Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5772 (September 30th, 2011)

The prayer "U'Netaneh Tokef" which we are about to chant is attributed to a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, who lived about one thousand years ago. The story behind this prayer is sad and poignant, and may shed light on the prayer itself.

The Bishop of Mainz had summoned Rabbi Amnon, a great Torah scholar, to his court and offered him a ministerial post on the condition that Rabbi Amnon would convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon was shocked. He never expected such a request, so he asked the Bishop to give him three days to think about it. However, as soon as Rabbi Amnon returned home, he was distraught at the terrible mistake he had made of even appearing to consider the Bishop's offer and the betrayal of his faith. For three days he could not eat or sleep and he prayed to G-d for forgiveness. When the three days were up, and Rabbi Amnon did not show up at the palace, the Bishop sent a messenger to bring him to the palace. Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The Bishop had him forcibly brought to him and demanded an explanation. The Rabbi responded, "I should have my tongue cut out for not having refused immediately. I will never abandon my faith.” The Bishop angrily had Rabbi Amnon's hands and feet cut off and then sent him home. This happened just a few days before Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Amnon, dying from his wounds, asked to be carried to the synagogue. There just before the Kedushah, he asked the congregation to let him recite a prayer. Just before he died he uttered the words that we now know as the U'Netaneh Tokef. Legend continues that three days later Rabbi Amnon appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam, a scholar and poet, and taught him the exact text of the prayer. Rabbi Amnon asked that it be incorporated into the High Holy Days liturgy. The Untaneh Tokef became an important prayer in the Ashkenazi communities. It is not included in the Mahazor used by Sefardim. The prayer portrays G-d as a Shepherd over His flock, counting and examining each sheep one by one as it passes under His rod. G-d reviews the flock of humanity one by one, determining each individual's fate for the coming year. The prayer ends with "uTeshuva, uTefillah uTzedaka, Ma'avirin et roa ha'gezerah." But as individual human beings we are not just helpless sheep! Rather, we can contribute to our verdict by altering our behavior towards G-d and Man, specifically in the areas of sincere Repentance, Prayer from the heart and Charity given with a cheerful spirit.

This Prayer is based on a passage in the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah, where the Mishnah states that “on Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before God as B’nai maron”. The discussion in the Talmud offers three interpretations to B’nai maron.

The first one is b’nai Maron is Kivne Armana, Aramek for a flock of sheep. When it was time to give maasser (a tenth) to the Levite or the poor, the farmer would pass the sheep one by one through a gate and pick each tenth as a Maasser. The meaning therefore, that we are judged individually.

Resh Lakish offers a second interpretation to B’nai Maron. He says that B’nai Maron refers to the pass of bet Maron. There was a particular mountain pass know as B’nai Maron, which was so narrow with cliffs on either side, that only one person could climb up the mountain at a time. Here again, the emphasis is that we can all be together but at some point we are separated as we pass in judgment.

Rabbi Yehudah offers a third interpretation. He says that B’nai Maron refers to the soldiers of Bet David the House of David. What distinguishes an army is its uniformity. However,every day, each soldier must respond at roll call individually. Here too, the emphasis is how we are judged on our individual merit.

One can ask - if the three interpretations to B’nai Maron are just to emphasize that we are judged individually during the High Holy Days, why does the Talmud find it necessary to record all three explanations? Rabbi Shabtai Yudlevitz, from Jerusalem answers the need for the three interpretations by way of a parable - the merchant and the wagon driver.

A merchant invested all his money and money he borrowed from friends and purchased merchandise that he would take across the border, where he will be able to sell it with a large profit. He found a wagon driver who was willing to take him across the border in the middle of the night, hoping that the border police would not catch them.

As they left the house the driver noticed that the merchant was shaking from fear. He asked him, "Why are you trembling? We have another five hours before we get to the border. How you are already afraid?"

The merchant answered, "How can I not worry? I have all my money and money I borrowed from friends invested in this deal. If we get caught by the police I will lose everything. I will be in jail while my family will suffer and I will not be able to face my friends, as I will have no money to pay them back."

As they reached the forest and were getting close to the border, the merchant noticed that the driver was trembling. He asked him “How come you are trembling?"

The driver answered, “Even though it’s not merchandise, if we get caught they will probably impound my wagon and my horses. That’s my only means of making a living. And I may be thrown in jail. Of course I am worried."

It would seem that the only ones who were not worried were the horses.

Reb Shabtai explains:

There are three categories of people as to when one starts worrying about the Days of Awe.

Some are like the Soldiers in the House of David. They are always prepared. From the first day of Elul already they begin to think about the Day of Judgment and begin to do Teshuvah.

Others wait until they get to the mountain Pass and come to this narrow path, symbolized by the Days of Awe.

And the third category are the sheep. Like the horses, they do not realize the seriousness of the approaching Days of Awe.

The Maharal of Prague explains the three categories as to the level that we are counted and evaluated:

A shepherd counts his sheep one by one. It is not for the purpose of examining each sheep but to pick a certain number.

A narrow pass indicates a closer examination and scrutiny of each individual.

As a soldier of the House of David emphasizes that while each soldier has his/her own responsibilities and tasks, one is also evaluated on the contributions that soldier makes to the total effort of the group.

The Maharal explains that the reason for all three categories is to help us to understand our roles on this day:

Just because we are part of the community, we should not minimize the value of our acts as individuals. It is in line with the teaching from Pirke Avot לא עליך המלאבה לגמור You do not have to do the whole thing; on the other hand ואין אתה בן חורין להפטר ממנה yet you are not free to be exempt from the task. The comparison to sheep is a call on us asking, whether we have done enough, even if we cannot do the whole thing.

The idea of a narrow pass is a lesson to us that on the day of judgement we stand before G-d all alone. The self-reflection is one that relates to us and us alone. On the day of judgement we cannot blame anyone else. “It was not my fault.” “I could not help it.” “Everyone else does that.” All those excuses are not acceptable on the day of judgement.

The idea of being part of the Soldiers of the House of David emphasizes the high expectations that we should have of ourselves. You see in Jewish tradition, to be a soldier in the House of David is a great honor. Because the House of David represents the Messianic age, a utopian world where there is peace and where kindness and compassion govern all activities. Each and everyone of us has the potential to serve in the House of David.

Have we fulfilled our responsibility as members of the group? Have we done enough to help our community? Are we involved in Mitzvot to make our world a better place?

Another answer as to the need of the three interpretations is given by Rabbi Shaul Israeli alav hashalom. He compares the three interpretations to the three stages in a person’s life:

1) When one is young and the world and the future is before him/her, that person is confident that he/she can do better than others. Youth gives us the confidence that we understand better and can do better than our elders - we can change the world. We are like soldiers in the House of David.

2) As we get older, many illusions disappear, Instead of dreams for change and of building a new society, we become realistic and look for practical ways to secure a place in our society. There is a family to support, a mortgage to pay and other pursuits that push us to reach our goals. Oftentimes, we need to get past the competition and when we finally climb the mountain pass, we feel that we have accomplished something. We made it. We have reached the top of the mountain pass.

3) But this too shall pass. After many achievements, and if we are fortunate to reach old age, our wants and needs become fewer and relatively small. At that stage in life we are like the sheep. Sheep need very little care - just some grass and water.

In old age what do we need? Good health, and the ability to stay on our feet - to be able to remain in our homes. How heart breaking it is when I visit individuals in nursing homes and assisted living homes. People who in their youth were very powerful. They had reached tremendous success during their prime, but now they are unable to enjoy the fruits of their success. They just hope for the most basic pleasures of this world - to be able to get on their feet and and be able to do very basic things on their own.

We pray that we are privileged to live a life that is good from beginning to end and that we are worthy of being called to serve in the House of David.