I had always thought that I knew the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (or Mayence), whose poignant prayer-poem “U’nsaneh Tokef” is solemnly recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Several years ago, though, I discovered something about the account that I had overlooked, and was struck by the irony it holds.
The liturgical poem, of course, pictures the scene of the new year’s Divine judgment of all mortals, with the Ultimate Judge opening the book of their deeds, in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.” The judgment is pronounced: “who will live and who will die,” and how; who will “live undisturbed, and who in turmoil”; “who will be laid low, and who raised high.” It is a chilling passage to recite – and the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung only adds to its poignancy, sending chills down any spine connected to a functioning head. And the prayer’s final words, “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree,” chanted loudly by the entire congregation, are a font of inspiration to be better in the coming days of the year just arrived.
The story behind the composition, as I had known it from the old machzor I had used as a teenager, was that a certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. The rabbi refused repeatedly but on one occasion asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the clergyman hope that he might abandon his ancestral faith.
When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him. When it was clear that he would not waiver from his faith, the archbishop, deeply disappointed, had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the rabbi to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his twenty amputated limbs.
On Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the synagogue, and at an important point in the service, before Kedusha, asked the cantor to pause. The silent lull was broken by the tortured man’s intonation of U’nsaneh Tokef, after which he died. Several days later, another rabbi, Kalonymus ben Meshulam, had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the prayer.
The account comes to us from the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rabbi Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Several years ago I took the trouble to read the Ohr Zarua’s actual words recounting the event.
What I hadn’t known was that when Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rabbi told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished – not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rabbi, the one that was meted out.
And so the priest, while he tortured the Jew grievously, left his victim’s tongue in place.
The Talmud teaches us that the Jew’s power lies not in his hands – that is Esav’s domain – but rather in his words, his prayer.
And, indeed, Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to utilize it well – the result being U’nsaneh Tokef. The irony is striking. The part of his body he regretted having misused became the holy instrument of his contribution to Jewish liturgy, to Jewish life, to the inspiration of millions of Jews over the generations since.
And so all of us who, as we read the words Rabbi Amnon composed, are moved by them to make even some small change for the better in our lives in the new Jewish year are thereby contributing, across the centuries, to Rabbi Amnon’s personal repentance. And are joining, in small but real ways, in his sanctification of the name of G-d.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran