Friday, September 21, 2012

What is Unetaneh Tokef and where did it come from

A new article at the Examiner debunks the beloved story of Rav Amnon, the Sage of medieval Ashkenaz who was dismembered by a bishop before coming back in a dream to teach a Kolonymous the Unetaneh Tokef prayer poem. Here's what the author found:
For starters, there is no record of a Rabbi Amnon living in Germany in any other medieval literature. His name is not a typical Ashkenaz name (it is Italian), and the gruesome punishment of dismemberment was also not used in Germany in that time period. 
Secondly, fragments of the UT have shown up in the Cairo Geniza to material that dates to the late 700s. That is some 300 years earlier than the martyrdom story purportedly took place! 
Third, the piyyut contains a variety of notable similarities to a Christian poem called the “Hymn of Romanus upon Christ’s Reappearance,” which was written by a Jew who converted to Christianity in either the 500 or 700s. It shares a number of themes, motifs, and word patterns with this Christian hymn including trembling angels, God taking account of the souls of people, the blasts of the horn, books being opened, etc. 
Fourth, the UT contains a variety of characteristics that can be identified with an earlier time period. The UT is a piyyut, and a piyyut is a very particular literary genre typified as a highly stylized poetic prayer. Piyyutim were not the standardized pieces of liturgy found in the classic rabbinic berakha framework; instead, they were designed to be additions inserted into berachot to enrich them.

The bit about how our poem seems to have been borrowed from a Catholic devotion is most interesting. Here, via the Shechter Institute, are some of the alleged parallels

Unetane TokefRomanus
the angels shudder, fear and trembling sieze themeverything trembles
you open the book of records;
you call to mind all things long forgotten
the books are opened, the hidden things are made public
the angels shudder,
they say it is the day of judgment
the angels are dragged before the throne
they cry: glory to Thee, most just judge!
the great trumpet is soundedupon the sound of the trumpet
they are not pure before theenobody is pure before thee
as the shepherd musters his flock, so do You
cause to pass, number every living soul
like a shepherd he will save
but repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the severe decree.Therefore, penitence and prayer will save you.

The Catholic poem is from the 7th century (probably) and was written by a Jewish convert to Catholicism, raising the appealing possibility that Unetaneh Tokef dates to that period and was brought by the apostate into Christendom.

Another fun fact to know and tell:  Unetanek tokef quotes Rosh Hashana 1:2 when it says all of man kind pass before God  like כבני מרון, a phrase usually ranslated as "members of the flock." I've seen it suggested in many places that the word is actually kivinumeron, a Greek loan word meaning cohort of soldiers.

Search for more information about how little we really know 

No comments: