Examining the Mystery of Kol Nidre

By Rabbi Eric Solomon | Issue Date: September 2000

Kol Nidre is an Aramaic phrase which means far more than its literal translation, “All Vows.” This statement of annulment of vows has become such a dominant part of the Jewish religious psyche that it is commonly used to designate the whole of the Yom Kippur Eve service; its melody is so daunting that hearing the first few bars can send shivers down the spine and remind the internal, spiritual clock that the time for repentance has begun.

Customarily, on the eve of the most solemn day when all of creation is judged, Jews flock to their synagogues dressed in white kittels – thin, laced robes, which symbolize purity and majesty – and tallitot. Indeed, this is the only evening prayer service during the entire year when the tallit is worn and a blessing is recited. The rabbi, cantor and a few honored lay people stand in a semi-circle at the front of the sanctuary holding three or more Torah scrolls. For the next few minutes, these scrolls will serve as the bet din (court of judgement), eyeing the congregants and skeptically examining the sincerity of their desire to repent. The cantor prepares for this moment with meditation and then chants Kol Nidre three times. The inaugural rendition is sung softly so that it can barely be heard above the din of the congregation, but by the third repetition the music is so robust that the ear and the heart of everyone present is pierced.

The 9th-century siddur, Mahzor Vitry, explains this custom in the following way: “The first time the cantor chants Kol Nidre in a very low voice, like a person who is amazed at entering the palace of the king to ask for a favor, and is afraid of coming close to the king… The second time, the cantor ought to raise his voice a little higher than the first time. The third time the cantor ought to raise his voice higher and higher, like a man who is at home and accustomed to being a member of the king’s household.” Afterwards, the people are left standing in awe, the Torah scrolls are returned, and the atmosphere is serious. The Day of Atonement has officially begun.

For all of Kol Nidre’s significance and power, its origins are shrouded in mystery. There are two “histories” regarding the prayer, one popular and the other scholarly. The popular version connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews. In 15th-century Spain, at the hight of the infamous Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a determined hunt to seek out and punish all non-practicing Christians. In response to extreme anti-Semitism earlier that century, a sizable number of upper-class Jews chose to convert to Christianity in order to, at the very least, avoid social disdain. For a small number, their religious conversion was genuine; but for the majority, their “conversion” was in name only as they still found creative ways to practice Judaism in the privacy of their own dwellings. These Jews came to be known as “marranos” and became one of the foci of the Church’s inquistory offensive. The Kol Nidre prayer, according to this theory, was created in response to these Jews’ desire to nullify their vows of conversion. We can see the potential validity of this historical claim in a literal translation of Kol Nidre:

“All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we made to God between this Yom Kippur and the last we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget them, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them.”

This legal formula may have allowed marrano Jews to rid themselves of guilt they felt when, under social and religious duress, they converted to Christianity. By setting Kol Nidre at the beginning of the first Yom Kippur service, these Jews developed a way to confront the gravest sin imaginable so that they could devote the remainder of Yom Kippur to address their other transgressions.

Scholars do not wholly refute this understanding of Kol Nidre, but they do contend that Kol Nidre has much earlier roots and probably pre-dated the marranos. According to their research, it is unclear exactly when or where the Kol Nidre legal formula was created. The wording seems to mimic other legalistic contracts of the Babylonian Jewish community of the 6th and 7th centuries. The first undoubtable citation appears in an early comprehensive siddur edited by Rav Amram in the 8th century. Over the next few centuries, the prayer became more widespread and a soulful melody became associated with it. Notably, there were some rabbis who disparaged the prayer as a superstitious attempt by Jewish mystics to nullify vows made by evil forces in the universe intent on hurting the Jewish people. These criticisms were muted by the majority of the people who cleaved to the prayer and aided its spread to other communities.

The complex history of Kol Nidre does not end there. Even with its spiritual power, the prayer was challenged by a number of Reform rabbis in the mid 19th-century. Embarassed by the Kol Nidre formula, which seemingly permitted Jews to declare legal oaths and then violate them, these rabbis fought to remove Kol Nidre from the mahzorim. Interested in clearing any doubts from the minds of their German brethren as to the sincerity of their nationalism, they sought to rid symbols from Jewish religious expression, which may have seemed disloyal. What these rabbis did not anticipate was a backlash from the people. Reform Jewish congregants, who generally concurred with their rabbis’ desire for assimilation, rebelled and demanded that their cantors chant Kol Nidre even if the words did not appear in the mahzor! (GATES OF UNDERSTANDING 2, LAWRENCE HOFFMAN). By public demand, in 1880, the renown non-Jewish composer Max Bruch was commissioned by the Jewish community of Liverpool to arrange Kol Nidre to a melody that was so moving that it is still commonly heard in Ashkenazi synagogues today.

Before we dismiss these Reform rabbis for their callousness, we must consider the legitimacy of their claims. The translation of Kol Nidre was as problematic for them as it should be for us. Would we wish for our non-Jewish brothers and sisters to question the sincerity of our oaths because of this tradition? Would we wish to have our loyalty to the United States and our commitment to the legal system questioned? And from a liturgical perspective, the prayer is completely in Aramaic – a language that very few people in most congregations are able to understand. Perhaps ( I shudder to suggest it…), we would be better off if we heeded the advice of those rabbis and removed Kol Nidre from our Yom Kippur experience?!!!

While I offer these questions sincerely and do find some truth in their claims, I believe that they miss the point of Kol Nidre and, perhaps, the function of prayer altogether. Prayer is more than the recitation of words on a page. Words, while not irrelevant, are the superficial expression of heartfelt supplication. The music of Kol Nidre is a melody which universally touches the deepest recesses of our hearts and our souls. When we are blessed with the occasion of listening to soul-penetrating renditions of Kol Nidre, each of us feels our spiritual facade begin to dissipate while the gate to our truest self gently opens. On Yom Kippur, we are preparing to bring our most vulnerable core to stand humbly before the judgement of God; this does not come easily. In order to break through and allow for internal revelation, we need a kavannah that begins by subtly coaxing our minds and concludes with a resounding push to expose ourselves – both our proudest gifts and our shameful misgivings. Kol Nidre is that invitation; the invitation to share, to be open and to prepare for repentance. The music, coupled with the atmosphere of the night and the communal bond, give us the permission to begin serious self-introspection, to seek genuine forgiveness from God and to contemplate practical ways for self-improvement.

A. J. Heschel once wrote: “The focus of prayer is not the self…It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer…Thus in beseeching God for bread there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to God’s mercy. This instant is prayer…” (MAN’S QUEST FOR GOD).

Kol Nidre may have been initiated by the personal need of the marranos to repent for a forced conversion, but its power has reached far past that narrow scope. When we daven the Kol Nidre together as a community, we are looking beyond the simple meaning of the words; we are beginning to focus inward, preparing to unleash our darkest memories, and paving the path towards genuine reflection on God and repentance. The simple meaning of Kol Nidre has been spiritually transcended for centuries; may we, God willing, continue that tradition this Yom Kippur. Shanah Tovah u’metukah!