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?

————————————-

“Who By Fire” is adapted loosely from the Hebrew prayer “ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום” [“U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom” (“Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is”)], chanted on Yom Kippur. The Jewish narrative says Rabbi Amnon of Mainz was punished for not converting to Christianity by having his hand and feet cut off, and as he was dying from his wounds, he had a vision of God sitting and writing in a book. In his dying hours,
Rabbi Amnon wrote the prayer that begins with “Who by fire? And who by water?”

Like the original, Cohen’s song tells of a litany of ways and reasons one might meet their death: fire, water, suicide, drugs, and so on-some of which appear in the original prayer.

In Leonard’s own words:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

What have the artists said about the song?
Cohen introduced the song live in Melbourne, in March 1980, with a personal note about the melody:

The melody on which this next song is based I first heard when I was four or five years old, in the synagogue, on the Day of Atonement, standing beside my tall uncles in their black suits. It¹s a liturgical prayer that talks about the way in which you can quit this vale of tears. It’s according to a tradition, an ancient tradition that on a certain day of the year, the Book of Life is opened, and in it is inscribed the names of all those who will live and all those who will die, who by fire, who by water…

Tahsin Ünlü

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