Unetaneh Tokef is a medieval prayer, of unknown authorship, recited in the Musaf Service of both Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Unetaneh Tokef affirms our own mortality, asking, “Who shall live and who shall die?” In it, we state that through teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (acts of justice) we can transform our destiny and give meaning to our lives.
We shall ascribe holiness to this day, for it is awesome and terrifying. Your kingship is exalted upon it. Your throne is established in mercy. You are enthroned upon it in truth. You are the judge, the exhorter, the all-knowing, the witness. You are the One who inscribes and seals, remembering all that is forgotten. You open the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, and the signature of each person is found there.
The great shofar is sounded. A still small voice is heard. The angels are dismayed, they are seized by fear and trembling as they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment! For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment, they shall not be innocent in Your eyes. All creatures shall parade before You as a troop. As a shepherd herds his flock, causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff, so do You count and record all the souls of the living, decreeing the length of their days, inscribing their judgment.
On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not? Who shall perish by water and who by re? Who by sword and who by wild beast? Who by famine and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangulation and who by stoning? Who shall have rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented? Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low? Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished?
But repentance (teshuvah), prayer (te lah), and righteousness (tzedaka) transform the severe decree.
You are our Creator and You understand our inclination, for we are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades. But You are Soverign, God who lives for all eternity!
Holiday/Event: High Holidays
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