The Tefillah of Unetaneh Tokef is perhaps one of the most powerful and meaningful prayers of the Yamim Nora’im. In it we tell Hashem that we are terrified of Him and of the “Day of Judgment.” We claim that we are no different than a “flock of sheep passing under the shepherd’s staff” waiting for the shepherd to evaluate us and decide what will become of us.
Unetaneh Tokef was written by Rav Amnon of Mainz, Germany about 1000 years ago. After the bishop of Mainz asked him to convert to Christianity, Rav Amnon asked for three days to make the decision. When he started to ponder the decision he was livid that he even considered the possibility of leaving Hakadosh Baruch Hu and converting. He decided not to return to the Bishop with an answer and instead he prayed to be forgiven for his sin. After the three days past and Rav Amnon did not show, the bishop seized him; Rav Amnon explained that he was ashamed of even considering conversion; of course he would not convert. Enraged, the bishop told Rabbi Amnon that his real sin was not fulfilling the bishops request and tortured him. He then amputated Rabbi Amnon’s limbs, -one at a time- each time asking him to convert, but to no avail; Rav Amnon would not give in. The bishop gave up and sent -the mutilated- Rav Amnon back to his home. That Rosh Hashanah, Rav Amnon asked to be brought to shul to praise Hashem. He was carried to shul where he composed and recited Unetaneh Tokef. It is said that he later came to Rabbi Klonimos ben Meshulam in a dream asking that Unetaneh Tokef be incorporated into the Rosh Hashanah davening. Unetaneh tokef is now said by Ashkenazic congregations on Rosh Hashanah because of its powerful meaning and implications regarding judgment. It fits perfectly into the theme of the day.
So why do we say it on Yom Kippur as well? Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is about being forgiven for our sins. The theme of Unetaneh Tokef is judgment. How are the two related?
The answer lies in the respective natures of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the day when Hashem decides what will happen to His creatures in the coming year – Rosh Hashana is the day he “judges” the people. Yom Kippur is the day He gives forgiveness for sins. These days are rather different and have very little in common other than the general theme of Teshuvah, repentance (which applies to both forgiveness and judgment). It is for this reason that the Piyutim differ so much between the two days. However, Unetaneh Tokef is the exception. It applies to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – namely, it includes both qualities of judgment and forgiveness. On one hand it describes Rosh Hashanah: “Hinei Yom Hadin”, “Here is the day of judment” but on the other hand it mentions Yom Kippur: “Vetiftach Et Sefer Hazichronot”, “and he(Hashem) opens up the book of remembrance (that Hashem “opens” his records of our actions to determine whether they deserve a good year).” It culminates with “Uteshuva Utefillah Utzedaka Maavirin Et Roa Hagezeira”, “and repentence, and prayers, and charity remove the evil decree .” We combine Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah, and the evil of a decree – elements that apply to both Din (strict judgment) and Kapara (forgiveness). Unetaneh Tokef is unique in that it takes qualities from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and combines them into one Tefillah. It is for this reason that Unetaneh Tokef is such an integral prayer. The real connection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and between Din and Kapara, is “Unetaneh Tokef”, the powerful last words of Rav Amnon.