The Music of Un’taneh Tokef

By Cantor Lisa Levine

Ask any Cantor which prayers cause the most emotional reaction during the High Holy Days for both clergy and congregation, and the answer will undoubtedly include “Un’taneh Tokef.” After all, in the first paragraph we hear that “the power of this day’s holiness is awesome and frightening…and even the Angels in heaven will tremble with terror.” The second paragraph lays out a formula for who shall live and who shall die, who will be written into the Book of Life and who will not, what fate awaits those who follow a righteous path and what the consequences are if we fall short. Finally we reach the ultimate conclusion: “but repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.” Could any prayer express, in such stark contrast, what consequences our actions may have in the way this powerful and moving prayer does? And of course, it is our responsibility to represent those words through music in a way that communicates the depth of their meaning, given the circumstance in which they were written. A grave and awesome undertaking indeed.

The prayer is in the form of a piyyut, a liturgical poem, which occurs just before the Amidah, and is one of the few piyyutim recited both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, underscoring its importance in High Holy Day liturgy.

Most of us know and anticipate the melody written by Louis Lewandowski (the great 19th century composer and choir director from Berlin), which epitomizes the theme of the High Holy Days. Its strong melodic lines and rhythm perfectly capture the beginning of the prayer: “This is the day of God, full of holiness, full of dread.” LISTEN

The great 20th century composer Max Janowski, also born in Berlin, emigrated to the US in 1937 and later became the music director at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago. Janowski wrote this popular version of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer which is awe-inspiring in the way the choir echoes the cantor, as if the whole people of Israel were chanting along. LISTEN

The most intense and often melodic part of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer comes in the second paragraph with the words B’rosh Hashanah… “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Then begins the litany of who will live and who will die: by water, fire, sword, beast, famine, thirst, upheaval or plague. Simply put, it is a litany of the horrible end people in the time of the crusades might have met at the hands of oppressors. This folk version combines the music of Baruch Schorr and Heinrich Schalit and gives the congregation the opportunity to sing along for the chorus, while the cantor extols the grim ways our lives might end if we don’t shape up! LISTEN

Yet another rendition of B’rosh Hashanah by Meir Finkelstein tempers God’s decree through the music itself. By presenting a hauntingly beautiful melody as the chorus, our fate is softened and made palatable. LISTEN

Finally, Craig Taubman presents us an interesting dichotomy as interpreted by Chazzan Alberto Mizrahi, who begins the prayer with traditional hazzanut and ends it with a modern interpretation of B’rosh Hashanah based on a niggun. It is this treatment of the notorious prayer which leads us to a positive end. LISTEN

Many of us feel as though we have been through trials and tribulations that seem equal to those of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, to whom the Un’taneh Tokef prayer is attributed. Like many of our ancestors, he met a brutal and untimely end. But instead of counting the ways we might die, perhaps this year we will check off ways in which we might live, working together to ensure that cruelty, hunger and disease are erased from this earth and that all people are treated with dignity and respect. The Un’taneh Tokef prayer reminds us that our lives are not always in our control, but through our actions we can find blessing, hope and forgiveness.

References: Un’taneh Tokef, Lewandowski, performed by Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky; Un’taneh Tokef, Janowski, from Gems of the High Holy Days, Cantor Lisa Levine and quartet; B’rosh Hashanah Schorr/Schalit from Gems of the High Holy Days, Cantor Lisa Levine and quartet; B’rosh Hashanah Finkelstein, Dena Propis with Cantor David Propis; B’rosh Hashanah, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi from Inscribed by Craig Taubman.

Lisa Levine is the Cantor of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD. Her original compositions are published by Transcontinental Music, and her book Yoga Shalom is published by URJ Press. Visit her website.

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2 Responses to “The Music of Un’taneh Tokef”

  1. avatar

    A great overview of melodies. And for a rather different interpretation, there’s Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” ( Cohen starts with “Who by fire, who by water,” but then shifts the traditional Un’taneh Tokef text, focusing not merely on the concrete forms of famine and plague, but rather on more abstract and personal, even slightly humorous, forms of death: “And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…Who in mortal chains, who in power.”

    And after each verse, Cohen asks us one haunting question: “And who shall I say is calling?”

  2. avatar

    (bonus link: Cohen discussing his song and its Jewish roots in a 1979 interview:

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