One of the most emotional prayers recited on the High Holidays is Netane Tokef.
The Torah ark is open and the synagogue becomes silent as this extremely powerful prayer is recited. Netane Tokef speaks of God’s rule in this world and how fragile we are as humans. The prayer talks about God’s judgment on Rosh Hashanah;
“Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall have peace and who shall suffer? Who by war and who by hunger…”
Many Jews say this prayer trembling as tears of repentance streak down their cheeks.
In this rendition of the Netane Tokef prayer, IDF Head Cantor, Shai Abramson, beautifully captures the emotions of one of the most stirring prayers of the Days of Awe.
Videos from the Yom Kippur war are played in the background and the prayer for life becomes even more intense.
“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself – and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.
“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.”
History of Netane Tokef
Rabbi Amnon was pressured to convert to Catholicism. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer; immediately he regretted intensely giving even the pretense that he could possibly accept a foreign religion. After spending the three days in prayer, he refused to come to the archbishop as promised, and, when he was forcibly brought to the archbishop’s palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin. Instead, the archbishop ordered his hands and legs amputated — limb by limb — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. He was sent home, with his severed extremities, on a knight’s shield.
This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. On that holiday, as he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue, where he recited the original composition of Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath (the story contains an ambiguous phrase that some commentators interpreted as saying that he did not merely die but that his body miraculously vanished). Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshullam (died 1096), one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, and begged him to transcribe the prayer and to see that it was included in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus, the legend concludes, Unetanneh Tokef became a part of the standard liturgy.