There is clearly a lot of trepidation and enthusiasm surrounding the U’netane Tokef liturgy in the Rosh Hashana prayer service. I’m wondering what it means and why it seems to be treated with extra-special reverence.
Indeed the U’netane tokef prayer is considered to be one of the more beautiful and moving piyutim poems in the liturgy of the High Holy days.
While it is beyond our scope to translate the prayer word for word, it is amply available in translation in all standard High Holiday prayer books. Some of its major themes include: The awesome holiness of the day;
According to tradition, U’natane tokef is a very old prayer, dating to the early Middle Ages, c. 1100 CE. It introduces the kedusha of musaf for the High Holiday prayers, and is chanted responsively while the Torah ark is open and the congregants are standing in awe and anticipation of sanctifying
In addition to the very moving and heart-piercing words and message of the prayer, the story behind its composition and inclusion into the liturgy greatly adds to the emotional reverence and trepidation with which it is recited, chanted and tearfully offered before
According to tradition (brought in Ohr Zarua on Rosh Hashana), a great and pious Torah scholar of his times, Rabbi Amnon of Meins, was pressed upon by the local ruler to convert to Christianity, but to no avail. One day, when the ruler’s pressure was particularly pernicious, Rabbi Amnon requested to deliberate on the matter for three days, intending to push him off. Afterward, he bitterly regretted giving the impression of a possibility that he might deny
This occurred shortly before Rosh Hashana, and on that holy day Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue together with his severed limbs. When the cantor neared the recitation of kedusha for musaf, Rabbi Amnon cried out the U’natane tokef prayer which he had composed in his misery and repentance. As he concluded it, he breathed his last breath and expired. Three days later he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam, one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, taught him the prayer and bade him to include it in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus U’netane tokef became a part of the standard liturgy, and this moving, tragic story of penitence serves as backdrop to its inspiring recitation.