Insights into selected Yom Kippur prayers

Unetane Tokef, Melech Elyon and the Ten Martyrs, central prayers on the fast day, are explained below.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism מחזור יום כיפור לחילונים
מחזור יום כיפור לחילונים

Bnai Maron

The dramatic High Holyday poem, Une’tanneh Tokef, written in the Middle Ages and possibly emanating from Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, describes mankind coming before God in single file on the Day of Judgment, like sheep checked over the shepherd.

The Hebrew phrase for “like sheep” is kiv’nei maron, which has at least six interpretations, of which “like sheep” (in Aramaic b’nei imrana) is only one interpretation.

Other views include the following:
•  Soldiers of the House of David (kiv’nei maron is in this view a Hebraised version of the Greek noumeron, a troop): the notion is of a military unit filing before their commander.

•  Soldiers going in single file through the narrow, steep pass of Horon, i.e. Bet Choron, not Bet Maron. This is the view of Resh Lakish in the Talmud. A detailed discussion of Bet Choron is found in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 32b.

All these and similar interpretations add up to the same thing – every creature being minutely scrutinised by the Almighty, both because He loves each one and because no-one can escape Heavenly attention.

What calls the people of the world to appear before God is the sound of the shofar.

A well-known interpretation of the shofar says that the notes start with t’ki’ah, the call to attention; they continue with sh’varim and t’ru’ah, symbolising the fear and trepidation that shakes every individual heart and conscience; and they conclude with another t’ki’ah, as if to say, “March on with God’s blessing!”

Melech Elyon - the Supreme King

Religious poems (piyyutim) liven all the Yom Kippur services. They generally use complicated allusions to Biblical and rabbinic material, but their message is unmistakable.

They often compare the greatness of God the Supreme King and the littleness of man the Lowly King. The piyyut, Melech Elyon (“the Supreme King”) is a vivid example.

The text in the Yom Kippur prayer book is abbreviated; the translated version given here is closer to the original.

Why many prayer rites omit most of the “Lowly King” lines is that Jews were often accused of lack of loyalty and respect for the monarchical figures of the European kingdoms and principalities.

Whether this accusation is valid is uncertain; what is beyond doubt is that many of the temporal rulers and church potentates that the medieval Jews encountered were lacking in integrity and ethical character.

Supreme King: God On High, mighty above, lifting His strong hand –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: decays, descends to the grave, toils without pleasure –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: keeps His word, decrees and fulfils, reveals secrets –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: weak with disease, speaks nonsense, sees nothing –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: speaks truth, clothed in justice, hears cries for help –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: loves wickedness, does evil, inborn transgressor –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: recalls forebears, defends mankind, berates enemies –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: thinks and forgets, soon forgotten, sins noticed –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: lives eternally, ever good, spreads out the heavens –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: his days are handbreadths, his time is grief, born useless –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: robed in light, all heaven’s lights, mighty and luminous –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: brought down to the dark valley with clods and thick dark –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: forever rules, reveals secrets, gives speech to the dumb –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: moves briefly, troubled by disease, mind confused –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: endures all, from old bearing all, seeing all –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: transient, passing, eyesight dim, earth heaping up –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: glorious power, mighty in deeds, redeems and protects –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: his stench ascends, his filth and dirt cover him –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: His flaming angels move the waters, close to them who call in love –                                          He reigns forever
Lowly king: wrapped in worms, dank and dry, flashing water and fire –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: ever awake, His serene angels fill their mouths with praise –
He reigns eternally
Lowly king: sleep hovers and overcomes him, confusion besets him –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: mighty forever, always glorious, His praise everlasting –
He reigns eternally

The Ten Martyrs


Musaf on Yom Kippur contains the tragic story of the ten martyred sages of the Roman period, put to death because they defied the ban on teaching of the Torah.

They led an ages-long procession of Jews who sacrificed all for the sake of the sanctification of the Divine name.

These are some of the stories about them in the Talmud and Midrash.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Ishmael were on the way to execution.

Shimon said to Ishmael, “I do not know why I am to be executed.” (Meaning, why is G-d punishing me?)

Ishmael replied, “Perhaps someone came to you to hear judgment or to consult you, and you kept him waiting until you had emptied your goblet, fastened your shoes or put on your cloak.”

Shimon said, “You have consoled me, O Rabbi!”

A Roman noblewoman gazed at Rabbi Ishmael and said to the executioner, “Tell him to raise his head so that I can see his handsomeness, and I shall grant him his life.”

Ishmael answered, “Shall I forfeit the bliss of eternal life for an hour of pleasures?”

When the woman heard this, she said, “Flay him!”

When the executioners came to his forehead where the tefillin are fastened, Ishmael let out a piercing scream, “Lord of the universe, will You not have mercy upon me?”

A voice from heaven answered, “If you accept the suffering, it is well: if not, the world will lapse into chaos.”

Then Ishmael willingly suffered martyrdom.

Rabbi Akiva taught that when the Shema says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”, the words “with all your soul” mean, “Even when He takes your soul from you.”

When Akiva was led out to be executed, they gashed his flesh with iron combs but he recited the first line of the Shema.

The breath of life left him when he reached the word Echad -­ “One”.

Rabbi Chanania ben Teradyon was caught teaching from the Torah scroll. They wrapped him in the scroll and set him on fire.

His disciples asked, “Rabbi, what do you see?” He replied, “I see parchment consumed by fire, but letters soaring aloft!”

The man in charge of the fire asked if he would get eternal life if he sees to it that the rabbi dies quickly. When the answer was affirmative, he did so and jumped into the flames himself. 

Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi remarked, “One person can win eternal life in an hour while another needs many years.”

Chutzpit the interpreter was a very old man and the emperor was asked to show mercy to him.

The emperor said to him, “What difference does it make whether you die today or tomorrow?”

Chutzpit answered, “There are two commandments I would like to carry out once more ­ to say ‘Hear, O Israel’ this evening and tomorrow morning, so that I may once more avow Almighty God.”

The emperor said, “How long will you cling to your God who has no power to save you?”

When Chutzpit heard these words he tore his garments and said, “What will you do, O prince, on the day of judgment, when the Lord punishes Rome and your gods?”

The emperor said, “How long must I stand this old man?” and he bade the officials slay him.

The day when Chanina ben Hachinai was to be executed was the eve of Shabbat.

He began to pronounce the blessing ushering in the day and reached the words, “And God hallowed it”, when he was killed.

A voice came from heaven and said, “Happy are you, Chanina, a holy man whose soul flew on high at the word ‘hallowed’!”

When Y’hudah ben Dama was about to be put to death, the emperor asked, “Do you uphold the belief that there is a God who gave you the Torah?”

Y’hudah said, “Yes!” the emperor said, “And what reward does your faith promise you?”

Y’hudah quoted the verse, “How abundant is Your goodness which You have laid up for them that revere You” (Psalm 31:20).

The emperor said, “There are no fools greater than you who believe in life after death”.

To which Rabbi Y’hudah replied, “There are no fools greater than you who deny the living God!”

The emperor was enraged and ordered that the rabbi be tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through the streets of Rome.