When I say the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I sense that the heavenly court is in attendance.
Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek Taub of Kaliv (1751-1821) is probably the most famous Hungarian hassidic master. He served as the rabbi of the Szabolcs district, residing in the northeastern Hungarian town of Nagykallo. He was a popular leader, renowned for his ability to work miracles. He was said to magically travel to Safed every Friday afternoon together with his attendant, so that he could dip in the mikve of the famed kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Once the Kaliver Rebbe returned to Hungary, leaving his attendant behind. When the attendant emerged from the mikve, he was startled to find himself so far from home.
The master from Kaliv left no written works, though recently statements attributed to him have been compiled into a book. Besides the tales of his miraculous exploits, his legacy lies primarily in his music. He would adapt Hungarian folk songs, adding Hebrew words or Jewish themes and explaining that these tunes were really from Temple times that had regrettably been lost and adulterated in foreign hands. It was his holy work to redeem the music and return it to the Jewish people. According to hassidic lore, once a gentile would teach the Kaliver Rebbe a song, the gentile would promptly forget the melody. The song most commonly identified with the Kaliver Rebbe is “Szol a Kakas Mar.”
There was once a wealthy person who would travel to Nagykallo every Rosh Hashana to hear the sincere and melodious prayers of the Kaliver Rebbe. The rich man would wait in eager anticipation for him to recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, for this passage, as chanted by the hassidic master, moved him as no other did. Every year he would return home and rave about the Unetaneh Tokef of the Kaliver Rebbe, promising his wife that next year she would travel with him to hear his prayers.
Alas, as each Rosh Hashana arrived, there seemed to be a new reason preventing the rich hassid from taking his wife.
One cold, wintry day the holy Kaliver Rebbe arrived in the town of the rich hassid. The purpose of his journey was to raise funds for a needy bride, and when the wealthy hassid got word of this he hatched a cunning plan that he shared with his wife.
When the Kaliver Rebbe arrived at his home, the wealthy hassid made him an offer that he thought he could not refuse: “My dear master, I so desire that my wife should hear your powerful prayers. If you would agree to chant the Unetaneh Tokef passage, I will guarantee the entire sum you wish to raise and you need not continue on your arduous journey through the snow-covered countryside of Hungary.”
The Kaliver Rebbe did not reject the tempting offer outright: “I need to consider your proposition,” he told his host. “I will have an answer for you in the morning.”
The host was overjoyed; surely the master would acquiesce to his generous suggestion, for everyone stood to gain: He would share the moving experience of the Kaliver Rebbe’s prayer with his wife, the rebbe would be spared the travails of the journey and the needy bride would be assured of financial stability! How could the Kaliver Rebbe refuse? The next morning the wealthy hassid entered the rebbe’s room, his heart pounding in excited anticipation. He turned to the hassid: “Indeed, your offer is more than generous, and it would be fantastic to receive the entire sum so expediently. I would certainly save valuable time that could be dedicated to Torah study and I would be able to joyfully return home instead of trekking along snowy roads and byways. Alas, I cannot accept your offer.
When I say the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I sense that the heavenly court is in attendance. And when I say that angels hurry this way and that, gripped by fear and trembling, I see them before me just as I described.
“This is the commotion I cause in heaven with my prayers on Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur. It would hardly be right to trouble the angels and cause such a tumult on a mundane weekday. If I fulfilled your request, as the angels bustled they would ask: ‘What is going on?’ ‘Didn’t you hear? Eizek is saying Unetaneh Tokef like on Rosh Hashana, just to raise some money.’ ‘That is why he is bothering us!?’ they would ask incredulously.
“I, too, would be embarrassed, as I would hear them say: ‘For 300 coins he is bothering the entire heavenly court?’ I am sorry, my dear friend, I cannot fulfill your wish. There is an appropriate time for everything.”