Averting the Severe Decree

The appearance of three word phrases in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer teaches that deeds must follow thought.

The Unetaneh Tokef, recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings, is meant to fill the worshipper with fear in the presence of the Divine Judge. The following article looks at some additional wording for this prayer, which is omitted from most modern prayer books. These additional phrases help explain how the worshipper can proceed from a desire to repent, to actively changing behavior. This selection is reprinted with permission from Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Jason Aronson).

The prayer of "Unetaneh Tokef" is climaxed by the culminating verse, which the congregation proclaims as one: "Penitence, prayer, and righteous acts avert the severe decree."

In some of the older machzorim [holiday prayer books], there appear three other words, above “teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah,” [repentance, prayer and righteous acts]in a smaller print: "tzom, kol, mamon"–fasting, voice, money. These represent the means or methods whereby one can practice the three virtues of penitence, prayer, and righteousness. For the ordeal of fasting leads to repentance; the voice is the medium of soul-stirring prayer; and the contribution of money to a worthy cause represents an act of "tzedakah."

If we analyze "tzom, kol, mamon"even further, we discover, as many commentators point out, that the "gimmatria" or numerical equivalent of each of the three words is the same. The sum total in each case is equal to 136. This remarkable fact is one way of teaching us that “teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah”are all interrelated, that penitence, prayer, and righteous deeds are all aspects of the same ideal of living a good and Godly life. Also, it’s interesting to note that 136 is twice 68, which happens to be the number value of “chayim,” life. Thismeans that we are thus blessed with a "double life," both in the physical and spiritual sense.

To go one step further, repentance implies returning to the ways of Torah; prayer means turning to God through “Avodah” or divine worship; and “tzedakah”means the carrying out of deeds of loving kindness by “gemilut chasadim” benevolent acts. This is reminiscent of the familiar passage in the first chapter of “Pirkei Avot”: The world is based upon three principles: Torah, worship, and kindliness" (Simon the Just).

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Yom Kippur culminates the process of repentance begun before Rosh Hashanah.