If I may wax hyperbolic for a moment, there is no more haunting and more well known tefillah on Rosh Hashanah than Unataneh Tokef – a prayer which captures the religious tension of Rosh Hashanah in its role as Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgement. Its words and the accompanying music make us aware of the fragility of life and an awareness of the insecurity of being finite. One of its most pronounced passages describes how we might imagine our fates being decided: “A great shofar sounds and a still small voice is heard, angels rush forward and are overtaken by trembling and shaking; they say: ’Here is the day of Judgment, visiting all the heavenly host for judgment’ for they are not cleared in your eyes in judgment. And all who come into this world pass before You (God) like bnai maron (sheep).
This significance of this last is not clear because we are not quite certain of the meaning of the expression “bnai maron”. Is “maron” a place? Is it a thing? And what are we supposed to imagine when we read it? If we accept the translation noted above, what is God’s role here? Shepherd? Slaughterer (Heaven forbid)?
This piyyut (religious poem) borrows this image from the Mishnah: On Rosh Hashanah, all who have come into the world pas before Him (God) like bnai maron, as it is said: ‘He forms the hearts of all, and discerns all of their deeds. (Psalms 33:15)” (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2) The Talmud Bavli offers three alternative interpretations of the term “bnai maron”: the first, mentioned above renders it “sheep”; the second, render it “bnai horon – the children of Horon (a place name) and the third, like the battalions of David.” (Rosh Hashanah 18a)
The plain sense of the term is likely alluded to in the last interpretation. In manuscripts of the Mishnah whose provenance is Eretz Yisraeli, the term used is bnu maron; instead, the term used is “bnai maron”. Similarly, in the Tosefta Vienna manuscript (Tosefta Rosh Hashana 1:11, Lieberman ed. p. 307), it reads “numeron”, meaning a “battalion of troops”. According to Professor Saul Lieberman, the first to point this out was Nehemiah Brull. (See Tosefta Kipshuta Moed, p. 1022; Epstein, Mavo L’Sifrut HaTannaim, p. 368)
With this “correction”, the intended image becomes clear. The Mishnah envisions that God’s review of His creatures happens in an orderly fashion, each person appearing before Him, one by one. The point being that God’s concern is for each of His creatures as individuals. Hopefully, in this season focused on Teshuva – repentance, this idea will inspire in each of us to strive to be the best we can be.