August 28, 2023 | High Holidays | Liturgy

Mitigating the Decree

By David Schwartz

But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah will mitigate the harshness of the decree”

– High Holiday liturgy

It’s hard to believe that in a few weeks a new year will begin! But soon enough (Sunday, Sept. 10th, 10 AM), the Koven Religious School will start up again. This year, all classes will be meeting at the synagogue, with a Zoom option available for those who are out sick or otherwise have trouble getting to the building.

Shortly after our school year begins, the Jewish year will begin. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy has many important prayers — one of them is Unetaneh Tokef, where we grapple with the fact that some of us will not be alive by the following Rosh Hashanah. After reading about how G-d decides who will live and who will die in the coming year, the prayer includes a perplexing line:

Uteshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et ro-a hagezeirah.

But repentance, prayer, and charity will mitigate the harshness of the decree.

On the face of it, this is a horrifying concept.  The idea that if you just were a little bit sorrier, prayed a little harder, and gave a little more money, then X terrible thing wouldn’t happen to you is repulsive. It is a loathsome version of “blame the victim”. But that’s not actually what it means.

The original version of this phrase, found in the Talmud (JT Ta’anit 2:1:9) and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 44:12), said, “Repentance, prayer, and charity will cancel the decree.” By the time Un’taneh Tokef was written in the Middle Ages, it was abundantly clear that this was simply not how the world worked. Therefore, the original text was revised to say that “repentance, prayer, and charity mitigate the harshness of the decree.”

How exactly does this work? There have been a number of ideas, many of which can be found in Who By Fire, Who By Water, an anthology of reflections on Unetaneh Tokef (edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, published by Jewish Lights in 2010), or excerpted here. What works for me is a synthesis of what Rabbi Reuven Kimelman and my father, Cantor Neil Schwartz, teach.

Repentance leads to a strengthening of the relationship with oneself. Prayer leads to a strengthening of the relationship with G-d. Tzedakah leads to a strengthening of the relationship with others. While we can’t change what happens to us, when these three sets of relationships are strong, then we are better able to deal with whatever the coming year has in store for us, thus mitigating the harshness of the decree.

This Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, may we all take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen all three sets of relationships, so that we may have the best year possible in 5784. Shana tova!

David Schwartz


David has been with Temple Har Zion since 2018.