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[Though this article mentions Rosh Hashanah specifically, it should be noted that the Unetanah Tokef is also part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.]
On both days [of Rosh Hashanah], the magnificent Unetanah tokef (we shall ascribe holiness to this day) is chanted prior to the Kedushah. Although there are popular legends concerning the origin of this piyyut, we do not know who wrote it. What is certain is that the poet was extremely gifted. The structure of the poem and its language suggest that it was composed during the Byzantine period.
The concepts on which it is based come from Jewish apocalyptic literature and parallel Christian writings based on similar sources, the most famous of which is the Dies irae (day of wrath)-‑found in the requiem mass-‑which offers a vivid description of the day of judgment for all humankind. In Unetanah tokef, however, the subject is not the final judgment but the much more immediate, yearly day of judgment–Rosh Hashanah. The text of this piyyut follows.
We shall ascribe holiness to this day.
For it is awesome and terrible.
Your kingship is exalted upon it.
Your throne is established in mercy.
You are enthroned upon it in truth.
In truth You are the judge,
The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,
He who inscribes and seals,
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