Kol Nidre or Kol Nidrei or Kal Nidre (Aramaic: כָּל נִדְרֵי) is an Aramaic declaration recited in the synagogue before the beginning of the evening service on erev Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Though not a prayer, this dry legal formula and its ceremonial accompaniment have been charged with emotional undertones since the medieval period, creating a dramatic introduction to Yom Kippur on what is often dubbed "Kol Nidrei night". It is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Its name is taken from the opening words, meaning "all vows".
Kol Nidrei has had an eventful history, both in itself and in its influence on the legal status of the Jews. Introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbinic authorities, attacked in the course of time by some rabbis, and in the nineteenth century expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe, Kol Nidrei has often been employed out of context by some to claim that Jews cannot be trusted.
The term Kol Nidrei refers not only to the actual declaration, but is also popularly used as a name for the entire Yom Kippur evening service.
Form of the Chant
Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"), the congregation gathers in the synagogue. The Ark is opened and two people take from it two Torah scrolls. Then they take their places, one on each side of the cantor, and the three (symbolizing a Beth Din or rabbinical court.) recite:
In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God — praised be He — and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors."
The cantor then chants the passage beginning with the words Kol Nidrei with its touching melodic phrases, and, in varying intensities from pianissimo (quiet) to fortissimo (loud), repeats three times (lest a latecomer not hear them) the following words (Nusach Ashkenaz):
"All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."
The leader and the congregation then say together three times "May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault." The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the customary evening service begins.
Philip Birnbaum, in his classic edition of the Mahzor (High holy day prayer book) comments on this passage: "It refers to vows assumed by an individual for himself alone, where no other persons or interests are involved. Though the context makes it perfectly obvious that no vows or obligations towards others are implied, there have been many who were misled into believing that by means of this formula all their vows and oaths are annulled. In the eleventh century Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (Rashi's son-in-law) changed the original wording of Kol Nidre so as to make the Nusach Ashkenaz version apply to the future instead of the past; that is, to vows that one might not be able to fulfill during the next year." The Nusach Sefard version still refers to the past year.
Some commentaries assert that Kol Nidrei is not so much a prayer as it is a declaration before the Yom Kippur prayers begin. This view is derived largely from the fact that the text of Kol Nidre appears to request that the declarant be not held liable for failing to live up to the promises the faithful will make over the next 25 hours.
The tendency to make vows to God was strong in ancient Israel; the Torah found it necessary to protest against the excessive estimate of the religious value of such obligations. "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it; for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it will be sin in thee. ... That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt observe and do; according as thou hast vowed freely unto the LORD thy God, even that which thou hast promised with thy mouth" (Deut. 23:21 & 23 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh)
Rash vows to God that for whatever reason were not fulfilled created painful religious and ethical difficulties for those who had made them; this led to an earnest desire for dispensation from them. This need gave rise to the rite of absolution from a vow ('hattarat nedarim') which might be performed only by a scholar, or an expert on the one hand, or by a board of three Jewish laymen on the other.
This rite declared that the petitioners, who were seeking reconciliation with God, solemnly retracted their vows and oaths which they had made to God during the period intervening between the previous Day of Atonement and the present one; this rite made them null and void from the beginning, entreating in their stead pardon and forgiveness from God. This is in accordance with the older text of the formula as it is preserved in the Siddur of Amram Gaon.
Adoption into the prayer services
The readiness with which vows were made and the facility with which they were annulled by the scribes gave the Karaites an opportunity to attack rabbinic Jews. This forced the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to minimize the power of dispensation. Rabbi Yehudai Gaon of Sura (760 CE), author of the Halakot Pesukot, forbade the study of the Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths. Thus the Kol Nidre was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies and was not accepted by them.
Amram Gaon in his edition of the Siddur calls the custom of reciting the Kol Nidre a foolish one ("minhag shetut"). According to others however, it was customary to recite the formula in various lands of the Jewish dispersion, and it is clear likewise from Amram's Siddur that the usage was widespread as early as his time in Spain. But the geonic practice of not reciting the Kol Nidre was long prevalent; it has never been adopted in the Catalonian or in the Algerian ritual.
Together with the Kol Nidre another custom was developed, which is traced to Meïr of Rothenburg (d. 1293). This is the recital before the Kol Nidre of the formula mentioned beginning "Bi-yeshivah shel ma'alah," which has been translated above, and which gives permission to transgressors of the Law or to those under a ban "to pray with the congregation", or, according to another version, to the congregation "to pray with the transgressors of the Law." From Germany this custom spread to southern France, Spain, Greece, and probably to northern France, and was in time generally adopted.
At one time it was believed that the Kol Nidre was composed by Spanish "Marranos", Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, yet who secretly maintained their original faith. This idea has been shown to be incorrect, as the prayer pre-dates this era by many centuries. However, this prayer was indeed used by the Marranos.
Change of tense from past to future
An important alteration in the wording of the Kol Nidre was made by Rashi's son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, who changed the original phrase "from the last Day of Atonement until this one" to "from this Day of Atonement until the next." Thus the dispensation was not a posteriori, and concerned with unfulfilled obligations of the past year, but a priori and having reference to vows which one might not be able to fulfil or might forget to observe during the ensuing year. Meir ben Samuel likewise added the words "we do repent of them all", since real repentance is a condition of dispensation. The reasons assigned for this change were that an "ex post facto" annulment of a vow was meaningless, and that, furthermore, no one might grant to himself a dispensation, which might be given only by a board of three laymen or by a competent judge.
It was Rabbenu Tam, however, who accounted for the alteration made by his father as already stated, and who also tried to change the perfects of the text, "which we have vowed," "have sworn," etc., to imperfects. Whether the old text was already too deeply rooted, or whether Rabbenu Tam did not correct these verbal forms consistently and grammatically, the old perfects are still retained at the beginning of the formula, although a future meaning is given to them.
The alteration made by Meïr ben Samuel, which agreed with Isaac ibn Ghayyat's view was accepted in the German, northern French, and Polish rituals and in those dependent on them, but not in the Spanish, Roman, and Provençal rituals. The old version is, therefore, usually called the "Sephardic." The old and the new versions are sometimes found side by side.
In the Siddur of Amram and in the Roman Mahzor the Kol Nidrei is written in Hebrew, and therefore begins Kol Nedarim. The determination of the time in both versions is Hebrew. Currently, the prayer is recited in Aramaic. The words "as it is written in the teachings of Moses, thy servant," which were said in the old form before Num. xv. 26, were canceled by Meir of Rothenburg.
Method of recitation
As to the manner in which the hazzan (cantor) is to recite the Kol Nidrei, the Mahzor Vitry gives the following directions: "The first time he must utter it very softly like one who hesitates to enter the palace of the king to ask a gift of him whom he fears to approach; the second time he may speak somewhat louder; and the third time more loudly still, as one who is accustomed to dwell at court and to approach his sovereign as a friend."
The number of Torah-scrolls taken out for the Kol Nidrei varied according to different customs. In some places it was one; in others, two, three, seven, or even all. The first Torah-scroll taken out is called the Sefer Kol NidreI. Kol Nidrei should be recited before sunset, since dispensation from a vow may not be granted on the Sabbath or on a feast-day, unless the vow refers to one of these days.
Use by antisemites
The Kol Nidrei prayer has been used by non-Jews as a basis for asserting that an oath taken by a Jew may not be trusted. Historically, this accusation was leveled so often and so persistently that many non-Jewish legislators considered it necessary to have a special form of oath administered to Jews ("Oath More Judaico"), and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, basing their objections chiefly on this prayer. As early as 1240 in the Disputation of Paris, Yechiel of Paris was obliged to defend Kol Nidrei against these charges.
Rabbis have always pointed out that the dispensation from vows in Kol Nidrei refers only to those which an individual voluntarily assumes for himself alone and in which no other persons or their interests are involved. The formula is restricted to those vows which are between man and God alone; they have no effect on vows made between one man and another. No vow, promise, or oath which concerns another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in Kol Nidrei. According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.
Five geonim (rabbinic leaders of medieval Babylonian Jewry) were against while only one was in favor of reciting the prayer. Even so, early an authority as Saadia Gaon wished to restrict it to those vows which were extorted from the congregation in the synagogue in times of persecution ("Kol Bo"), and he declared explicitly that the "Kol Nidre" gave no absolution from oaths which an individual had taken during the year.
Judah ben Barzillai, a Spanish author of the twelfth century, in his work on Jewish law "Sefer ha-'Ittim", declares that the custom of reciting the Kol Nidre was unjustifiable and misleading, since many ignorant persons believe that all their vows and oaths are annulled through this formula, and consequently they take such obligations on themselves carelessly.
The actual wording of Kol Nidrei is as follows (in Aramaic):
"All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called 'konam,' 'konas,' or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths."
As pointed out above, many rabbis state that the vows referred to are applicable only to the individual, and not interpersonally. It refers only to vows between the person making them and G-d, such as "If I pass this test, I'll pray every day for the next 6 months!"
Because this prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are untrustworthy, the Reform movement removed it from the liturgy for a while. In fact, the reverse is true: Jews make this prayer because they take vows so seriously that they consider themselves bound even if they make the vows under duress or in times of stress when not thinking straight. This prayer gave comfort to those who were forcibly converted to Christianity, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity. In recognition of that history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its liturgy.
For the same reason Jeroham ben Meshullam, who lived in Provence about the middle of the fourteenth century, inveighed against those, who, trusting to the "Kol Nidrei", made vows recklessly, and he declared them incapable of giving testimony. The Karaite Judah Hadassi, who wrote the "Eshkol ha-Kofer" at Constantinople in 1148 (see Nos. 139,140 of that work), likewise protested against the Kol Nidrei. Among other opponents of it in the Middle Ages were Yom-Ṭob ben Abraham Isbili (d. 1350) in his "Ḥiddushim"; Isaac ben Sheshet, rabbi in Saragossa (d. 1406), Responsa, No. 394 (where is also a reference to the preceding); the author of the "Kol Bo" (15th cent.); and Leon of Modena (d. 1648 [see N. S. Libowitz, "Leon Modena," p. 33, New York, 1901]). In addition, nearly all printed maḥzorim contain expositions and explanations of the "Kol Nidre" in the restricted sense mentioned above.
Reform in the nineteenth century
Yielding to the numerous accusations and complaints brought against "Kol Nidrei" in the course of centuries, the rabbinical conference held at Brunswick in 1844 decided unanimously that the formula was not essential, and that the members of the convention should exert their influence toward securing its speedy abolition.
At other times and places during the nineteenth century emphasis was frequently laid upon the fact that "in the 'Kol Nidrei' only those vows and obligations are implied which are voluntarily assumed, and which are, so to speak, taken before God, thus being exclusively religious in content; but that those obligations are in no wise included which refer to other persons or to non-religious relations."
The decision of the conference was accepted by many congregations of western Europe and in all the American Reform Judaism congregations, which while retaining the melody substituted for the formula a German hymn or a Hebrew psalm, or changed the old text to the words, "May all the vows arise to thee which the sons of Israel vow unto thee, O Lord, ... that they will return to thee with all their heart, and from this Day of Atonement until the next," etc. Naturally there were many Orthodox opponents of this innovation, among whom M. Lehmann, editor of the "Israelit," was especially prominent.
According to many[weasel words] Jewish writers, the principal factor which preserved the religious authority of the Kol Nidrei is its plaintive melody.
Even more famous than the formula itself is the melody traditionally attached to its rendition. This is so much prized that even where Reform Judaism has abolished the recital of the Chaldaic text, the air is often preserved, in association with some other passage.
And yet there are probably no two synagogues in which the melody is chanted note for note absolutely the same. So marked is the variation in the details of the melody that a critical examination of the variants shows an approach toward agreement in the essentials of the first strain only, with transformations of the greatest diversity in the remaining strains. These divergences, however, are not radical, and they are no more than are inherent in a composition not due to a single originator, but built up and elaborated by many in turn, and handed on by them in distinct lines of tradition, along all of which the rhapsodical method of the hazzanut has been followed.
The musical structure of Kol Nidrei is built upon a simple groundwork, the melody being an intermingling of simple cantillation with rich figuration. The opening of Kol Nidre is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a "pneuma," or soul breath. Instead of announcing the opening words in a monotone or in any of the familiar declamatory phrases, a hazzan of South Germany prefixed a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could find utterance before the officiant could bring himself to inaugurate the Day of Atonement.
Similarities to Catholic plainsong
Nineteenth century pianist Emil Breslauer was the first to draw attention to the similarity of these strains with the first five bars of the sixth movement of Beethoven's C sharp minor quartet, op. 131, "adagio quasi un poco andante."
An older coincidence shows the original element around which the whole of Kol Nidre has been built up. The pneuma given in the Sarum and Ratisbon antiphonaries (or Catholic ritual music-books) as a typical passage in the first Gregorian mode (or the notes in the natural scale running from "d" to "d" ["re" to "re"]), almost exactly outlines the figure which prevails throughout the Hebrew air, in all its variants, and reproduces one favorite strain with still closer agreement.
The original pattern of these phrases seems to be the strain of melody so frequently repeated in the modern versions of Kol Nidre at the introduction of each clause. Such a pattern phrase, indeed, is, in the less elaborated Italian tradition, repeated in its simple form five times consecutively in the first sentence of the text, and a little more elaborately four times in succession from the words "nidrana lo nidre."
The northern traditions prefer at such points first to utilize its complement in the second ecclesiastical mode of the Church, which extends below as well as above the fundamental "re." The strain, in either form, must obviously date from the early medieval period, anterior to the eleventh century, when the practice and theory of the singing-school at St. Gall, by which such typical passages were evolved, influenced all music in those French and German lands where the melody of Kol Nidre took shape.
Thus, then, a typical phrase in the most familiar Gregorian mode, such as was daily in the ears of the Rhenish Jews, in secular as well as in ecclesiastical music, was centuries ago deemed suitable for the recitation of the Absolution of Vows, and to it was afterward prefixed an introductory intonation dependent on the taste and capacity of the officiant. Many times repeated, the figure of this central phrase was sometimes sung on a higher degree of the scale, sometimes on a lower. Then these became associated; and so gradually the middle section of the melody developed into the modern forms.
Inspiration for other musical pieces
The prayer and its melody has been the basis of a number of pieces of classical music, including a setting of the prayer by Arnold Schoenberg, a piece for solo cello and orchestra by Max Bruch, a string quartet by John Zorn, and others.
The Electric Prunes album Release of An Oath, subtitled and commonly called The Kol Nidre after the title of its first and thematically most central track, is based on a combination of Christian and Jewish liturgy.
Comedian Lewis Black frequently references the Kol Nidre in some of his shows and his first book, Nothing's Sacred, referring to it as the spookiest piece of music ever written, claiming that it may have been the piece to inspire all of Alfred Hitchcock's musical scores.
Kol Nidre plays a climactic role in The Jazz Singer (1927 film), where it is sung by notable Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, and in The Jazz Singer (1980 film).
- As pronounced by many sephardic communities
- "Kol Nidre."The New Encyclopedia of Judaism. 1st ed. 2002. Print.
- "Jewish History Sourcebook: An Oath Taken by Jews Frankfort on the Main, about 1392 CE". http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/1392-jews-frankfort.html.
- Translation of Philip Birnbaum, from High Holyday Prayer Book, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY, 1951
- Note: The Hebrew text lists a set of terms for oaths and legal declarations. Each term is a technical term for a distinct type of formal legal declaration with a distinctive legal meaning in Jewish law as described in the Talmud. For a discussion of these terms and an explanation of the meaning of each, see "General Introduction", The Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, Volume 1. Mesorah Publications Limited
- The Jewish encyclopedia cites the following references:
- Wagenseil, "Tela Ignea, Disputatio R. Jechielis," p. 23
- Eisenmenger, "Entdecktes Judenthum," vol. ii., ch. ix., pp. 489 et seq. Königsberg, 1711
- Bodenschatz, "Kirchliche Verfassung der Heutigen Juden," part ii., ch. v., § 10, Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1748
- Rohling, "Der Talmudjude," pp. 80 et seq., Münster, 1877
- Jacobs, Joseph; Max Schloessinger, Cyrus Adler, and Francis L. Cohen. "The Jewish Encyclopedia: Kol Nidre". http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?letter=K&artid=340.
- The Jewish encyclopedia cites the following references:
- "Toledot Adam we-Ḥawwah," ed. 1808, section 14, part iii., p. 88
- Zunz, "G. V." p. 390
- "Protocolle der Ersten Rabbiner Versammlung," p. 41, Brunswick, 1844
- "Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1885, p. 396
- see ib. 1863, Nos. 25, 38
- Portions of this article have been imported from the 1906 public domain "Jewish Encyclopedia". They have been edited and Wikified, but may not necessarily incorporate modern scholarship. Please help by modifying as needed.
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
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