This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, arrives Tuesday at sundown. Jews around the world will head to synagogue to conclude the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) with a 25-hour fast and an evening and entire following day at services, for some Jews symbolically and for some Jews literally praying for God to include their names in the Book of Life for the coming year. Our tradition says that book closes at the end of Yom Kippur, and if you’re name isn’t inscribed in it, you won’t see through another year.
Oddly enough, the most anticipated moments of Yom Kippur–the Kol Nidre (“All Vows”) chant, so emotionally powerful that it gives its name to the evening service on which it is chanted–is an unpoetic legal plea with a shaky halachic (Jewishly legal) basis. Ryan and I accepted the High Holy Day honor to sit on the bima during the Kol Nidre service, so we’ll experience the choir and cantor chanting it up close.
But what does Kol Nidre really mean? Why is it a public declaration and not a prayer? And how did it end up in the Erev Yom Kippur service and manage to stay there for so long?
I found a lot of the background I’d been missing about the chant in a surprisingly engaging book I read before the HHDs arrived, the sadly hard-to-find (I found it at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library) Kol Nidrei: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, written by Rabbi Stuart Weinberg Gershon in 1977. (A book perhaps inspired by this similar 1968 article in Commentary.)
Gershon delved into the history of Kol Nidre and concluded that the chant has never been without controversy. Many people consider it a prayer, but it doesn’t directly address God. Instead, it declares that vows will be “erased” simply based upon the sense of regret of individual Jews. The chant was once errouneously seen as allowing Jews to annul legal and financial contracts with non-Jews. According to Gershon, throughout history Jews, ourselves, have mis-interpreted Kol Nidre, because it has always carried an emotional impact beyond its words.
Essentially, Kol Nidre, in its various forms (depending on denominational and cultural differences among worldwide Jewry) is our last-ditch plea to Deity to acknowledge our human frailty and our inability to live perfectly ethically, and to forgive us our moments of shoving unethical foots in our collective mouths throughout the year. Emotionally, Kol Nidre’s contours feel a bit like a small child recognizing his wrongs and begging his parents for forgiveness because he finally knows what he did was wrong–and promises that he’ll do his best to do better next time.
(Except, you know, under pain of death.)
For Jews who go to synagogue all year and those who come only for the High Holy Days, the literal meaning in the chant is less important than that which it symbolizes–the words and music of ultimate t’shuvah, forgiveness, and ultimately, returned closeness with God.
The problem has always been, from a halachic perspective, most vows (all versions of Kol Nidre mention several types) cannot be annuled after they have been made–at least not simply through communal prayer. The bar has always been higher than that, specifically to keep Jews from making promises in the name of God–whether well-meaning ones or often mean-spirited ones–that they knew they would or, in many cases, could never keep.
Gershon traces the ins and outs of the opinions of different Jewish sages over time (in a really interesting way making the book well worth seeking out.) In a nutshell, no matter what the rabbis tried, throughout the ages the people wouldn’t let Kol Nidre be removed from Yom Kippur services.
Gershon pegs the origin of Kol Nidre to Diaspora Jews in Babylonia in the early centuries of the first millennium C.E., who believed the revocation of vows to have a biblical basis. However, Amoraic scholars (rabbis who helped perfect the Talmud, the central legal text of Rabbinic Judaism) in the same era pointed out that the Hebrew bible never really mentions revoking vows that have already been made–and that even if it did, it would take more than a mere public chant by the congregation to make that happen.
But because the people wouldn’t let go of Kol Nidre, the scholars established a legal loophole to at least put Kol Nidre on firmer halachic footing. Vows couldn’t be revoked. But a vow could be retroactively nullified as if they never existed in the first place by a beit din, or Jewish legal court, if the charatah, or sense of regret, of the person who made the vow was judged sufficiently authentic. One of the leading scholars of the time, Abbaye, supported this approach to Kol Nidre (the basis of which was Nedarim, or Numbers, 30 in the Babylonian Talmud.)
Another leading scholar–and Abbaye’s verbal sparring partner in the Talmud–Rava, disagreed. Rava thought the nullification of future vows, not past vows, had a more reasonable biblical basis. (He found that basis in B.T. Nedarim 23b.) But Rava didn’t want to let the public know about this firmer legal footing so that they wouldn’t go through the year following Yom Kippur making careless vows and promises.
Rava won in the end. By the Middle Ages, Nedarim 23b was accepted as the basis for Kol Nidre, and in the 1100s, the French Tosafists (Medieval Talmudic scholars) Meier ben Samuel and his son, Rabbenu Tam, rewrote Kol Nidre specifically to refer to future vows. And that’s how Kol Nidre has basically stayed ever since.
If you followed all of that, I give you a lot of credit. Especially since, according to Gershon, the most important point of all is that, for the overwhelming majority of everyday Jews from antiquity to today, none of this really matters. People simply want, or need, to experience Kol Nidre for reasons beyond mere words. Even decades of official rejection within the Reform movement didn’t stop Kol Nidre from reappearing in the High Holy Day machzor by the second half of the 20th century.
Essentially, the chant has a role to play that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a musical moment that has come to symbolize ultimate t’shuvah, or return towards God. Apparently, no matter the words or their legal basis, we really want the chance to experience that moment.
I think it’s kind of fitting that in a faith as full of inter-denominational cleavages and halachic ambiguity as Judaism, one of our highest liturgical moments is based more in kevanah (spontaneous personal intention) rather than keva (the rote, written words of prayer.) That is, our inner need for these few musical moments may ultimately be what has maintained them, not the dry letter of their words or whether they’re biblically justified.
My rabbi often says it can be better not to really understand the words we’re praying, because it frees us to open our hearts and minds to Deity. As a rule, I think that sentiment is a damaging response to Reform sanctuaries full of Jews as afraid to have an adult relationship with Hebrew or Aramaic (the language in which Kol Nidre is written) as adults as our clergy are afraid of asking us to actually learn our liturgy.
But in the case of Kol Nidre, that approach definitely has merit. The Reform movement’s Kol Nidre text is below, in English translation and transliteration from Aramaic. A moving video of the chant is also below, using Kol Nidre’s common MiSinai musical motif. The words are dry, but the melody’s sublime. On Tuesday night, I’ll follow the example of 2,000 years of Jews before me and thread my way between the two, towards t’shuvah.
G’mar Chatimah Tova. May you be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life.
Kol Nidre (All Vows)
All nidre, esarei, charamei, konamei, chinuyei, kinusei, and shevuot which we have vowed, sworn, declared, and imposed on ourselves from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement may it come upon us for good. Regarding them all, we regret them. Let them all be released, forgiven, erased, null, and void. They are not valid nor are they in force. Our vows are not vows. Our prohibitive vows are not prohibitive vows. Our oaths are not oaths.
(Kol nidrei v’esarei v’charamei, v’konamei, v’chinuyei, v’kinusei, ushevuot, dindarna ud’isht’bana ud’acharimna udasarna al nafshatana, mi’Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba aleinu l’tovah. Kulhon icharatna v’hin, kulhon y’hon sh’ran, shvikin, shvitin, b’telin um’vutalin, la shririn v’la kayamin. Nidrana la nidrei, v’esrana la esrei, ushevuotana la shevout.)
(Can’t see this video in your news feed? Watch it here.)
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.