The tragic story of the events leading up to the composition of the liturgical poem "UneSaneh Tokef" is told in the work Or Zarua, which was written by one of Judaism's leading early Torah authorities, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna.
The Or Zarua, Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna, who lived from 4940-5010 (1189-1250), was a student of Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel and a number of other Tosafists in Ashkenaz. He was considered one of the leading authorities of his generation, disseminating Torah in Bohemia and, during his last years, in Vienna . It was there that he died at the age of seventy. He is famous not only in his own right but also for his enlightened and noble students, amongst whom was Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, who, in his later years, was considered the leading rabbi in all of Ashkenaz.
The work Or Zarua is considered one of the most important books of Jewish law written by early Ashkenazi scholars and often cites preceding authorities. Chapter 276, the Laws of Rosh Hashanah, cites: "From the handwriting of Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn ben Rabbi Yaakov [we learn] that Rabbi Amnon of Mainz established 'UneSaneh Tokef' because of the astounding incident which he experienced."
Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, born in 4893 (1133), was the student of Yoel HaLevi and succeeded him in his position as rabbinic chief justice. He wrote Tosafot, legal responsa, and commentaries to blessings and other customs. He also composed liturgical poems, some of which have survived the rough road of Jewish history. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna, the Or Zarua, did not learn directly from Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, but studied his legal writings, which he is now quoting.
The story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz is estimated as having taken place around 4780 (1020), about seventy years before the decrees of 4856, during which the large massacres which accompanied the First Crusade took place. In other words, Or Zarua records an event which took place about two hundred years before his time. We arrive at this estimation through mention made of a Rabbi who lived at that time and received the exact version of "Unetaneh Tokef" in a dream. This was "Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam ben Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Klonimos." Rabbi Klonimos was known to many, and his name is mentioned in books of Jewish law.
The Mainz Jewish community was one of the three largest and oldest communities in Ashkenaz, which were known collectively by the acronym "Shum" - Speyer, Worms, and Mainz . Mainz was the oldest of the three communities. The Klonimos family, which came from northern , established a large talmudic academy there, and from it grew the Jewish community of Ashkenaz.
That city was ruled by a senior clergyman, and therefore the ruler was known by the title of governor or bishop. Bishop is from the Greek "episcopus" which means "overseer" and "watcher." At that time, there were quite a few cities that were given over to the control of the church by one of the kings in return for a pardoning of sins, or in order that the church pray for him.
This is how Or Zarua relates what transpired: "Here is the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who was the leading Torah sage in his generation, wealthy, of praiseworthy lineage, handsome, and who the ministers and governors began to attempt to convert - yet he refused to listen to them."
It appears that the governor of Mainzat that time was interested in attaining wisdom and often appealed to Jews for discourse and enlightenment. The Jews had little choice but to agree in order to maintain good relations with the governor. In many cases the Jews were requested to embrace the “true” faith. Thus was Rabbi Amnon ensnared in a web that ultimately created a legacy that all these years later still moves so many to tears.
"They spoke to him day after day, but he would not listen to them, and the governor implored him. When they became insistent with him, he replied, 'Let me take council and consider the matter for three days. He did this in an attempt to repel them."
Educated church leaders were looking for company on their own intellectual level. The Jews, especially the Jewish sages, were potential partners as far as they were concerned. Furthermore, every governor considered it a challenge to convince a Jew and particularly a sage to abandon his faith and convert.
The plight of the Jewish communities was entirely in the hands and at the whim of the ruler. Cultivating and maintaining goodwill was the only device available to ensure their safety.
We now arrive at a most incredible development in our story that illustrates the power and explains how it is that Judaism has succeeded in surviving the storms of hatred and schemes for its destruction.
"And it happened that as soon as he parted with the governor, he reflected upon his having voiced uncertainty, that he was in need of council or time to think over the question of disavowing the living G-d."
His Judaism was his complete essence, his entire being. How could he have made such a statement? How could he even suggest for a single moment that somebody in the world should even consider that this matter calls for taking council or consideration?
"He Would Not Be Comforted"
"He returned home and he was unable to eat or drink, and he became ill. All of his relatives and friends came to comfort him, but he would not be comforted, for he said, 'I will go down to the grave mourning because of what I said.' And he cried and became very depressed. And it came to pass that on the third day, as he was pining and distraught, the governor sent for him, and he responded, saying, 'I will not go.' And the oppressor sent many additional ministers, more prestigious than they, yet he refused to go to him. And the governor said, 'Go quickly and bring Amnon against his will.' And they went quickly and brought him to him. And he said to him, 'What is this Amnon? Why did you not come to me on the day that you designated to me so that you could take council and give me an answer and fulfil my will?
I Shall Determine My Own Sentence
Rabbi Amnon does not wish to endanger the entire community, and therefore he endangers himself alone: "And Amnon answered, saying, 'I shall determine my own sentence'" - Indeed, I did not come to you, I know that you are angry with me because I have no intention of fulfilling your will, I know that you will punish me. Yet, "I will determine my own sentence." I will decide what my punishment will be, because I misled you. I should not have instilled false hope in you that I would abandon the Jewish faith. I am to blame for this and I shall determine my own sentence.
"The tongue which spoke and misled you shall be cut off" - now I reveal to you that I only said what I did in order to repel you. This tongue therefore "shall be cut off."
Under the tyrannies of that age such punishments were “normal”. They used to cut off people's tongues, noses, ears, and hands. But Rabbi Amnon had an additional reason to decree such an awful punishment upon himself:
"For Rabbi Amnon desired to sanctify G-d for having spoken in such a manner" - he wished to sanctify G-d in the eyes of the Jews, and, indirectly, in the eyes of the non-Jews. He wished to make it clear to all that a Jew who even suggests considering abandoning his faith is absolutely faithless.
The Decree of the Oppressor
"And the governor answered, saying, 'No, the tongue shall not be cut off, for you spoke well. Rather, the feet which did not come at the time that you told me, they shall I cut off, and the rest of your body I shall torture.' And the oppressor gave the command."
Yet not all at once - "And with each amputation they would ask him, 'Perhaps now, Amnon, you would like to join our faith?' But he answered, 'No.'" This scene of torture is not just focussed on the pain of the limbs being hacked off, but also on the horrifying barbarism and vengeance expressed by his pleased tormentor. Yet Rav Amnon did not see his tormentor and his evil mind but rather visualise the justice and the atonement he was achieving for his thoughtless words. Each time he again said “No”, each time he again rejected the offers to spare him, he proclaimed an affirmation of what he had earlier suggested he might possibly reject.
"And when they finished hacking, the wicked governor gave the order to lay Rabbi Amnon in a stretcher with all his dismembered limbs alongside and carry him home." This was done to humiliate Rabbi Amnon and his family and terrify all Jews who would doubtless hear the episode. Perhaps he also considered it an honour to be so vengeful on behalf of his religion and thus sought the praises of his peers.
However, we say, "This is why he was called Rabbi Amnon, for he had faith ["He'emin"; from the same Hebrew root as "Amnon"] in the living G-d and suffered great torture lovingly due to his faith, just because of that which left his mouth.
Rosh Hashanah in the Mainz Synagogue
"After these things, the holiday approached and Rosh Hashanah arrived." From such wounds it would be nothing short of miraculous if one recovered. For many days he suffered unimaginably, his mind still sound and likely dwelling on his life, achievements and failures, whilst his body accelerated towards death. He also realised that "the awesome days of Rosh Hashanah approach."
"He asked to be brought to the synagogue and placed alongside the prayer leader. This they did." Just as Jewish history recounts that Rabbi Akivah prepared himself for his torturous death one can readily imagine that so too did Rabbi Amnon focus his soul and mind on the words that he wished to pronounce publicly at this tragic and final scene.
"And as the prayer leader was about to say the Kedusha prayer, 'VeChayot Asher Hena,' Rabbi Amnon requested, 'Wait a moment, I wish to sanctify the great G-d.' In a loud voice he declared, 'And so the Kedushah prayer shall ascend to you,' please accept that I have now sanctified Your name, Your kingship and Your absolute authority. Permit my mistake and the episode that followed to be seen as a great homage to Your Holiness and Perfection. He then pleaded the prayer that he doubtless had practised and perfected in his hours of suffering; 'Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom,' ('Let us now relate the power of this day's holiness)."
"He continued, 'It is true that You alone are the only One Who judges,' declaring G-d's acts to be just, and that he, Rabbi Amnon accepts everything as The Almighty’s will. He mentioned, 'and everyone's signature is in G-d’s books' and 'He considers the soul of all the living,' reflecting that it was thus decreed upon him on Rosh Hashanah. When he finished the entire prayer ("siluk"), he passed away (nistalek)."
A "siluk" is a liturgical poem. In Aramaic it means an ascension. Any such poem in prayer is called a "siluk" because its purpose is to elevate the supplicant to a higher level. "And when he finished the entire prayer, he passed away." "Nistalek" has a similar meaning, i.e., that he ascended to the upper world.
"And he disappeared from the world before the eyes of all, for G-d took him. Regarding him it says, 'Oh how great is Your goodness, which You have hidden away for those who fear You' (Psalms 31:20)." It would appear that immediately after he finished his prayer his soul ascended to Heaven.
The Accurate Version
The congregation in the synagogue was no doubt startled; they could not accurately recall all of his words.
"After these things, wherein Rabbi Amnon was elevated and called to the Academy on High, on the third day after his sanctification, he appeared in a dream of Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam ben Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Klonimos, and he taught him this prayer, 'Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom,' and he commanded him to send it to the entire Diaspora, that it should serve as a testimony and a remembrance. And the rabbi did this."
It is interesting to note that a version of the prayer "Unetaneh Tokef" with minor differences was discovered in the Cairo Geniza. Apparently this prayer was sent from Ashkenaz to many communities in the exile, and it was even sent to Cairo . And indeed, the prayer also reached the communities of , though it did not commanded so central a role in their prayers as it did in Ashkenazi liturgy.
Born of Torment
It is the torment itself that gives birth to the prayer "Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom." What depth of soul and what power of spirit were unleashed and which would perhaps never have otherwise been revealed.
"And your throne will be firmed with kindness, and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; who writes and seals, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles - it will read itself, and everyone's signature is in it."
Rabbi Amnon can no longer sign his name, but his signature is in the Book of Chronicles on high and his clarity of mind adorns every Jew’s prayer-book. Rabbi Amnon declares that Gd's actions are just and accepts them lovingly, and sanctifies G-d:
"The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them - and they say, 'Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!' - for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment. All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock."
These terrible killers will not be absolved, G-d is vengeful. Everybody, from the loftiest angel to the very last of creatures, will be judged. G-d is the seeing shepherd who loses no sheep, who orchestrates all things.
"Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict."
The Secret to Jewish Survival
Jewish communities then were constantly under threat. Mass murders and stories not unlike that of Rabbi Amnon were not uncommon. During the time of the Crusades, about seventy years after the death of Rabbi Amnon, terrifying massacres took place in Ashkenaz. Jews were ordered to abandon their faith or face death, and thousands died sanctifying G-d's name.
Neither men, women, or children were spared. Nations, cultures and communities subjected to these attacks usually disintegrate and disappear onto History’s gigantic rubbish heap. But not the Jews of those times. Jewry ascended and commanded a central position in European culture, and also in the Islamic lands. Members of the Jewish community were exemplary, graced with and disseminating wisdom in all disciplines.
Who created this wonderful prayer? Not the handsome and striking Rabbi Amnon, but the stricken, tortured, infected, and poisoned Rabbi Amnon, as he lay on his deathbed.
This heritage has continued for thousands of years, since the Binding of Isaac and the bondage, events which gave birth to the nation which would stand at the foot of Mount Sinaiand receive the Torah. During the course of generations G-d has shaped the mindset of His People with an inestimable capacity for perseverance, capacity for creativity containing morality and greatness, vision and anticipation of better days, the days of the Messiah.
This is the continuity of Jewish history, the destiny of the Jews. Despite all upheavals and apparent reversals, geographical and political that the Jewish people have suffered, dispersed and dismembered amongst the nations, humiliated and reviled, yet the Jews emerge towering and extraordinary.
Addendum Most of the above article was given as a lecture by my knowledgeable friend, Rabbi Zeev Sultanovitch, at the Har Beracha Yeshiva. It will appear in its entirety in the second volume of the "Bina Le-Itim" series which will be published, G-d willing, this coming winter. This volume will focus on the period following the Mishna until the end of the period of the Early Authorities ("Rishonim"). After this, there will appear PG two volumes on the modern era.