By David Zadok
The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur in Hebrew, is considered the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, even for the secular. In Israel, it is a unique day when all vehicles halt for about 26 hours. Adults walk on freeways and highways, and children ride bikes, scooters, tricycles and other fun means of transportation. For the synagogues, it is their busiest time, with many who never attend services, walking in for the various prayers. And at the end of the day, many go to hear the blowing of the Shofar – the rams’ horn, announcing the end of the fast. According to Jewish tradition, at the sound of the Shofar, God seals the book of life till next year’s Day of Atonement.
One of the most famous prayers recited during the Day of Atonement in synagogues is called “Unetanneh Tokef”, וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף which describes the overwhelming Day of Judgment and the holiness of the day. Based on tradition, it was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, during the 11th century. This was during the Crusader Wars, not only against Islam but also Judaism. The Archbishop of Mainz tried to convert the Rabbi to Christianity by force. The conversion of the Rabbi, who was a prominent figure, would have made a great impact on the moral sensibility of the Jewish population. On one of the occasions when the Rabbi was pressured to convert by the Archbishop, he responded by saying that he would think about it and respond in three days. He regretted that he had given in by saying he would consider it and respond in three days. So when he failed to appear before the Archbishop after the three days, he was brought in forcibly. He pleaded guilty for not appearing, but also for doubting the truth of his faith, and for even giving the impression that he might consider conversion. So he asked that his tongue would be amputated. However, the archbishop decided to cut off both his legs and hands for failing to appear before him. This was done immediately, and his disciples had to carry him to his home.
In three days’ time, it was the Jewish New Year, and he asked to be carried by his disciples to the synagogue. Just before prayers began, Rabbi Amnon asked to recite a prayer, and as soon as he finished praying the prayer, he passed away. Three days later, before the Day of Atonement, he appeared before Rabbi Kalonymus in a dream and taught him that prayer. The dead Rabbi then asked Rabbi Kalonymus to spread the prayer among the Jews. Since then, the prayer has been recited during the New Year and the Day of Atonement.
The story might be a legend, but nevertheless, it shows the importance of the day in Jewish history, and also some of the challenges the Jewish people were facing during the Crusades. May God use the prayer that is cited by the Jews all over the world to bring them to the understanding that He is indeed the Judge of the universe and the Day of Judgment is fast approaching. And that the only way we can escape His judgment is through the atoning blood of the Messiah!
Nulman, Macy, Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (1993, NJ, Jason Aronson) s.v. Unetaneh Tokef, page 332 (Rabbi Amnon is, apart from this one story, utterly unknown to history, nor has any name been attached to the Archbishop of the story, and Kalonymus is possibly the true author of the prayer).