I was recently reading parts of the “Heichalot Rabbati” literature — a form of Jewish mysticism that predates Kabbalah.

Verse 82 in ch. 1 contains the following text:

“… Who shall be cast down, who exalted;
 Who shall be weakened, who made strong;
 Who shall be crushed with poverty, who made rich;
 Who shall die, who shall live;
 From whom shall inheritance be taken,
 To whom shall inheritance be given;
 Who shall be granted the Law for his portion
 And who be given Wisdom.”

This of course closely resembles the piyut (poem) U’n’taneh Tokef (UT), which is said in Eastern European Ashkenazic synagogues on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur (varies in other rites — e.g. German Ashkenazic; Sephardic; Reform; etc.):

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”

According to legend, Rabbi Amnon, who was said to have lived during the 11th century CE, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz (or Mayence) to convert to Christianity. To avoid making a direct refusal, Rabbi Amnon said he’d think about it for three days. When he got home, he felt that he had sinned deeply by giving any impression that he would ever convert. When he did not reappear before the Archbishop three days later, the latter summoned him and, upon hearing his refusal, commanded that his hands and feet be cut off — sentencing Rabbi Amnon to a slow, painful death. As this occurred shortly before Rosh Ha-Shanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue and placed before the Aron (ark) on Rosh Ha-Shanah, at which time and place he recited the “U’n’taneh Tokef” and died. Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Kalonymos ben Meshullam and dictated the text of U’n’taneh Tokef, which was afterward absorbed into the liturgy. [1]

As Heichalot Rabbati (HR) came much earlier, is it to be assumed that “Rabbi Amnon”  was borrowing or referring to the HR text?

While “Rabbi Amnon” is said to have lived during the 11th century CE, parts of U’n’taneh Tokef have been found in the earliest levels of the Cairo Genizah fragments, dating back to the 8th century CE or earlier.

It’s therefore highly reasonable to argue that “Rabbi Amnon” was, in fact, incorporating the earlier text into his poem. Even in the absence of “Rabbi Amnon” as a historical figure, earlier texts — especially Biblical ones — were often absorbed into later poetry and prose. 

The HR text characterizes the highest level of Divine realization one achieves as he/she ascends through the heavens by realization of God’s rulership over all events and things.

UT, on the other hand, is intoned by Rabbi Amnon as acceptance of his impending death; an extended “affirmation” and acceptance of Divine Justice. Literary historians doubt the actual existence of “Rabbi Amnon.” But — they miss the point. The legend presents a situation in which we would expect a person to decry the unjust, cruel treatment he has received at the hands of other human beings. Instead, so the legend tells us, “Rabbi Amnon” does not attribute his treatment to human beings at all! Instead, he firmly exemplifies the essential Jewish belief (echoed in Christianity and Islam) that God, and only God, is the causative factor, however much other human beings might serve as messengers of the Divine. At the same time, by referring to a verse from the Heichalot Rabbati, “Rabbi Amnon” demonstrates that he has realized the Divine on the highest possible level (as described in HR). 

By referencing the earlier mystical text, the piyut and its accompanying legend also seem to imply that such a level of realization can only come about by (cognitive) ascent through the heavens — i.e. by meditation or contemplation of one kind or another.

It’s noteworthy that later Kabbalah and Hassidut, based on the Zohar, calls this realization the “Yichudah d’l’tata” — the “lower-level” realization of God. The “Yichudah d’l’ilah” — the “higher-level realization — is: “Nothing exists other than God.” 

Should we then downgrade the level of Rabbi Amnon’s realization?

No.

Established in the awareness that all is God, we observe everything that occurs to be the product of Divine, not “human” or “natural,” action. Our essential selves — Divine in source and nature — remain untouched and unaffected by all the changing conditions that we perceive — including death itself. 

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[1] Various versions of this legend can be found online. See, for example:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unetanneh_Tokef