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Kol Nidre (5775)

© 2014 Linda Hirschhorn

In another 10 days we will gather for Kol Nidre - the evening service of Yom Kipppur that is given that name by the opening prayer that launches us into 24 hours of fasting and asking for forgiveness. In preparation, I thought it might be instructive to review some of its history and some of the concepts we encounter in KN.

Technically KN is not a prayer in that it neither addresses nor mentions the name of God. Rather it is a legal formulation pronounced publicly by the community in which we release ourselves in advance from fulfilling the vows we make that we might not be able to keep in the coming year. (Although as we will see in a moment this was not always the case) The language is a mixture of Aramaic - the Jewish vernacular of the Talmudic period—and Hebrew—the language of classical Jewish prayer.

KN cannot nullify any vows made to other people, nor can it nullify any obligation that is imposed by a court. The nullification refers only to vows you make to yourself and only if when you make the vow you have the best of intentions to keep it, so that if you do not fulfill the vow, you avoid committing what is considered the grievous sin of breaking vows. Paradoxically, you can't say to yourself oh well no big deal if I don't get around to it, I'm forgiven in advance anyhow. In other words as soon as you finish chanting KN you have to forget all about it.

Throughout history the KN was a topic of considerable controversy. It's not clear when it was first composed but the first references are found during the 8th century when some of the Babylonian rabbis objected to this collective use of annulment procedures. An individual going to court was one thing but an entire community gathering and bypassing traditional legal procedures was another, so some of the Rabbis forbade its recitation calling it a foolish custom. There was also some suggestion that it was connected to local magical practices in that some of the words of the KN were similar to words found on magical incantation bowls that were popular in Babylonia back in the 6th century.

For many rabbis taking vows was a sign of low breeding. The Torah has strict injunctions against breaking one's vows. One’s word has to be kept; vows and oaths are not to be uttered carelessly, without sufficient thought.

In fact the rabbinic opposition to taking vows was such that they recommended that people should add a disclaimer and you might still hear someone say this today – so that any time someone did make a commitment to something they should say 'bli-neder' meaning “without a promise.

The only time that vows were and are sanctioned, even to this day, is when someone is called up to the torah and promises to make a contribution to the synagogue or to charity. This practice is called 'shnoddering' from the word 'sheh-nadar' meaning 'as he has promised.'
But rabbinic opposition to vows did not stop people from making them. By the Talmudic period the Rabbis recognized the need ofpreserving the sanctity of the pledged word. They had to accept that KN afforded people the ability to nullify the vows that could not be kept, and by the year 1000 it gained general acceptance throughout Babylonia and other far-flung communities.
But the raging controversy over the next couple of centuries centered around whether this annulment could in fact apply to vows made in the previous year or whether it should apply only to vows made in the coming year.

In the 12th century Rabbenu Tam proclaimed that the KN could not be used to nullify the vows of the previous year. He said that according to halacha (Jewish Law) to nullify vows of the previous year one had to be interrogated by a legal expert or a court of three knowledgeable laymen on specific violations of vows not kept. A person could not just grant himself a dispensation the way Kol Nidre does.

But, Rabbenu Tam said, there were talmudic foundations for the KN being used to nullify the vows of the coming year. In some ways he had to make this ruling because the Jewish masses had become so accustomed chanting Kol Nidre that they simply would not have relinquished it.

Not all communities adopted this formulation. Some Sephardic and Yemenite communities today continue to use the older formulation that speaks about nullifying the vows in the year that just ended while most Ashkenzi siddurim use the version we use today: “Miyom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim habah.” (From this Yom Kippur to the next)

On some subconscious level the KN became a great source of comfort in the middle ages especially during times when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. While they publicly pretended to swear allegiance to a new faith yet secretly held on to their Jewish practices as in the case of the Marranoes in Spain the KN meant that they were already forgiven.

Even though the KN declaration applies only to personal vows one makes to oneself, it fueled the anti-semitism so deeply entrenched in Christian Europe. Authorities liked to point to KN as proof that Jews could absolve themselves of their legal obligations. Indeed the mistrust was so deep that as late as the 19th century, Jews testifying in Christian courts in some countries were forced to take what was called the Jewish Oath. The format varied from country to country but all were meant to be humiliating and prove Jews as unworthy. In some places a Jew would have to wear a wreath of thorns. In others he would have to kneel while he swore and called down upon himself all the curses of the Torah. One court required a Jew to stand on the hide of a pig. Another required him to stand on a three-legged stool and pay a fine each time he fell.

By the 1850's the Rabbis of the reform movement in Germany sought to rid all symbols from Jewish religious expression which suggested that Jews were unworthy or disloyal. They felt embarrassed by the KN formula, which seemingly permitted Jews to declare legal oaths and then violate them, so they removed KN from the mahzorim and substituted another prayer for it. What they did not anticipate was a backlash from the people. Members of congregations rebelled and demanded that their cantors chant KN even if the words did not appear in the mahzor. Eventually it was restored to the liturgy.

Let's look at each of the different words used to describe these vows.

'Kol Nidre': All promises. A Neder is a promise that is phrased in the positive form and relates to all that we might obligate ourselves to do. It generally means some form of self improvement, very much like a New Year's resolution, perhaps to study more, exercise more, be a kinder person...You can fill in your own blanks.

Esuray refers to all that we hope to refrain from doing; abstentions from any of a number of personal habits that you feel degrades your better self. It can mean avoiding excesses, eating too much, watching too much television, or being on-line too much. Once again you are free to fill in the blanks.

Charamay refers to a dedication of a specific object so that a sacred place is changed or altered. Perhaps for some of us it might mean dedicating a plaque in the sanctuary, or making new garments for our Torahs.

Kinusay refers to commitments to make monetary contributions to a holy site. In ancient times this would be the 'Korban', the animal sacrifice. In our time it might mean a commitment to make a donation to our general fund. This money cannot be used for personal gain but only in some way to do religious or holy work. In fact some of you may know that I am starting a new concert series here in the shul, and am seeking donations to make that happen, so after yom tov please talk to me about if if you would like to help.

Konamay refers to holy work that one plans to do. You could for example resolve to do repairs around the synagogue, help out in the temple office, volunteer to make one of our oneg shabbat dinners, sing in our choir or play in our orchestrea. Or, holy work for you might mean volunteering at a homeless shelter.

Chinuyay refers to the person rather than the place and it is the sacrifice of the self completely to holy work to the exclusion of other activities, for a limited period of time. In ancient times we had the institution of the nazir - sort of like a Jewish monk - in which someone dedicated themselves to god, grew their hair, remained unshaven, and drank no wine. After three months they would go back to their normal life.

A contemporary equivalent might be that you go on a spiritual retreat in which you pray, meditate, and stay away from distractions.

And finally 'shvuot'. This means all vows that encompasses all the others and refers to all the ways that we are changed, and other people and places are changed by what we have committed ourselves to.

Kul hon icharatna v'hon, shvikin, btaylin... they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths."

For me the phrase that in some way feels the least legalistic and carries the most emotional charge is the phrase 'Icharatna vhon' meaning we regret them all, from the hebrew word charata. (In fact 'regret' is actually recognized by the rabbis as a legal argument which suggests they understood and were sympathetic to human fallibility.) Sometimes we make promises impulsively, in moments of panic or despair or in times of mania that later we come to regret. By offering ourselves this charata for the coming year we acknowledge that we are not all-powerful, that we may have miscalculated our abilities. We can't control everything around us, not even our own changed circumstances. What others do and what we do have consequences that we don't always understand. We ask to be released from our vows, so that we are not trapped by them. The charata offers us flexibility in a world that is not static and allows us the opportunity to recreate our lives if we need to.

Perhaps one of the reasons KN has had such a strong grip on us is its melody. We don't know its origins though some hear the similarity between it and some early Gregorian chants. KN is chanted three times in accordance with the customs of ancient Jewish courts, which would say “You are released” three times when an individual was released from a legally binding vow)

The opening and closing bars are the most familiar but otherwise there are tremendous variations based on a cantor's improvisations.The Jewish musicologist, A. Z. Idel-sohn, conjectured that all the elaborate variations on the melody that have evolved was because KN typically begins while there is still daylight and then needs to be prolonged by the cantor until sunset. It also gives a chance for latecomers to hear at least one rendition of it if not all. (Though here at Beth Sholom our custom is to begin later)

The tradition is to go from very soft to full-voiced. Each of the repetitions can convey particular thoughts and emotions. The first time you are all just listening. I'm setting the mood. I'm preparing you to enter into your own contemplations. Sometimes I find myself in my own thoughts. What do I hope to commit myself to in the coming year...

On our next go round, you join me, your thoughts are mingling with mine. We begin to think about our family here at BethSholom, about the wishes and desires we have for our community. On our third repetition we gain strength from each other. We sing out loud, full-throated, together, listening to everyone around us. Our personal and collective aspirations are all in the ring. The paragraphs that lead us in and out of KN say that we, the collective, give each other permssion to pray with each other. Everyone is included. We, as a community are empowered to do the absolving. Everyone on earth and everyone in the heavens, 'bishiva shel mata bishiva shel malah', is listening.

We, the community, forgive each other, because everyone makes mistakes. 'V'nislach, ki l'chol ha'am bishgaga.' At this moment of this day, which is otherwise known as a day of judgement, there is no judgement. We accept our humanity with all its failings. We give ourselves and each other unconditional acceptance.

KN frees us to imagine big, to make resolutions to improve ourselves, to offer our time to the Temple, to elevate our spiritual lives. Let us believe that in this coming year we will live up to the best version of ourselves. 'Haba- aleynu l'tovah.' May this next year come upon us for good. May all these vows I make come to fruition, may they yield their harvest, may all that we hope for come to pass.

Shanah tova

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