By Israel Drazin


Let’s examine one High Holiday prayer: Unetaneh Tokef.

Rabbis and Jews frequently invented stories to help people understand the meaning of some prayers. Rather than analyzing the depth of prayers, which could alienate people who do not want to undertake this exercise and frustrate others who would not be able to understand the underlying reason of the prayer, the story teaches a simple moral lesson that could be understood easily. One of the most moving poem/prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef, is a good example. The name can be defined as “And let us recognize the power (of this day’s holiness).” The legend states that the poem was composed by a rabbi who suffered martyrdom. The legend seems to teach that during the holy days, Jews should devote themselves to the important lessons of Judaism even to the extent of willing to martyr themselves for the sake of Judaism.

The problem with this teaching is that it doesn’t always make sense to give up one’s life for Judaism. Some scholars say[1] that when Maimonides and his family lived in Morocco and were told either become Muslims or die, he and his family adopted Muslim manners outside his home while being a Jew at home. They did so until they were able to escape to Israel and then to Egypt where they finally settled.

There are also difficulties in the ideology and theology of the poem. There is a seeming contradiction between the poem saying that a person’s fate is sealed on Yom Kippur, while it later says that “repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree.” Another problem with this statement is that experience has shown that this is simply untrue. Additionally, the primary image of the prayer/poem is God possessing tablets or scrolls in which he inscribes the deeds and destinies of human beings. This notion predates Israel. The people of ancient Mesopotamia held the identical idea. This image of God is somewhat disturbing. Do we want to portray God anthropomorphically, like a forgetful king who needs to write himself post-um notes to prompt him to remember to act? Another central idea of the poem is that God is involved in producing evil. Is he responsible for the holocaust? Did he cause men and women to have cancer? Still another disturbing picture in the poem is people passing passively before God like ignorant unthinking sheep, a view that is antithetical to the heroism of Abraham who argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, these images can and should be understood metaphorically. The poem is telling  readers that this is a time to wake up, take notice, see the fragility of life, consider how judgments are formed and sealed, change, abandon despair and apathy, set goals, challenge and take control of fate and destiny, reject the notion that we are helpless before nature and God, and reshape our character.

Victor Frankl, who survived years in a Nazi concentration camp, understood this when he wrote: “Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the condition.”


[1]       Maimonides by Yellin, Abrahams, and Dienstag, especially page 34.