Each Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we daven the Unesaneh Tokef as part of the Mussaf tefillah.
The story behind the Unesaneh Tokef tefillah (expressing the seriousness of the day) relates to the Gezeira Rah (evil decree) of forced conversion to Christianity which was faced by R’ Amnon of Mainz and his Kehilla roughly 1,000 years ago.
R’ Amnon feared for his Kehilla due to having faced persistent dread coercion as well as potential mortal, imminent threat of communal harm or deaths hanging over them as retribution for failure to convert to Christianity. Therefore, at one point, he weakened by giving the Bishop or Governor (whatever the correct title was) the perception of his consideration of possible compliance with the demand to convert. Almost immediately after taking leave of the Bishop, R’ Amnon became distraught feeling that he betrayed Hashem by having given the impression that he would consider conversion and give an answer to the Bishop 3 days hence.
We learn from Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah #157 that in the case of a public gezeira rah against Hashem and Torah, Jews must be willing even to give their lives al Kiddush Shaim Shemayim, if necessary rather than commit the aveirah (the violation).
The Artscroll Rosh Hashana Machzor relates how R’ Amnon mourned and prayed for Divine forgiveness and, after the 3 days, failed to appear before the Bishop with his answer. With R’ Amnon’s failure to appear, the Bishop sent officers to seize him. Once in front of the Bishop, R’Amnon explained why he regretted stating such consideration and that he would not and could not agree to conversion. R’Amnon requested that the Bishop have his tongue, the tongue which betrayed Hashem, cut out. But the Bishop responded that he understood R’ Amnon’s explanation and would not cut out his tongue, but would instead cut off the legs which did not carry R’ Amnon to him after 3 days with his answer as promised.
And so, excruciatingly, as each toe and leg was severed, R’Amnon was again asked to convert with the answer always being NO. Finally, with
with all of his limbs severed, the Bishop had R’Amnon sent back, with all of his severed parts, to his Kehilla just before Rosh Hoshana.
On Rosh Hashana, just before Kiddusha of Mussaf, R’Amnon, in unspeakable pain from the ordeal, composed and prayed the tefillah of Unesaneh Tokef before his soul departed this world at its conclusion.
R’ Amnon was a great chacham (brilliant Torah scholar) and a great Tzaddik (Righteous Man) as well as being the Godol HaDor (the greatest Torah giant of his generation). Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of Yeshiva.org.il cites the Or Zarua, written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna, which relates R’Amnon’s background and the story of his agonizing ordeal. Among the points cited by Rabbi Melamed is this:
At the end of the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, mention is made of a Rabbi who lived at that time and who received the exact version of “Unetaneh Tokef” in a dream. This was “Rabbi Klonimos ben Rabbi Meshullam ben Rabbi Moshe ben Rabbi Klonimos.” Rabbi Klonimos was known to many, and his name is mentioned in books of Jewish law. Based upon his name, the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz is estimated as having taken place around 4780 (1020), about seventy years before the decrees of 4856, during which the large massacres which accompanied the First Crusade took place.
Rabbi Melamed also cites the Or Zarua as noting:
Rabbi Amnon of Mainz… was the leading Torah sage in his generation, wealthy, of praiseworthy lineage, handsome…
It is clear, then, what interest the governor [or Bishop] had in making relations with Rabbi Amnon. He wanted the company of an educated man, and he also harbored the hidden hope of convincing the rabbi to abandon his faith. Yet what interest did Rabbi Amnon have? After all, he had no need of the knowledge or wisdom of the governor.
It must be understood, however, that we are dealing with a small Jewish community in the midst of a hostile non-Jewish environment. The Jews had no choice but to depend upon the kindness of the ruler, for he was the only individual who could defend them from the anger of mob or the scheming of the knights. The Jews had no rights per se. There were no soldiers or fighters in their midsts. They had no ministers that could use their authority to protect the community. They were few. They had no allies that would come to their defense from elsewhere.
The plight of the Jewish communities was dismal to say the least. Their entire physical wellbeing was dependent upon the goodwill of the ruler, for with the aid of his soldiers and by the laws which he laid down, he was able to protect them. Therefore, it was to the benefit of a Jewish sage or leader to see to it that relations with the governor remain positive and stable. This is what allowed the community as a whole to exist in relative tranquility: to pay their taxes and to lead a normal life of commerce, craft, Torah study, and preservation of community institutions.
Rabbi Amnon had to protect the community, and it followed that he could not reject the governor in a harsh manner. Such relations, in various places and in various periods, were extremely delicate, like explosives…. The Jew would have to navigate with great skill, walk on the razor’s edge; he could neither get too close nor distance himself too greatly. The slightest slip could result in a serious blow to the existence of the Jewish community.
So it seems that R’ Amnon, while being a Godol, a brilliant Torah scholar and an Yerat Shemayim willing to forfeit his own life rather than betray HaKadosh Borchu, he was also sharp, worldly and able to relate with governmental functionaries and officials. R’ Amnon knew the drill and seemingly knew how to finesse officials at the highest levels for the good and welfare of his Jewish kehal.
Just a note here; To give you an idea of just how powerful the governor (bishop) of Mainz was, Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, in his sefer “The World That Was Ashkenaz (term for Germany)” page 2 records:
The Holy Roman Emperor [to whom the King of Germany and those of other regions answered] was a monarch based on the Electoral College comprised of seven German princes. They were: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palitine of Rhine, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Duke of Saxony and the three princes of the church — the archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Cologne. These electors ensured that the Emperor remained an elected official, unable to create his own hereditary dynasty.
The question we need to consider in a Rosh Hashana context is: What made R’Amnon weaken?
He was steadfast, unshakeable. Rabbi Melamed renders Or Zarua as indicating:
His Judaism was his complete essence, his entire being.
So what made R’Amnon weaken?
Might it therefore be worthwhile to ponder these questions as Rosh Hashanah nears?:
- 1/ Sources such as Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum’s “The World That Was Ashkenaz” page 8, indicate that Mainz and the city of Worms were settled in nearly the same time frame. Rabbi Scheinbaum indicates that Mainz evolved “into the intellectual/spiritual center of German Judaism…” There is nothing indicating any great communal flaw(s) in the Jewish community of Mainz such that R’Amnon should endure such a tortuous ordeal. But do we have or know all of the history of Mainz and/or Worms in the approximate period of 4780 (1020) and the time leading up to the First Crusade in 1096 CE?
- 2/ Rabbi Scheinbaum cites (“The World That Was Ashkenaz” page 13) the Sefer Me’iras Einayim (a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch) which indicates that Jews migrated to Germany and settled in Worms following korban Beit HaMikdash Rishon (the First Temple). When, after the 70 years of exile, the Beit HaMikdash Sheni (the Second Temple) was constructed, Sefer Me’iras Einayim indicates that many Babylonian Jews returned to the Holy Land. But the Jews of Worms refused to return. The Sefer notes that when leaders of the Jewish community who were rebuilding in Jerusalem wrote to the Jews of Worms imploring them to return, the Jews of Worms refused stating that they “were comfortable in their new homes.” Rabbi Scheinbaum records their response (page 13):
“You stay where you are in the great Jerusalem and we will continue to stay in our little Jerusalem.”
It seems that this is reminiscent of latter-day expressions such as Borough Park Ir HaKodesh, etc. And is it possible that the Jews of Mainz echoed the sentiment of the Jews of Worms, i.e. “little Jerusalem?” Might R’Amnon’s ordeal be seen as a tikkun, a rectification for the attitudes represented by this sentiment? Might there be a moral, a lesson here for the “comfortable Jews” of America?
Is there also a lesson here for Israelis who once considered any attack on Jews anywhere in Israel, or on Jews anywhere in the world was an attack on them and their front door, but who now are soo selfish, soo self-centered, soo self-satisfied that often their brother doesn’t matter? And what about our national “leaders (sic)”, including the so-called “religious” ones who are all soo devoid of any Torah rooting that cow-tow to the “bishops” — to Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Clinton, etc.?
- 3/ Finally, might R’Amnon’s ordeal be seen as a tikkun which represented a forestalling of the onset of the First Crusade for some 75 years — roughly the period from 1020 CE to 1096 CE?
This gezeira rah some 1,000 years ago in Mainz, Germany is contrasted in our time, where forced compliance with the evil decrees of a less-than-Jewish Israeli governance are based on psychological intimidations when the penalties for noncompliance are far less than the dread coercion and mortal, imminent threat of violence and death which were meted out by the governors, the bishops of pre-Crusade Germany.
With the Yom HaDin upon us, may we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!
L’Shana Tova — a sweet year to Kol Yehudim, and Good Shabbos too!
Moshe Burt is an Oleh, writer and commentator on news and events in Eretz Yisrael. He is the founder and director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network and lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.