One of the most striking parts of the High Holy Days liturgy is this piyyut (liturgical poem), which features a narrative of God’s scrutiny of humankind. Here God is described as “apportioning the destinies” of each person, to be written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur: “Who will live and who will die … who by water, and who by fire.” Explore the meanings of this piyyut with Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, Imani Romney-Rosa Chapman, Leonard Cohen, and more.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld: Unetaneh Tokef
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi emeritus of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan founded by Mordecai Kaplan. He is the author of A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice and is one of the co-editors of The Jewish Catalog.
Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives
Imani Romney-Rosa Chapman writes, “Friday would have been the 65th birthday of my first wife and her yahrzeit is this week. As I thought about the beauty of her laugh and the pain of her end, so different from those on whose behalf we cry out, the words of the Unetaneh Tokef—a prayer that inspires fear and awe during the High Holidays—came to me.”
Who By Fire: The Most Controversial Prayer in Jewish Life
Are you troubled by reciting: “Who shall live and who shall die?” every year on High Holy Days? Does God really mete out just reward and punishment each year? Learn with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer about the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, looking at its biblical allusions and discovering its radically divergent internal theological approaches.
Leonard Cohen: Who by Fire
In perhaps the most prominent piece of art to be inspired by Unetaneh Tokef, Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” adapts the text from sections of the piyut almost word for word. The result is a stirring, beautiful, and haunting adaptation of our prayer on the High Holy Days.
Admiel Kosman: Divine Teaching Which is Given in Silence
Admiel Kosman, an Israeli poet, is professor for Jewish studies at Potsdam University as well as the academic director of Geiger College, a training school for liberal rabbis in Berlin. One of his poems can be found in Mahzor Lev Shalem beside Unetaneh Tokef.
Breaking Down Unetaneh Tokef
What’s the essence of Unetaneh Tokef, the piyut that illuminates the central drama of our liturgy? Take a look inside as we break down Unetaneh Tokef.
Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Unetaneh Tokef
The theology expressed in this poem—that God judges us for life and death during the Ten Days of Awe—is always challenging. In a year marked by pandemic and civil and political unrest, it may be all the more so. How does it feel to confront this kind of theology this year? How do you make space for liturgy that feels painful? Is this a text you feel ready to confront this year, or do you feel an urge to avoid it? Explore these questions further as we dig into the deeper meanings of “Unetaneh Tokef.”
Frank London: Berosh Hashanah
Frank London is a New York City-based trumpeter, bandleader, and composer active in klezmer and world music. He also plays various other wind instruments and keyboards, and occasionally sings backup vocals. With The Klezmatics, he won a Grammy award in Contemporary World Music for “Wonder Wheel (lyrics by Woody Guthrie).” He offers this piece as an interpretation on the Berosh Hashanah theme from Unetaneh Tokef.