How Do You Measure A Year?/Unetaneh Tokef

There is a famous legend behind this stirring prayer. Click here to read the full story.

The first paragraph of the prayer paints a picture of God sitting in front of an open book of remembrances and reviewing each person as they pass before Him.

(מב) וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם. כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיוֹם. וּבוֹ תִנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶֽךָ. וְיִכּוֹן בְּחֶֽסֶד כִּסְאֶֽךָ. וְתֵשֵׁב עָלָיו בֶּאֱמֶת. אֱמֶת כִּי אַתָּה הוּא דַיָּן וּמוֹכִֽיחַ וְיוֹדֵֽעַ וָעֵד. וְכוֹתֵב וְחוֹתֵם וְסוֹפֵר וּמוֹנֶה. וְתִזְכֹּר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת. וְתִפְתַּח אֶת סֵֽפֶר הַזִּכְרוֹנוֹת. וּמֵאֵלָיו יִקָּרֵא. וְחוֹתָם יַד כָּל אָדָם בּוֹ. וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע. וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן. וְיֹאמְרוּ הִנֵּה יוֹם הַדִּין. לִפְקֹד עַל צְבָא מָרוֹם בַּדִּין. כִּי לֹא יִזְכּוּ בְעֵינֶֽיךָ בַדִּין. וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶֽיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן. כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ. מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּֽחַת שִׁבְטוֹ. כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה. וְתִפְקֹד נֶֽפֶשׁ כָּל חָי. וְתַחְתֹּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיּוֹתֶֽיךָ. וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם:

(42) Let us describe the great holiness of this day, for it is awesome and frightening. On this day, Your Kingship is uplifted,7His Kingship is uplifted through our saying of “מַלְכֻיּו‍ֹת—זִכְרו‍ֹנו‍ֹת—שׁו‍ֹפָרו‍ֹת” and the sounding of the shofar. and Your throne is established with kindness,8Hashem rules with kindness. and You sit upon it in truth.9See Yeshaya 16:5. Truth in this sense might refer to Hashem’s permanence (Metsudas Dovid) or to Hashem’s love of truth (Malbim). True that You are judge, admonisher, knower and witness; and You inscribe, seal, record and count, and recall all forgotten things.10Forgotten things refer only to things we may have forgotten, for there is no forgetfulness before Hashem. You open the book of records and it reads of itself; and the signature of every man is in it. A great shofar is sounded, and a silent, gentle voice is heard; and the angels are alarmed, pangs of fear and trembling seize them,11See Job 4:18, “הֵן בַּעֲבָדָיו לֹא יַאֲמִין וּבְמַלְאָכָיו יָשִׂים תָּהָלָה” Behold! He puts no trust in His servants, and His angels, He charges with foolishness.” and they declare, “behold the Day of Judgment.” The heavenly host is arraigned in judgment, for they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.12See Job 15:16, “הֵן בִּקְדו‍ֹשָׁיו לֹא יַאֲמִין וְשָׁמַיִם לֹא זַכּוּ בְעֵינָיו” Behold! “He puts no trust in His holy ones, and even those in the heavens [angels] are not guiltless in His eyes.” All mankind pass before You like young sheep.13See Mishnah, Maseches Rosh Hashana 1:2. “All mankind passes before Hashem to be judged individually, like young sheep who pass through a small opening in the corral as they are counted for tithing. Bartenura As a shepherd inspects his flock, making his sheep pass under his rod, so do You cause to pass, count, number, and review the soul of every living being, determining the life-span of every creature; and You record the decree of their judgment.

The second paragraph begins with the famous line, "On Rosh Hashanah their decree is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed".

(מג) בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן. וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן. מִי יִחְיֶה. וּמִי יָמוּת. מִי בְקִצּוֹ. וּמִי לֹא בְקִצּוֹ. מִי בַמַּֽיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ. מִי בַחֶֽרֶב. וּמִי בַחַיָּה. מִי בָרָעָב. וּמִי בַצָּמָא. מִי בָרַֽעַשׁ. וּמִי בַמַּגֵּפָה. מִי בַחֲנִיקָה וּמִי בַסְּקִילָה. מִי יָנוּחַ. וּמִי יָנֽוּעַ. מִי יִשָּׁקֵט. וּמִי יִטָּרֵף. מִי יִשָּׁלֵו. וּמִי יִתְיַסָּר. מִי יֵעָנִי. וּמִי יֵעָשֵׁר. מִי יִשָּׁפֵל. וּמִי יָרוּם:

(43) On Rosh Hashana their decree is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed,14This formula of judgment is only for those who are considered בֵּינו‍ֹנִים, neither righteous nor wicked. The truly righteous are inscribed and sealed for life on Rosh Hashana, and the wicked also receive their full verdict on Rosh Hashana. Thus it is only the בֵּינו‍ֹנִי, one in between, who is given time until Yom Kippur to mend his ways and be judged for life. Talmud Yerushalmi, Maseches Rosh Hashana 1:3. how many will pass away and how many will be created, who will live and who will die; who will come to his timely end, and who to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by the sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by the plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who will be at rest and who will wander about; who will have serenity and who will be confused; who will be tranquil and who will be tormented; who will become poor and who will become wealthy; who will be brought to a low state and who will be uplifted.

The prayer ends with a big finish.

(מד) וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֽוֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה:

(44) Congregation followed by Chazzan:
But repentance, and prayer and charity annul the evil decree.15This is based on Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 44:13.

Chat Questions

  • What emotions do you feel as you read this prayer?

  • The prayer says that “A great shofar is sounded, and a silent, gentle voice is heard”. What do you hear when the shofar is sounded; the great shofar or the silent, gentle voice?

  • The culminating sentence of the prayer can be translated “repentance, and prayer and tzedaka (charity) make the evil of the decree pass”. How can repentance, prayer and tzedaka help us to cope with the evilness of a difficult situation?