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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Unesaneh Tokef: Our Breath of Fresh Air

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Our Breath of Fresh Air


Rosh Hashanah marks both the creation of the world and our personal judgment day.

Over the centuries, the haunting words of Unesaneh Tokef have become a focal point of our perception of Hashem’s judgment and love on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Many Machzorim record the ancient story of Rav Amnon of Mainz who, as reported in the Ohr Zarua eight centuries ago, was tortured for adhering to Judaism and composed the Unesaneh Tokef just before he died.

Rav Amnon is a mysterious character. Nothing more is known of him or anyone named Amnon from that period and location. His Siluk was popularized by his contemporaries and became a part of the Ashkenazi Machzor.

It is unfortunate that some contemporary Jews are troubled by the “quandary” of Unesaneh Tokef. They recognize the brilliance and centrality of the prose; yet they refuse to believe it.  They question the origins of the poem and the very existence of Rav Amnon.

To my mind, the origin and authorship of Unesaneh Tokef are irrelevant to the message. Every line of the Unesaneh Tokef is based on a Pasuk or a Mishna or a Gemara or a Medrash. It isn’t a presentation of new ideas, it is a remix done to heighten our perception and feeling during the Yamim Noraim.

This essay is an appreciation of Unesaneh Tokef and an attempt to capture its meaning.


Rav Amnon begins his ‘Siluk’ by describing the holiness of the day. He writes of the awe that is felt in heaven as Hashem prepares to judge mankind. The poem is set in Kedusha where we contemplate the Kingship of Hashem, His awesome power and His control over everything. In Kedusha we declare that ‘There is no place where Hashem is not’, and it is on this realization that Rav Amnon bases his U’nesaneh Tokef.

We are given to understand that when the time of judgment comes, even the angels tremble. When the moment of decision comes a shofar blows, and the earth is silent.
The Zohar records that the Satan is given but one day a year to process his claims before the Heavenly court. On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem sits on his throne of judgment and prepares to hear the words of the Satan. He has a list of names and a host of angels waiting to testify. We line up to be evaluated one at a time. Suddenly, a shofar blows and Hashem rises from his seat of Judgment and moves to His seat of Mercy. He doesn’t cancel judgment, but he changes the way in which he judges us.


“Hashem opens up His Sefer Hazichronos and begins to read from it”.

What is the Sefer HaZichronos? We know that there are three books opened on Rosh Hashanah. There is a Book of Tzadikim, a Book of Beinonim, and a Book of Reshaim. Are these the book Hashem opens?

It seems to me that the Sefer Hazichronos is the one mentioned in Pirkei Avos (based on Tehillim) “And all of your actions are recorded in a book”.

The Sefer Hazichronos that is read is the sum total of our own actions. It is the portrayal of who we are and what we are after everything is said and done.

The language “ume’eilav Yikarei” used by Rav Amnon is reminiscent of the Sefer Hazichronos in Shushan which, the Gemara teaches us, was read practically on its own. It forced itself to be read.

In the same way, the actions which are written in our own books do not disappear; everything makes a mark. Our deeds become habits and attitudes and the way we treat and represent ourselves to those around us. At some point those actions surface and they have no choice but to be ‘read’.

There was a Rav in Buffalo named Rav Zukerman. Before he came to Buffalo he was supposed to be a Rosh yeshiva in Torah V’daas, but he got stage fright when he entered the Beis Medrash for the first time and everybody stood up. He was not ready to deal with the reality of the great man who he had become. Moshe Rabeinu was reluctant to go and take the Jewish people out of Egypt, Yonah did not want to go to Ninveh, and Sarah laughed when she heard about Yitzchak. Sometimes our actions hit us in the face and we need to deal with their reality. We all have a mission in this world. Sometimes the only way to fulfill thatmission is to come to terms with our reality and to recognaize how our actions have molded us.

The sefarim teach us that Avraham was the first person to contemplate himself honestly. Hashem began asking “Ayekah” –“Where are you”, at the time of Adam Harishon, but Avraham was the first to take life by the horns by answering ‘Hineini’. This was his final test in preparation for the Akeidah.

We are all asked to do other people favors and to step into roles that we did not plan on stepping into. We question whether we are worthy or whether a particular favor, phone call, or acceptance of responsibility is worth our while.

We are sometimes upset by how we are perceived, by what people see as our purpose, and by the things people ask us to do. We need to consider how much of that perception is of our own making. We need to realize that our actions and thoughts gradually morph into who we are.


Rav Amnon writes that our own signatures are written in the Sefer Hazikaron.

This seems strange, but it is true: We sign our own fate and we are given the ability to disagree with whatever is written there. We can refuse to sign. We can say “No!
That isn’t me – that’s not how I want to be described or portrayed.

We can change the entry on us in the book, but it will always be a composite of who we actually are.

Rosh Hashanah is the day of first impressions. It is our hearing. The Jury will be out making decisions until Yom Kippur or even Hoshana Rabba, but the way that we represent ourselves is the way that we are represented today.

A Divine ‘Google search’ will give a picture of us that we may or may not enjoy. We can play with it and fudge, but ultimately the picture will show through over and over.
Emes Yoreh Darko: Truth Finds it way.


Even if our composite portrait is, G-d forbid, bad, we need to understand that Hashem is not happy either. Rav Amnon writes that ‘Hashem does not desire ‘Mos Ha’mes’ - the Death of the Dead ones”. Most commentaries explain that Hashem does not desire death of those who are destined to die, but a comparison to other sources shows that Yechezkel seems to interchange the word ‘mos’ - death with the word ‘rasha’ - evil. An evil person is considered dead even in his lifetime because he is no longer growing. A righteous person is always growing – he is alive. Toward the end of Nach Hashem promises Yehoshua the Kohein Gadol that he will continue to grow even after his departure from this world. Hashem doesn’t want the ‘dead person’ to remain stagnant. He wants him to do Teshuva and live. We can be dead while we are alive, but we aren’t grateful dead – we are aiming for Techiyas Hameisim.

One of the Brachos of Rosh Hashanah is the newness that comes with it. Hashem recreates the world every Rosh Hashana. On the first Rosh Hashanah Hashem breathed a breath of life into Adam. The Sochatchover writes that on each Rosh Hashanah when Hashem blows His shofar he blows a breath of fresh air into every one of us.
How we accept that breath and how deeply we let it penetrate is largely up to us. We can choose to carry on as we did before, barely noticing the new breath of fresh air that we have received, or we can assimilate the new energy into our systems to become new and better people, to do things that we never before thought possible.
The challenge of Unesaneh Tokef is that we haven’t yet changed. We stand before Hashem on the Day of Judgment and feeling completely inadequate. We are trembling. We know who we are and that Hashem is judging and that there is nothing to do. Rav Amnon guides us with the Midrash of Rav Yudan:  Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedaka can nullify a decree. By changing our attitudes “Praying before Hashem, beholding His kindness and turning from our evil ways” (Tehillim 17:15), we can change the way that we are perceived.


My earliest memory of Unesaneh Tokef was in Buffalo, NY. I was young enough to be sitting next to my mother, and she had me read the translation in my Machzor. Who will live and who will die? Who by fire? Who by water? Who by strangulation? Who in their proper time? Who before their proper time? Who will be troubled and who will be peaceful?

My mother explained to me that our Chazzan was crying because he had been walking with his two sons during World War II when the Nazi soldiers shot them because they couldn’t keep up. I think of that Chazzan and his tune every single year.

Unesenaeh Tokef is a time to stand in true awe before Hashem. Thankfully, most of us do not have images of brutal death in front of our eyes. It is hard for us to comprehend Hashem’s judgment, His reward and His punishment. but we have all seen suffering and we have all seen joy. There is more to the Unesaneh tokef than just binary life and death and we are all capable of comprehending and striving for a better life. We are all capable of comprehending Hashem’s expectations of us and we have it in us to ask that He guide us in a way of Tzadikim.

Teshuva is a multi-stepped process that takes advance planning and years of work. It is very hard to change our entire lifestyle or even one action on Rosh Hashanah as we are standing before G-d. The best we can do is to get the process started in a solid way. We do this by breathing in the new breath of Rosh Hashana and allowing it to change us.

Even if we do not change what we do or how much we do, we can make a split second decision to change the way we do things. We can take the new Neshama that we are given and apply it to the parts of us that have stagnated. We can put more Neshama into our Tefillos, into our Shabbos, into our relationships, and into everything moment of our lives. We can become enthusiastic about our Yiddishkeit and our roles in this world. We can remind ourselves of what inspired us to do every Mitzvah in the first place.


The story is told of a little boy sitting on a roof top waiting for the President to pass in Marine One. He claimed that the President would be looking out the window through binoculars and that the president would wave back to him, smile, and perhaps drop presents. He was confident in his claims because he was the President’s only son.

Hashem is our King, but He is also our father. He cares about us like a father but has the power of a King.

On Rosh Hashanah we contemplate judgment as we stand before our Father, our King.

May we all merit to breath in the fresh breath of life that we receive on Rosh Hashana. Even if we change nothing at all, may we merit seeing everything we do infused with life, Neshama, and meaning.

May this be The Year that we can look back upon with fondness and satisfaction.

(Based in part on lecture by Rabbi Yaacov Haber, Rosh Hashana 5771)

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