Unesaneh Tokef is a prayer
recited in the Musaf service of Rosh Hashana and Yom
Kippur, just before Kedusha. It is one of the most stirring
and emotional prayers of the entire Yomim Noraim. Written by
Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, about one thousand years ago, the prayer
describes the Yomim Noraim as a time of judgment, where people
symbolically pass before Hashem. In the prayer, there is an listing
of the possible fates that may befall people, but it also includes an
emphasis on Hashem's attribute of forgiveness. This is the story
Reb Amnon lived in the town of Mainz, and was well known throughout
the area for the righteous way in which he lived his life.
The bishop of Mainz heard of the rabbi and wanted to see him. Reb
Amnon visited the bishop and spoke to him about religion. The bishop
was deeply impressed by the rabbi's piety and determined that such a
good man should be his friend and advisor. He also insisted that he
leave the Jewish religion and convert to Christianity. The bishop gently
argued with Reb Amnon, trying to show how his faith was superior to
Judaism. The bishop held out bribes to Reb Amnon that fame and money
would be his only if he would convert. Reb Amnon remained steadfast.
He responded to each request with a simple "No."
The bishop soon dispensed with gentleness. "You are as stiff-necked
as all your people! You can be sure that I will quickly end your stubbornness
and make you do as I wish."
A couple of days after their first encounter the bishop summoned Reb
Amnon. When Reb Amnon arrived, the bishop confronted Reb Amnon. "Accept
my faith or you will definitely die!"
Reb Amnon felt afraid and said to the bishop, "Give me only three
days to think about the matter -- then I shall bring you my answer."
"So be it," the bishop agreed.
Reb Amnon returned to his home. He put on sackcloth and ashes. He
fasted and prayed, distraught at having given the impression that he
even considered betraying Hashem. Three days passed, but Reb
Amnon did not return to the palace. The bishop was astonished. "Is the
Jew not afraid?" he said to his personal guards. "He has defied my will.
Quickly go and bring him to me, that I may judge him."
The guards hurriedly seized Reb Amnon and brought him to the palace.
The bishop confronted the rabbi, who remained frightened for his life.
"Jew, how dare you disobey me? Why have you broken your promise to bring
me your answer after three days?"
Reb Amnon looked up sadly. "In a moment of weakness I fell into sin
and lied and made false promises. To save my life without defying my
faith I sought the cowardly grace of three days in which to give you
my answer. I should have said right away to you, Shema Yisroel Hashem
Elohaynu Hashem Eh-chad ('Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our
G-d, Hashem is one'), and then perished at your hands."
The bishop was angry. "Your feet disobeyed me by not coming to the
palace. For that, they shall be torn from your body."
"No," Reb Amnon said. "My feet should not be torn, but rather my tongue
for it betrayed Hashem."
"Your tongue has uttered the truth, and therefore will not be punished."
The furious 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 his amputated parts. Soon the rabbi began to die of his wounds.
When Rosh Hashana arrived a few days later, R' Amnon asked
to be carried to the synagogue.
Once there, he asked to be taken to the Ark. Before the congregation
recited Kedusha, he asked to be allowed to sanctify Hashem's
name in the synagogue as he had in the bishop's palace. He recited
Unesaneh Tokef and died just as he finished the last words
of the prayer.
Three days later, Reb Amnon appeared in a dream to Reb Klonimus ben
(the son of) Meshullam, a great Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar
in Mainz, and taught Reb Klonimus the text of Unesaneh Tokef
and asked him to send it to all the Jewish people to be recited in the
Musaf service of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,
just before Kedusha. Reb Amnon's wish was carried out and the
prayer has become an integral part of the Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur services.