One of the most stirring elements the High Holiday services in our Jewish liturgical tradition is the piyyut (poem) entitled Unetanneh Tokef, which tradition ascribes to Rabbi Amnon of Mayence (Mainz) Germany, who lived in the 11th century. This prayer draws attention to the holy and solemn significance of the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It describes how these are days of judgment for all creatures; the books are opened in heaven, and even angels are gripped with fear. It speaks of how the outcome of our year is determined at this time, whether for life, death, wealth, poverty, peace, or suffering.
While the passage inspires the petitioner to consider the seriousness of his situation at such a time of judgment, it also provides the tools to take the matter of our verdict into our own hands. At a certain point as we recite this piyyut we declare in a loud voice, “Repentance (teshuvah, ×ª×©×•×‘×”), prayer (tefillah,Â ×ª×¤×™×œ×”), and charity (tzedakah, ×¦×“×§×”) take away the severity of the decree!”
Some machzorim (holiday prayer books) follow the convention of adding clarifying words in smaller type above each of the three terms above:
- Above the word teshuvah is the word tzom (×¦×•×), which means “fast.”
- Above the word tefillah is the word kol (×§×•×œ), which means “voice.”
- Above the word tzedakah is the word mamonÂ (×ž×ž×•×Ÿ), which means “money.”
The concept of these three factors affecting the outcome of judgment was not invented by the paytan (poet), but they are noted in the Gemara (b.Rosh Hashanah 16b) and other Jewish literature.
The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 44:12) connects these three ideas to a biblical verse:
Three things nullify harsh decrees: prayer (tefillah), charity (tzedakah), and repentance (teshuvah). The three of them are mentioned in one verse (2 Chronicles 7:14):
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray”—this is prayer.
- “And seek my face”—this is charity [tzedakah], as it is written, “I shall behold your face in righteousness [tzedek]” (Psalm 17:15).
- “And turn from their wicked ways”—this is repentance.
Afterwards it says, “Then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
One could also connect these three deeds to the commandment to love God which we recite as a part of the Shma: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV).
- “Heart” (levav, ×œ×‘×‘) relates to prayer, which the sages call the “service of the heart” (avodat ha-lev, ×¢×‘×•×“×ª ×”×œ×‘).
- “Soul” (nefesh, × ×¤×©) relates to repentance and fasting, since fasting is referred to as “afflicting the soul” (innui nefesh,Â ×¢×™× ×•×™ × ×¤×©).
- “Might” (me’od, ×ž××•×“) relates to charity; the Mishnah (m.BrachotÂ 9:5)Â directly states that “with all your might” means “with all your money" (bechol mamonecha,Â ×‘×›×œ ×ž×ž×•× ×š).
This triad of terms also relates to the teaching of Yeshua and apostolic tradition. In Matthew 6, Yeshua described three devotions which must be performed privately:
- “When you give to the needy…” (Matthew 6:2): This relates to charity.
- “When you pray…” (Matthew 6:5): This relates to prayer.
- “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16): This relates to repentance.
The Didache also refers to these three practices just before warning of the day of ultimate judgment:
Carry out your prayers and donations and all your good deeds just as you have [been taught] in the good news of our Lord (Didache 15:4, unpublished Vine of David translation).
While we remain confident in our eternal standing in the merit of our Master Yeshua and in his virtue and faithfulness, it is essential that we remain vigilant with our lives, seeking year by year to be written in the Book of Life as it pertains to the here-and-now. Let us heed the Messiah’s call to give generously, to pray with fervor and without ceasing, and to submit ourselves in repentance as we see the Kingdom approaching.
May you all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet new year, and may we soon see our Master coming in his kingdom!