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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 behind it.

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.

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