This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Legend and Liturgy: The Elusive Tale of the Untanneh Tokef*

For many worshippers at the High Holy Days services, the text in the prayer book that most powerfully evokes the solemnity of the season is the Untanneh Tokef. This magnificent poem conveys the awesome consciousness of standing before the divine tribunal, as the all-knowing Judge recalls all the forgotten things, opens the book of records... inscribing the destiny of every creature.

The reasons why this poem has had such a profound and lasting impact are not necessarily limited to its theme or contents. After all, descriptions of humanity standing in judgment before the Almighty were a stock motif in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and the principal themes of the Untannah Tokef may be found in the Talmud and Midrash, as well as in many Jewish ethical writings.

For many of us, the unique quality of the Untanneh Tokef is closely bound to a story about its origins, which is often summarized in the margins or footnotes of the festival prayer books. The standard version of this tale ascribes the poem to a certain Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, an affluent and respected Jew who was constantly being hounded by the local bishop to convert to Christianity, until the rabbi tried to stall the persistent nagging by requesting three days, as though to consider the offer.

Afterwards, Rabbi Amnon was terribly grieved for having given the bishop even the slightest pretext to suspect that he would seriously contemplate abandoning his ancestral faith, and he failed to show up to the appointment. When the rabbi was finally brought before the bishop, his insolence was punished by having his hands and legs amputated for not conveying him to the meeting.

When Rosh Hashanah arrived, the mutilated saint asked to be placed on the bimah of the synagogue, along with his dismembered limbs, prior to the chanting of the Kedushah of the Additional Service. It was at this point that Rabi Amnon recited the Untanneh Tokef with his final breaths.

In the context of his own personal tragedy, it constituted a supreme statement of resignation to the unpredictable vicissitudes of inscrutable divine justice. By uttering it before the Kedushah--the section of the service that focuses on the theme of God's holiness--Rabbi Amnon was transforming the meaning of that prayer. This Kedushah was not only a declaration of God's sublime and exalted holiness as pronounced by the angelic choirs in the visions of the prophets; it now became a meditation on the human sanctification of God's holy namemeasured by the readiness to suffer martyrdom for the sake of one's faith.

The legend goes on to relate that three days afterwards, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymos ben Meshullam, to whom he taught the text of the Untanneh Tokef and instructed him to disseminate it through the Jewish world.

The poignant story of Rabbi Amnon's martyrdom is known primarily from the account preserved by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna in his halakhic compendium, the Or Zarua (13th century). Rabbi Isaac was citing an earlier chronicle by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn. The tale's background, with its strained relationships between Jews and Christians, and its culmination in an act of martyrdom, reflects the harsh and complex realities of Jewish life in Germany during the medieval era.

For all the storys poignancy, it is an indisputable fact that this Rabbi Amnon could not have been the author of the Untanneh Tokef. Documentary evidence teaches us that the poem was likely composed in the Land of Israel up to five centuries before the date when Rabbi Amnon purportedly recited it in the synagogue of Mainz. It was well known to the Jews of Italy in earlier generations, and allusions to it were embedded into subsequent liturgical poems composed by their prolific poets.

The Untanneh Tokef belongs to a genre of synagogue poetry known as silluk, which serve as transitions leading into the Kedushah. In the early medieval rites, the Untanneh Tokef was used as a prelude to a poetic version of the Kedushah composed by Rabbi Eleazar Kalir, one of the most revered of our liturgical poets.

The presence of texts from the holy land in later Ashkenazic rites is normally understood as a relic of the community's earlier migrations, harkening back to the days when their ancestors lived in Italy and followed the authority of the Jerusalem Talmud, rather than the Babylonian tradition. Literary evidence suggests that the Untanneh Tokef even predated Rabbi Eleazar Kalir, who alludes to it in some of his own poems.

The legend that describes Rabbi Amnon as the prayer's author might reflect a later misinterpretation of the process of its transmission. After all, the story would also make sense if Rabbi Amnon had not composed a new prayer, but had merely recited an existing text that was not yet well known in Germany, and which was now injected with new relevance because of its association with his tragic circumstances.

The fact that the Untanneh Tokef is recited at precisely the same point in all the diverse Ashkenazic rites attests to the fact that it had been adopted there before the communitys founders migrated to the Rhineland indicating a date no later than the tenth century.

The silluk that it replaced, composed by Eleazar Kalir himself, was still known in some French communities at the end of the eleventh century, but afterwards it was universally replaced by the Untanneh Tokef, largely by virtue of its association with the tale of Rabbi Amnon's martyrdom.

It is in fact questionable whether there ever was a rabbi named Amnon from Mainz. The name Amnon was not in use among the Jews of central Europe--and never achieved widespread popularity, even after the proliferation of this tale. The author of the Untanneh Tokef legend had to make a special point of explaining that the protagnonist was called Amnon on account of his deep religious faith (emunah in Hebrew). This detail probably had to be introduced because his readers were not familiar with Jews in their own lands who bore that name. On the other hand, Amnon was a relatively common name among Italian Jews, and an individual bearing that name appears in a group of ten Jews who were martyred in southern Italy in 925.

Some historians have assumed that this legend is nothing more than a conventional work of hagiographic fiction, or perhaps a recycling of elements from an earlier Italian tradition. Some even suggest that it was a Jewish adaptation of the Christian legend about St. Emmeram of Regensburg, who was subjected to amputation on trumped-up charges, and later died while praying for those who had wronged him. Still others prefer to uphold the storys basic reliability by suggesting that our Rabbi Amnon was an Italian Jew who had migrated to Mainz--as, in fact, was the case with the Rabbi Kalonymos to whom he appeared in the dream in the standard story. Obviously, there are major gaps in our knowledge about the persons and the legend associated with this beautiful prayer.

The text of the Untanneh Tokef reminds us mortals that our ultimate destiny does not lie entirely in our own hands, and that we can never know with absolute certainty what awaits us in the future.

The elusive history of the Untanneh Tokef shows us that Jewish texts and legends are often subject to similar twists of unpredictable fortune.For many worshippers at the High Holy Days services, the text in the prayer book that most powerfully evokes the solemnity of the season is the Untanneh Tokef. This magnificent poem conveys the awesome consciousness of standing before the divine tribunal, as the all-knowing Judge recalls all the forgotten things, opens the book of records... inscribing the destiny of every creature.

The reasons why this poem has had such a profound and lasting impact are not necessarily limited to its theme or contents. After all, descriptions of humanity standing in judgment before the Almighty were a stock motif in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and the principal themes of the Untannah Tokef may be found in the Talmud and Midrash, as well as in many Jewish ethical writings.

For many of us, the unique quality of the Untanneh Tokef is closely bound to a story about its origins, which is often summarized in the margins or footnotes of the festival prayer books. The standard version of this tale ascribes the poem to a certain Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, an affluent and respected Jew who was constantly being hounded by the local bishop to convert to Christianity, until the rabbi tried to stall the persistent nagging by requesting three days, as though to consider the offer.

Afterwards, Rabbi Amnon was terribly grieved for having given the bishop even the slightest pretext to suspect that he would seriously contemplate abandoning his ancestral faith, and he failed to show up to the appointment. When the rabbi was finally brought before the bishop, his insolence was punished by having his hands and legs amputated for not conveying him to the meeting.

When Rosh Hashanah arrived, the mutilated saint asked to be placed on the bimah of the synagogue, along with his dismembered limbs, prior to the chanting of the Kedushah of the Additional Service. It was at this point that Rabi Amnon recited the Untanneh Tokef with his final breaths.

In the context of his own personal tragedy, it constituted a supreme statement of resignation to the unpredictable vicissitudes of inscrutable divine justice. By uttering it before the Kedushah--the section of the service that focuses on the theme of God's holiness--Rabbi Amnon was transforming the meaning of that prayer. This Kedushah was not only a declaration of God's sublime and exalted holiness as pronounced by the angelic choirs in the visions of the prophets; it now became a meditation on the human sanctification of God's holy namemeasured by the readiness to suffer martyrdom for the sake of one's faith.

The legend goes on to relate that three days afterwards, Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymos ben Meshullam, to whom he taught the text of the Untanneh Tokef and instructed him to disseminate it through the Jewish world.

The poignant story of Rabbi Amnon's martyrdom is known primarily from the account preserved by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna in his halakhic compendium, the Or Zarua (13th century). Rabbi Isaac was citing an earlier chronicle by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn. The tale's background, with its strained relationships between Jews and Christians, and its culmination in an act of martyrdom, reflects the harsh and complex realities of Jewish life in Germany during the medieval era.

For all the storys poignancy, it is an indisputable fact that this Rabbi Amnon could not have been the author of the Untanneh Tokef. Documentary evidence teaches us that the poem was likely composed in the Land of Israel up to five centuries before the date when Rabbi Amnon purportedly recited it in the synagogue of Mainz. It was well known to the Jews of Italy in earlier generations, and allusions to it were embedded into subsequent liturgical poems composed by their prolific poets.

The Untanneh Tokef belongs to a genre of synagogue poetry known as silluk, which serve as transitions leading into the Kedushah. In the early medieval rites, the Untanneh Tokef was used as a prelude to a poetic version of the Kedushah composed by Rabbi Eleazar Kalir, one of the most revered of our liturgical poets.

The presence of texts from the holy land in later Ashkenazic rites is normally understood as a relic of the community's earlier migrations, harkening back to the days when their ancestors lived in Italy and followed the authority of the Jerusalem Talmud, rather than the Babylonian tradition. Literary evidence suggests that the Untanneh Tokef even predated Rabbi Eleazar Kalir, who alludes to it in some of his own poems.

The legend that describes Rabbi Amnon as the prayer's author might reflect a later misinterpretation of the process of its transmission. After all, the story would also make sense if Rabbi Amnon had not composed a new prayer, but had merely recited an existing text that was not yet well known in Germany, and which was now injected with new relevance because of its association with his tragic circumstances.

The fact that the Untanneh Tokef is recited at precisely the same point in all the diverse Ashkenazic rites attests to the fact that it had been adopted there before the communitys founders migrated to the Rhineland indicating a date no later than the tenth century.

The silluk that it replaced, composed by Eleazar Kalir himself, was still known in some French communities at the end of the eleventh century, but afterwards it was universally replaced by the Untanneh Tokef, largely by virtue of its association with the tale of Rabbi Amnon's martyrdom.

It is in fact questionable whether there ever was a rabbi named Amnon from Mainz. The name Amnon was not in use among the Jews of central Europe--and never achieved widespread popularity, even after the proliferation of this tale. The author of the Untanneh Tokef legend had to make a special point of explaining that the protagnonist was called Amnon on account of his deep religious faith (emunah in Hebrew). This detail probably had to be introduced because his readers were not familiar with Jews in their own lands who bore that name. On the other hand, Amnon was a relatively common name among Italian Jews, and an individual bearing that name appears in a group of ten Jews who were martyred in southern Italy in 925.

Some historians have assumed that this legend is nothing more than a conventional work of hagiographic fiction, or perhaps a recycling of elements from an earlier Italian tradition. Some even suggest that it was a Jewish adaptation of the Christian legend about St. Emmeram of Regensburg, who was subjected to amputation on trumped-up charges, and later died while praying for those who had wronged him. Still others prefer to uphold the storys basic reliability by suggesting that our Rabbi Amnon was an Italian Jew who had migrated to Mainz--as, in fact, was the case with the Rabbi Kalonymos to whom he appeared in the dream in the standard story. Obviously, there are major gaps in our knowledge about the persons and the legend associated with this beautiful prayer.

The text of the Untanneh Tokef reminds us mortals that our ultimate destiny does not lie entirely in our own hands, and that we can never know with absolute certainty what awaits us in the future.

The elusive history of the Untanneh Tokef shows us that Jewish texts and legends are often subject to similar twists of unpredictable fortune.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

published by

CreateSpace
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

[1]