The Mystery Tucked Inside a Powerful High Holy Day Prayer

Apart from Kol Nidrei, no High Holy Day prayer is better known than Un’taneh Tokef. But there’s a puzzle at its heart.

September 14, 2021 | Philologos
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Orthodox Jews praying on the last day of Rosh Hashanah on the bank of the San river in Dynow, Poland on Sunday, September 20, 2020. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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Apart from Kol Nidrei, no High Holy Day prayer is better known than the piyyut or liturgical poem Un’taneh Tokef, which is recited in the musaf services of Rosh Hashanah and, in most synagogues, Yom Kippur. Traditionally ascribed to a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, a probably legendary medieval figure said to have composed it after being tortured for refusing to renounce his Jewish faith, it has been shown by textual analysis to go back to an unknown Palestinian poet of the talmudic period. Far more than the words of Kol Nidrei, whose dry legalism is at odds with their emotional impact, the language of Un’taneh Tokef is powerfully moving in its own right.

Un’taneh tokef k’dushat hayom, ki hu norah v’ayom, the piyyut begins, “Let us relate the holiness of the day, for it is full of awe and terror.” From there, the poem proceeds to describe the fearful commotion in heaven and on earth as God prepares to judge His creatures, who pass before Him like sheep beneath a shepherd’s staff; rhetorically asks who of them will live in the coming year and who will die, and who of the latter group will succumb to natural causes and who to “fire or water, hunger or the sword, earthquakes or plagues”; and ends with the haunting lament that humanity in its frailty is “like the jar that breaks, and the grass that withers, and the flower that fades, and the shadow that passes, and the cloud that melts, and the wind that blows, and the dust that is blown, and the dream that is gone.”

It’s all in plain, simple, direct Hebrew, unlike the convoluted language of many of the High Holy Day piyyutim. One phrase alone is puzzling. This is the piyyut’s statement that, on the days of judgment, “all the world’s denizens file by You [God] like the sons of maron [kivnei maron].” Who or what are the sons of maron? And should this perhaps be written “the sons of Maron?” Not only does maron have no known meaning, it is not clear from how it is used in Un’taneh Tokef whether it is an ordinary noun or the name of a place.

Actually, b’nei maron did not originate with Un’taneh Tokef. Rather, the piyyut borrowed the phrase from the Mishnaic tractate of Rosh Hashanah. There we read:

Four times a year, the world stands in judgment: on Passover, for the [spring and summer’s] grain crop; on Shavuot for the [summer’s] fruit crop; on Rosh Hashanah, when all the world’s denizens file before Him like the sons of maron, . . . and on Sukkot for [the winter’s] rainfall.

The Babylonian Talmud’s Gemara of Rosh Hashanah, commenting on this mishnah, offers three explanations of kivnei maron, none of them very plausible at first glance. The first is that maron is a variant form of Aramaic imrana, the plural of “sheep,” so that b’nei maron denotes lambs or sheep and reiterates the piyyut’s image of mankind passing before a divine judge like a flock before its shepherd. This, however, is improbable, since such a variant is unknown from elsewhere and the Mishnah, unlike the Gemara, is written in pure Hebrew with no Aramaic admixture.

The second explanation is equally unlikely. It is that maron is the mountaintop village of Meiron in the Galilee, a site reached by a steep, winding, narrow trail. According to this reading, the “world’s denizens” are compared to residents of Meiron, or to travelers to it, toiling up an arduous path one after another. Yet the Galilee had many such villages. Why would the poet have singled out Meiron?

The third explanation seems the most far-fetched. Made by Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Shmuel, the head of the famed Babylonian yeshiva of Nehardea, it is that the sons of maron were “troops of the House of David,” to whom the world’s denizens, filing before God their commander, are likened. Where did Shmuel get this idea? The Gemara, while trying to make some linguistic sense of it, doesn’t tell us and it strikes us as a wild guess.

And yet, in the light of modern research, we now know that this is the explanation that comes closest to the truth!

The researcher in question was the Jerusalem scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry Avraham Meir Haberman (1901-1980). Citing ancient rabbinic texts and a number of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, it was he who first showed conclusively that the kivnei maron of Un’taneh Tokef is a corruption of כבנומירון, ki-v’numeron, “as in a numeron,” and that numeron is a Greek form of the Latin numerus, a military unit. Thus, the original meaning of “all the world’s denizens file before him like the sons of maron” was indeed, as Shmuel suggested, that all humanity passes before God’s judgment seat like a body of troops before a mustering officer or reviewing stand. Shmuel was not in fact guessing. He was obviously in possession of a genuine tradition, lost to most of his contemporaries in Babylonia, in which Greek was not spoken as it was in Palestine and the eastern Roman empire. The change he made in this tradition was to Judaize the image of Roman troops by turning them into soldiers of David, the greatest of Jewish warrior-kings.

In the Roman army of the early centuries CE, a numerus was not just any body of troops, nor was it a regular Roman legion. A brigade-sized unit of 600 to 800 men recruited from the “barbarian” or native populations that the Romans conquered and controlled rather than from Roman citizens, it was more poorly equipped than a legion, alongside which it fought in an auxiliary capacity. Yet in the later years of the Roman empire, as barbarian soldiers came to play an increasingly larger role in the military, the weight of such units increased, and the word numerus became more generalized and inclusive—in which sense we find it in ancient rabbinic sources, too. Thus, in the late 4th- or 5th-century midrashic work M’khilta d’Rabbi Yishma’el, composed in Palestine, we have the statement attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel: “Come see the might of this [the Roman] empire, in which not a single body of troops [numeron] is ever idle, for all are in movement by day and by night.”

The rabbis of ancient Palestine, which produced the Mishnah, most of the midrashim, the early piyyutim, and the Jerusalem Talmud, knew well what a numeron was and would not have resorted to a folk etymology like b’nei maron to explain the word. Those of Babylonia, however, would largely have been in the dark, as is indicated by their tractate of Rosh Hashanah. It was there that b’nei maron originated. And since the oldest texts of the Mishnah and ancient piyyutim in our possession come from Jewish communities that followed Babylonian traditions, this garbled version has come down to us in both the Mishnah and the siddur.

With this our story would be concluded, were it not for the calamity of Mount Meiron that occurred in Israel last April 30 when 45 participants in the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai were trampled to death after a large crowd tried forcing its way through a narrow passage and those at the head of it stumbled and fell, causing those behind them to pile up on top of them. Now, the Babylonian Talmud’s second explanation of b’nei Maron as “sons of Meiron” has taken on a new meaning. The names of the fatalities can be added to the interminable list of God’s creatures who have died in floods, fires, plagues, wars, famines, droughts, and other unpredictable disasters. It is all a matter in the end of who will live and who will die.

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