Unetaneh Tokef- Jack Rambles On

As I mentioned in the audio post below during this time of year it is common practice for Jews to become more reflective about themselves and their place in the world around them. I think that it is a very important task and one that is necessary if you are going to continue to grow as a person.

There is a prayer called “Unetaneh Tokef” that is said on Rosh Hashanah that always catches me as I am sure that it does many others. There are a couple of different stories that I have heard about its origins. Here are links to two of them. As you can see they are intense.

But I want to focus on a couple of things that we say in the prayer itself that I think are of interest.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe old age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;


Repentance, Prayer, and Charity temper judgment’s severe decree.

Those are some pretty heavy concepts, so I am going to post about the first section and then then comment on the second.

As a young boy whenever we said Unetaneh Tokef I always pictured a very old man at a desk. There was a book a quill and some ink that the man used to write in the book. I remember thinking that it would be very hard for the man to hear me and that his head must really hurt because all these people were trying to speak to him.

I can also remember wondering if he really knew about all the things that I had done. Did he know that I had managed to sneak candy into my room even though my mom had said no. Did he know that sometimes at night when I was supposed to be in bed I would sneak into the hallway and listen to whatever show my parents were watching.

Or was he aware that Teddy Holtz had found a magazine with pictures of nude girls and we were looking at it. As an adult I laugh at that memory. We were about 8 years-old and we thought that the people in the magazine were really stupid. Because who would sit naked on the back of a motorcycle. You would get really cold and if you fell off you’d get really scraped up.

I can remember the superstitions of the older people, the whispers and gestures they made to ward off the evil eye, the hands they clamped over our ears during certain times.

All these memories jumble together because I took Unetaneh Tokef literally, even though I had some doubts about the power of G-d in the end I was afraid that he really did know everything and that something bad could happen. In short, it was a very black and white interpretation.

Now I look at Unetaneh Tokef and I think of it in broader terms and I understand that section to be more comment than literal because the reality is that I cannot make the decision of who will die and who will live for myself or for anyone others. Those decisions are out of my hands and it is important for us as people to be aware that what we do, the choices we make impact others.

This leads into the second part where it says:

Repentance, Prayer, and Charity temper judgment’s severe decree.

Please note that I am using English translations so that more people can read this, I don’t usually translate Tzedakah as Charity. It is usually more like Righteousness but there is a lot more to that discussion than this so for simplicities sake we’ll use charity.

In the past when I have engaged in learning about this line some people have discussed these as three separate concepts and it bothers me to hear Tshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah handled as separate units relative to this conversation. The reason being is that Unetaneh Tokef is a personal discussion with G-d in which we praise and tremble. It is a time to consider our own actions and I find it troubling to suggest that one could merit another year of life simply based upon tefilah/prayer.

Because if we are saying that we have done wrong and that we wish to engage in tshuvah, repentance then I think that it must include the act of tshuvah. I find fault with the idea that one could ignore tshuvah and simply daven. There is a lack of responsibility and personal accountability that irks me.

So I don’t see how you can separate prayer from repentance. They are two pieces that work together. Tzedakah is a different story. One can give without repenting or prayer. You could easily make a donation to charity xyz without the other two components.

On a personal note I follow the Rambam’s example of how to give.

That is it for now, perhaps I’ll share more thoughts later.

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  1. Lil Bit September 19, 2005 at 7:43 pm

    very intersting, Jack. Thx

  2. Jack's Shack September 17, 2005 at 4:10 pm


    No thanks are necessary, it is easy to do.


    I am glad that you appreciated it. I am grateful for the blog because it really has helped me to better understand many things.

  3. Stephen (aka Q) September 17, 2005 at 4:07 am

    Thanks for sharing your reflections, Jack. I found it very meaningful.

  4. LiquiDiamonds September 17, 2005 at 12:06 am

    many thanks for the links, and for your willingness to help. And your appreication of my son’s service is humbly accepted.

  5. Jack's Shack September 16, 2005 at 11:07 pm

    Hi Barbara,

    “Immediate call to action” that resonates with me.


    First of all thank your son for me for his service, I am appreciative of it. Secondly there is a vast amount of information online about Judaism and a ton of Jewish bloggers.

    Here are a few links of places that you can visit. If you have questions feel free to ask me and I’ll do my best to answer them or help you find one.



  6. LiquiDiamonds September 16, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    I read this post with keen interest. My son started his conversion to Judaism, 3 years ago and I’m struggling to keep up with knowing the religion better. He says that the Jewish faith just “speaks” to him.

    When he was home, i had asked him to take me to his Friday Services, but he doesn’t like the idea. His congregation (is that what it is called?) is a very progressive one, and Rabbi Elise is wonderful. I had the joy of going to a Passover Seder last 2 years ago and found it a wonderful experience. I want to learn more, so any recommendation about books about Judaism for non-Jews would be appreciated.

    My son is in Iraq right now; last year he was in Egpyt. I know Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kipuur are comming up and he’s waiting to hear if his leave for those days will be authorized (he put in for it early, but the situation over there is so fluid that he doesn’t know if he can have it off or not)

    Last year, he spent Yom Kippur in Israel and that was really something he said.

    I will check this blog for any advice you are willing to give on reference books – but please: no “Judaism for Dummies”.

  7. BarbaraFromCalifornia September 16, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    Well, your picture is clearly better than mine, but perhaps it the result of a is a generational gap.

    I always pictured some man with a long beard, pointing his shaking finger down at me, with stren punishment, making me feel as if there was an immediate call to action.

    Strangely, I still feel that way, but today, it makes more sense.

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