Leonard Cohen on Yom Kippur: Who By Fire

by Bob Schwartz

A signature prayer of the Days of Awe is Unatenah Tokef:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah [return and prayer and righteous acts]
deflect the evil of the decree.

Unatenah Tokef inspired Leonard Cohen to write the song Who By Fire. He restates the prayer poetically, and adds this question:

And who shall I say is calling?

On Yom Kippur, some number of Jews who don’t usually attend services will find themselves not only at a service, but at one on the holiest day of the year, being asked to consider their lives in light of a theology of divine judgment. Some will believe that individual acts are weighed, some will believe that the whole year or a life are taken into account, and some will not believe in any of it at all.

That is where the question comes in. If you engage in the communication on Yom Kippur, or at any time, who is on either end? Is there someone here, is there someone there? Who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen:

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt
And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident
Who in solitude, who in this mirror
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand
Who in mortal chains, who in power
And who shall I say is calling?

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