We have just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the head of the Jewish New Year. We took the awesome liberty of crowning G-d as our King. Rosh Hashanah also began the Days of Awe in which God judges every person with what the coming year will bring. During this time we put in extra effort into conducting ourselves in accordance with the true meaning of repentance, prayer, and charity to become receptacles for G-d's goodness and kindness for the coming year.
One of the most solemn and moving prayers of the Days of Awe is U’Netaneh Tokef, which vividly imparts this theme of judgment and repentance. This prayer has an interesting story behind it, recorded by Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna in his work Ohr Zarua (Hilchot Rosh Hashana 276). Rabbi Yitzchak is our guest blogger this week:
In the city of Mainz lived the pious and scholarly Rabbi Amnon. He was admired by all who knew him, Jew or non Jew, for his wisdom and righteousness were clear to all. The governor of Mainz often invited Rabbi Amnon to discuss state matters. Rabbi Amnon's qualities were a rare find, and the governor really enjoyed his company. Rabbi Amnon used the opportunity, when available, to ask the governor to make life safer and easier for the Jews in his land, and abolish some of the decrees and restrictions placed upon them. This being the only favor Rabbi Amnon would ever ask of the governor, he was happy to yield, and the Jews benefited greatly for many years.
At one point the governor began to bring up the idea of converting to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon quickly and respectively steered away from the subject, making it clear that it was not an option. However, time and again the governor would invite Rabbi Amnon over and attempt to convince him to convert using all sorts of tactics. He tried presenting it in a way that Rabbi Amnon would be doing him a personal favor, and when that didn't work he promised him immense power, honor, and riches like he's never seen before.
Realizing that none of the "gentle" tactics were working, the governor began to increase the pressure to convert through threats. Seething with irritation and at his wits’ end, the governor gave Rabbi Amnon an ultimatum; either he converts to Christianity or he will face severe consequences. Trying to buy some time, Rabbi Amnon beseeched the governor to give him three days to take counsel and consider the matter. The governor agreed to this and let him go for the time being.
As soon as Rabbi Amnon left, he thought in shock about what he had done in asking the governor to let him consider the matter for three days: As if disavowing G-d and abandoning his faith were even a remote possibility. By the time he returned home, his heart had broken inside him over what he had said. He could not bear to take a sip of water, let alone to have even a small morsel of food pass through his mouth. He quickly fell into a deep depression, all the while begging God's forgiveness. His family and friends hated to see him in such a sorry state but try as they might, they failed at their attempts to comfort him.
At last, the third day arrived and the governor sent ministers to bring him over, but Rabbi Amnon rebuffed them. So the governor sent many additional ministers, more distinguished than the first, to fetch him. Yet Rabbi Amnon refused to budge. Fed up, the governor told his ministers to quickly bring Rabbi Amnon against his will. He stewed in his fury as his ministers ran to carry out his command. When Rabbi Amnon was brought before him, the governor asked him why hadn't he come to him at the designated time to give him his answer? Rabbi Amnon replied that there was only one answer, he was a Jew and would remain a Jew as long as he lives.
The governor exploded in anger, for not only had Rabbi Amnon refused to convert, but he had disobeyed the governor by not coming voluntarily. Rabbi Amnon told him that he had sinned against G-d by asking for time to consider. The governor told him that G-d can punish Rabbi Amnon himself. He on the other hand will take charge of punishing Rabbi Amnon for his disobedience by cutting off his feet that didn't come at the appointed time, and by torturing him. Before proceeding with each part of the torture, Rabbi Amnon was asked if he will convert. Each time he said NO.
Rosh Hashanah arrived and Rabbi Amnon asked his family to bring him to the synagogue and place him before the holy Ark. Right before the Kedusha prayer, Rabbi Amnon asked to make an interruption while he offered a special prayer to God. He began to recite U’Netaneh Tokef - “Let us express the mighty Holiness of this day”. As soon as he concluded the prayer, his soul departed from this world. On the third day after his passing, Rabbi Amnon appeared to Rabbi Kalonymus (Ben Meshulam) and taught him the prayer of U’Netaneh Tokef. He commanded him to send it to the entire diaspora to serve as a testimony and remembrance. And sent it was!
This prayer plays such a prominent role in the Days of Awe liturgy to this day, thanks to the effort of Rabbi Kalonymus. We feel a powerful connection to the story and prayer, since Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull, the inspiration for OneBefore is a proud descendant of the Kalonymus Rabbinic Dynasty through Reb Pinchas Koritzer. They were one of the most illustrious Jewish families in Germany and are believed to include King David as their ancestor. The Kalonymus family produced many great Rabbonim (Rashi among them) and it is fitting that such a family had a hand in spreading of one of the most moving words of our mahzor!