Tag Archives: Un’taneh Tokef

An open letter to the Reform Machzor committee

The background to this is over here. This post is meant as a more succinct–and more correct–version of that post.

To Rabbi Edward Goldberg, Rabbi Leon Morris, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Sheldon Marder and the other scholars of their various subcommittees:

A little bird–an anonymous person on one of your subcommittees–told me that in the course of working out the order of the prayers in the forthcoming Reform machzor, it was suggested that Un’taneh Tokef be appended to the end of Shacharit, totally removed from its context in the Kedushah.

As you know, the most central problem that Reform liturgists encounter when working out the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah is the problem of Musaf. Reform liturgy has long excluded Musaf from its siddurim and machzorim out of discomfort with discussions and remembrances of sacrifice. Yet, on Rosh Hashanah, the most remarkable additions to the service were traditionally found in Musaf–Un’taneh Tokef as part the Kedushah, Malchuyot as part of Kedushat Hayom and Zichronot and Shofarot as their own special brachot within Musaf.

The novel solution to the pull of the special Rosh Hashanah prayers and the push of Musaf put forth by Gates of Repentance and the Union Prayer Book II before it was to include Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot in the grey area of the Torah service (GOR 139-151, 209-217; UPBII 1940 78-84) . Between the Torah reading and the return of the Sefer Torah to the ark, liturgists and prayer leaders often insert all kinds of things. Not only that, but this placement keeps these sections toward the end of the service, preserving the mood of climax created by their traditional place toward the end of the service in Musaf. However, as I will propose, there is a better way to include these sections while also respecting the Reform tradition of excluding Musaf.

Though UPBII excluded Un’taneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah, GOR inserted it as a “Meditation” preceding the Kedushah in the Rosh Hashanah Shacharit Amidah (106, 175).

So the question now is about how the new Reform machzor will handle these sections. My goal here is to offer a solution that respects liturgical structure and the context of individual prayers, while also respecting the Reform drive to leave Musaf out. In doing so, I will propose an order of prayers that includes no material that is not already in GOR, keeping the service the same length.

I propose is to combine the Shacharit Amidah with the special material from the Musaf Amidah into a single Shacharit Amidah. There is a precedent in Reform liturgy for taking material from a Musaf Amidah and putting it in another Amidah. My example is Yism’chu, which comes from Kedushat Hayom in Musaf, but has been offered as a part of the regular Kedushat Hayom by Reform liturgy (Mishkan T’filah 250, 329; Gates of Prayer 328, 343, 359, 375, 385; Ha’avodah Shebalev 120).

Under my plan, the Shacharit Amidah for Rosh Hashanah would proceed in the order of the traditional Musaf Amidah for Rosh Hashanah: Avot V’imahot, G’vurot, Kedushah–with Un’taneh Tokef included as a part of Kedushah, Kedushat Hayom–with Malchuyot included as a part of Kedushat Hayom, Zichronot, Shofarot, R’tzeih, Modim, Shalom and T’filat Halev.

Again, it is important to note that there is nothing in this proposal that is not in GOR in some form already. This is merely a different order that respects the Reform tradition of doing the Amidah once, while also taking care with the structural context of the special Rosh Hashanah prayers that Reform worshipers expect to find in their Rosh Hashanah experience. There is true liturgical power in keeping these four memorable Rosh Hashanah prayers in close proximity to each other, rather than splitting them up with one in one place and the other three in another place.

Of course, there is merit to retaining the mood set by having Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot near the end of the service. However, there is no point in pretending that Un’taneh Tokef is anything other than what it is–a part of Kedushah. If you all decide that the place for Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot is in the Torah service, there are fine arguments–though I don’t happen to agree with them–for doing so.

To remove Un’taneh Tokef from its context is a waste of the subtle point it makes as a part of Kedushah. Every day, the Kedushah is about the nature of God’s holiness and the ways that human beings interact with and communicate with it. On Rosh Hashanah, God takes on a particular role in our lives, that of a sovereign judge. This role is expanded upon in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in Un’taneh Tokef and its most appropriate place is in the prayer that discusses God’s holiness and role every day–the Kedushah.

So please, rabbis and scholars, leave Un’taneh Tokef in its Amidah context. And please also consider what I am proposing for the order of the Rosh Hashanah Shacharit Amidah and the place of Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.

Shavua tov, shanah tovah and tzom kal.


David A.M. Wilensky


Where to put Un’taneh Tokef in Reform liturgy if it can’t be in Musaf

GORThere is plenty to trouble our minds in the liturgy at this time of year. As well there should be, I think. There’s nothing wrong with liturgy that makes you think. At this time of year in particular, I think the liturgy does us a great service when it makes us uncomfortable.

Even in the Reform liturgy, which often does away with prayers that make congregants and liturgists uncomfortable, disquieting pieces have made their way into the machzor.

Un’taneh Tokef is by far one of the hardest for modern Jews to swallow. In its most memorable lines it wonder who will die in the year to come and who will live and declares, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed!” (according to Mahzor Lev Shalem’s translation).

But its content isn’t the issue in this post. Its location is my topic. Traditionally, there are two Amidahs on the morning of Rosh Hashanah. There is the first Amidah and later there is the Musaf Amidah, which is the center of most of what makes Rosh Hashanah liturgy unique. On weekdays, the Amidah has 19 pieces. On Shabbat, it has eight. But during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah, the Amidah has nine (names according to Mahzor Lev Shalem):

  1. Our Ancestors (a.k.a. Avot [v’Imahot], nearly identical to its usual version)
  2. God’s Saving Care (a.k.a. G’vurot, nearly identical to its usual version)
  3. God’s Holiness (a.k.a. Kedushah, greatly expanded to include Un’taneh Tokef, which focuses on God’s special role as judge at this time of year)
  4. The Holiness of Rosh Hashanah (analogous to the fourth part of the Amidah on Shabbat, which is concerned with the holiness of Shabbat) and Malkhuyot–God’s Sovereignty (the first of three sections that Lev Shalem identifies as unique to Rosh Hashanah, though much of number three could certainly be counted as a fourth unique RH section)
  5. Zikhronot–Rememberance (the second of the three special RH sections, as identified by MLS)
  6. Shofarot (the third of the special sections, which focuses on the Shofar and its role and purpose)
  7. Restoration of Zion (a.k.a. R’tzheih, nearly identical to its usual version)
  8. Gratitude for Life and Its Blessings (a.k.a. Modim, nearly identical to the usual, but also including the Priestly Blessing)
  9. Prayer for Peace (a.k.a. Sim Shalom, mostly the same as the usual)

The purpose of Musaf, on both Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah, is to serve as a remembrance of the additional sacrifice that was offered on these days when the Temple still stood. Reform liturgists, uncomfortable with giving undue attention to the notion of sacrifice and the Temple–not to mention the length added by doing the Amidah twice–have unanimously decided to leave Musaf out. Which I don’t like. But that’s not my point here, believe it or not.

[EDITED 9/11/10: I was way wrong, by omission here. Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot are actually in GOR, but I didn’t see them when I looked while writing the post because I looked in the wrong place. Other than this note, I’ve left the post alone. See more on how I was wrong and what I think in light of the new information here.]

My point is to wonder what to do with the large swaths of material unique to Musaf on Rosh Hashanah. What a disservice is done to Jews who go to services in RH and don’t get to do the prayers that are found only in Musaf! If the idea of Musaf is out, perhaps space can be found for the material unique to Musaf. After all, Reform liturgists have no problem taking Yism’chu, which is unique to Shabbat Musaf, and putting it in the regular Shabbat Amidah.

This is the solution offered up by Gates of Repentance–almost. GOR’s Amidah is arranged like this, in eight parts:

  1. God of all Generations (Our Ancestors in MLS)
  2. God’s Power (God’s Saving Care in MLS
  3. Un’taneh Tokef (which it labels a “Meditation” and is traditionally a part of the following item on the list)
  4. Sanctification (God’s Holiness in MLS)
  5. The Holiness of This Day (The Holiness of Rosh Hashanah in MLS)
  6. Whom Alone We Serve in Reverence (Restoration of Zion in MLS)
  7. To Whom Our Thanks are Due (Gratitude for Life and Its Blessings in MLS)
  8. Peace (Prayer for Peace in MLS)

The differences are fairly obvious. Un’taneh Tokef is removed from its context as part of Rosh Hashanah’s special emphasis on the form of God’s holiness and labeled a mere “meditation,” a term used throughout GOR and Gates of Prayer for readings that have been inserted into the service as options. Aside from the implied downgrading of Un’taneh Tokef’s status, the rest of the list is clearly missing a lot. Some of the Kedushah’s (called “Sanctification” in GOR) RH-specific material is retained, but Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot are gone completely.

If there’s no way to keep Musaf and it’s only possible to have the one Amidah, why not move all of Musaf’s special RH material into the regular Amidah? There’s already a willingness to do this with Un’taneh Tokef, though much of its context gets muddled by the particular way it is done in GOR. So why not do the same with Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot?

It was my hope, as the editors of Mishkan T’shuvah, the Reform movement’s forthcoming new machzor, move forward, that they would take this approach. And then I heard some really disheartening news. A source of mine on one of the  editorial subcommittees told me that the editors responsible for figuring out what the contents and order of prayers will be have hit upon a totally ludicrous innovation. They want to make Un’taneh Tokef a reading at the end of the morning service. (Or at the end of the morning blessings–it was uclear, but it was clear that they wanted to take it out of the Amidah context entirely).

So, editors of the new CCAR machzor, if you’re reading, that’s nuts. Please don’t do it. It makes no sense.

In other news, Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.