netaneh Tokef is the tune composed for the prayer by the famous Israeli composer Yair Rosenblum during his stay at Kibbutz Beit Hashitah in 1990. Known as the community that had lost a greater proportion of its sons in the Yom Kippur war than any other, Rosenblum’s musical memorial to the fallen soldiers of Kibbutz Beit Hashitah is especially poignant when overlaid on the sacred and timeless words of the U’Netaneh Tokef. During the High Holiday season, Rosenblum’s melody is heard constantly on the radio and used in synagogues throughout Israel.
Such is the magic and majesty of the U’Netaneh Tokef. Written by Yannai, cloaked in the personality of Rav Amnon and adorned by the melody of Yair Rosenblum, the words of the prayer capture the pathos and the promise of an ancient people who have been called upon time and again to pay the ultimate sacrifice as a reflection of our commitment to the higher ideals of our faith and the eternality of our peoplehood.
Like Rav Amnon of Mainz, Yair Rosenblum, Shmuel HaKatan and Matityahu Hakohen, we too have the opportunity to become the “authors” of the prayers we read and the Torah we study, through internalizing their messages personifying their ideals, and becoming true representatives of the vision of Judaism that we wish to celebrate.
May we merit to inscribe a wondrous path of purposefulness throughout the coming year.
The author, a rabbi, is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.