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Who by Fire, Who by Water—Un'taneh Tokef


Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD

6 x 9, 272 pp, Hardcover, 978-1-58023-424-5

Also Available in Paperback

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The most controversial prayer of the Jewish New Year—what it means, who wrote it, why we say it.

Explore the profound, perplexing and persuasive power of Un’taneh Tokef, one of the most beloved, prominent and controversial pieces in the Ashkenazi High Holy Day liturgy. Interact with thought-provoking and inspiring discussions on all aspects of this prayer that defies easy understanding—its moral challenge, fatalistic theology, proclamation of God’s holiness, call to human responsibility and prescription for redemption.

Commentaries from over forty men and women, scholars and rabbis, artists and poets from all major Jewish denominations examine Un’taneh Tokef from the viewpoints of the ancient Rabbis and modern theologians, as well as halakhic, Talmudic, linguistic, biblical, mystical, feminist, community and personal perspectives.

Prayers of Awe

A multi-volume series designed to explore the High Holy Day liturgy and enrich the praying experience for everyone, whether experienced worshipers or guests who encounter Jewish prayer for the first time. Each volume features traditional Hebrew text with a new translation that lets you know exactly what the prayer says. Introductions provide the foundations for the prayer—its history, authorship and legend.

“Earnestly tangl[es] with the meaning of this particular prayer.... Raw, revealing, honest, and even profound”

Jewish Book World

“A wealth of information.... Readers will obtain a new understanding of this important prayer.”

Jewish Eye

“[A] wonderful High Holy Days resource.”

Jewish Herald-Voice

“Exceptionally well-done.... Every Jew who attends High Holiday services should read this book before the holidays, and thereby have a deeper, richer and more spiritual experience in participating in the recitation of this haunting prayer.”

Jewish Media Review

“Hoffman’s precision ... [is] evident.... Worth reading ... meticulous.”

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

“Reflects a community of thought, a gathering of people prepared to think afresh about the experience offered by a single synagogue text.... Important ... fascinating ... rich.”


“Look[s] at the powerful liturgy with its memorable, even haunting, tone in all its fullness—its history, authorship, legend and layers of meaning, as well as its drama and politics.”

New York Jewish Week

“If the quality of [this] first work is continued in future ones, Hoffman has another award-winning series on his hands.... Excellent.”

Reporter (Binghamton, NY)



“Fascinating ... a core addition to any Judaic studies collection.”

Wisconsin Bookwatch

Merri Lovinger Arian is on the New York faculty of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and its School of Sacred Music. In addition, she serves there as Synagogue 3000’s consultant on liturgical arts, supervising rabbinic and cantorial students in the art of leading and creating worship collaboratively.

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, CBE, DD, is president of the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom. He teaches personal theology at the Leo Baeck College in London.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founder of IKAR, a Jewish spiritual community in Los Angeles that integrates spiritual and religious practice and the pursuit of social justice. Listed among the Forward’s fifty most influential American Jews and Newsweek’s leading rabbis in the country, she lectures and writes frequently about new trends in American religious life, next-generation engagement and social justice. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and has published and lectured widely on metaphor and the Bible, the nature of biblical historical texts, and gender issues and the Bible. He contributed to all volumes of the My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and to My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (all Jewish Lights). He is coeditor of The Jewish Study Bible, which won the National Jewish Book Award; and author of How to Read the Jewish Bible, among other books and articles. He has also been interviewed on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits. She is an Avi Chai Fellow and the recipient of the Covenant Award. She is the author of Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism; Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things (all Jewish Lights); and In the Narrow Places; and coauthor of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? (Jewish Lights). Her articles have appeared on the Washington Post website “On Faith.”

Rabbi Ruth Durchslag, PsyD, is a rabbi and successful clinical psychologist. She is passionate about bringing Judaism to alienated and disaffected Jews who have never found a way into organized Jewish life and reaching out to anyone seeking personal meaning within Jewish tradition. She is also an avid meditator and seeks to create bridges between meditation and Judaism. Toward that end, Rabbi Durchslag is involved in founding the Center for Jewish Mindfulness in Chicago, and works in the federal prison to create interfaith programs for inmates.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is an instructor in the Ziegler Rabbinical School of American Jewish University and the Wexner Heritage Program. He is the author of Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life (Jewish Lights) and Capturing the Moon; and the editor of Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibilities, the Presence of God, and the Future of the Covenant (Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman is editor of Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur and rabbi of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, PhD, is chairman of the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and coeditor of Machzor Ruach Chadashah.

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman lectures around the globe on popular and scholarly topics spanning history, Hebrew, prayer and Jewish continuity. He has served on the faculties of Brandeis University, the Academy for Jewish Religion, and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Hoffman writes about Hebrew for the international Jerusalem Post, and is the author of In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language and And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. He contributed to all volumes of the My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and to My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (both Jewish Lights). He lives in Westchester, New York.

Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, is the rabbi of congregation MJLF (Mouvement Juif Libéral de France in Paris). She was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2008 and became the third woman rabbi in France. She is the creative director of Le Café Biblique, a pluralistic group of Jewish study, and the chief editor of Tenou’a, a French magazine of Jewish thought.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is cofounder and executive director of Mechon Hadar ( He is an Avi Chai Fellow, author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights). Newsweek named him one of the fifty top rabbis in America.

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois. She is the author of several books, including The Bridge to Forgiveness: Stories and Prayers for Finding God and Restoring Wholeness; Our Dance with God: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives; and God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart (all Jewish Lights).

Dr. Reuven Kimelman is professor of classical Judaica at Brandeis University. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of Lekha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat and of the audio books The Moral Meaning of the Bible and The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayerbook.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco and the author of many books on Jewish spirituality and mysticism, including I’m God; You’re Not: Observations on Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego; The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition; Honey from the Rock; The Book of Letters: A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet (all Jewish Lights); and his novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story. He contributed to all volumes of the My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, as well as to My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award (all Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Noa Kushner is founding rabbi of The Kitchen. One part indie-Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice. The Kitchen is building a connected, spiritually alive Jewish generation and a new resonance approach to religious life.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is the director and rosh hayeshivah of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Pardes brings together men and women of all backgrounds to study classical Jewish texts and contemporary Jewish issues in a rigorous, challenging and open-minded environment. Rabbi Landes is also a contributor to the My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award and My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award (both Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Ruth Langer, PhD, is associate professor of Jewish studies in the Theology Department at Boston College, where she also serves as associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. She received her PhD in Jewish liturgy and her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Liz Lerman is founding artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. A member of Temple Micah in Washington, DC, she was the Sally Priesand Visiting Professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the recipient of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture Award in Performing Arts, the American Jewish Congress Golda Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Her latest book is Hiking the Horizontal.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin is the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, and is a founding rabbi of the multi-denominational Chicago Jewish Day School.

Catherine Madsen is the author of The Bones Reassemble: Reconstituting Liturgical Speech; In Medias Res: Liturgy for the Estranged; and a novel, A Portable Egypt. She is a lay leader at High Holy Day services at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Massachusetts, and bibliographer at the National Yiddish Book Center.

Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, PhD, is emeritus professor of Bible at Leo Baeck College in London, where he was principal (president) from 1985 to 2005. He is coeditor of three volumes of Forms of Prayer (the prayer books of the British Movement for Reform Judaism) and editor of the recent eighth edition of the Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers volume.

Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is a professor of liturgy and midrash at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and teaches in various academic institutions in Israel, the United States and Europe. Marx earned her doctorate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her rabbinic ordination at HUC–JIR in Jerusalem and Cincinnati. She is involved in various research groups and is active in promoting progressive Judaism in Israel. She writes for academic journals and the Israeli press, and is engaged in creating new liturgies and midrashim.

Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.

Rabbi Charles H. Middleburgh, PhD, is rabbi to the Reform Jewish Celts of Ireland and Wales; honorary director of studies at Leo Baeck College in London, where he has taught since 1984; and coeditor with Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, PhD, of the Liberal Judaism Machzor Ruach Chadashah.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum is rabbi and executive director of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, Washington. She was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She was recently awarded an Avi Chai Fellowship for her innovative approach to Jewish community building.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, PhD, teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Or N. Rose is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the coauthor of God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters and coeditor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice; Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections and Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid's Table, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (all Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Marc Saperstein, PhD, is principal (president) of Leo Baeck College in London. Previously he taught and headed Jewish studies programs for twenty-nine years at Harvard University, Washington University in St. Louis and George Washington University in Washington, DC, and was vice president of the American Academy for Jewish Research.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, where she has served since 1977. She is the author of award-winning children’s books including The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other; God’s Paintbrush; and Cain and Abel: Finding the Fruits of Peace (all Jewish Lights). Her first book for adults is God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash.

Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater, DMin, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and has a doctor of ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of Mindful Jewish Living: Compassionate Practice and codirector of programs at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as well as an instructor in meditation at the JCC in Manhattan and other venues.

Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek is the rabbi in residence of American Jewish World Service.

Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch, PhD, is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization and director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he served as president for nearly a decade. He was editor in chief of the seven-volume Kol Haneshamah prayer book series. He is the author of Spiritual Community: The Power to Restore Hope, Commitment and Joy (Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Gordon Tucker, PhD, is senior rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, and adjunct assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the editor and translator of Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations.

Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. She is currently working on a book focusing on Judaism, liberalism, feminism and God. 

Rabbi Avraham Weiss is the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical School in New York. He is also the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale.  Most recently, he founded Yeshivat Mahara’t, an Orthodox school ordaining women to become spiritual leaders. Rabbi Weiss was named one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine. He is the author of Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, DD, teaches liturgy and homiletics at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is rabbi emerita of Beth Am, The People’s Temple.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. He is author of Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids; The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth; God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth; the three volumes Hanukkah, Passover, and Shabbat, all family guides to spiritual celebrations; The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community; A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement and Comfort; and, with Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, What You Will See Inside a Synagogue (all Jewish Lights).

Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel is the senior rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, DC.

Dr. Wendy Zierler is associate professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, New York. She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols and the feminist Haggadah commentary featured in My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (Jewish Lights), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.









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