Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kol Nidre: the Beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement

Once again this evening I'll join my friends, Susanne and Al Batzdorff, at Congregation Beth Ami for the observance of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is a prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service. When the congregation has gathered, the Ark is opened and two leading men in the community take from it two Torah scrolls. Then they stand, one on each side of the hazzan (cantor), and the three recite a formula: "In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God -- blessed be He -- and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors." Then the cantor chants the Aramaic prayer beginning with the words Kol Nidre, with its moving plaintive and touching melody, and gradually increasing in volume, repeats three times the following: "All vows [Kol Nidre], 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 a side note, it's interesting to point out that the strains of the Kol Nidre are almost exactly outlined by the pneuma or neume [inflective mark, signfying one to five notes], given in the Catholic Sarum and Ratisbon antiphonaries, as a typical passage in the first Gregorian chant mode. The strains are also similar to the first five bars of Beethoven's C Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131, Period 6, Adagio quasi un poco andante.

After the chanting of the Kol Nidre, the leader and the congregation repeat three times from Numbers 15:26: "And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger who sojourns among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance." The hazzan then closes with the benediction: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who have preserved us and brought us to enjoy this season." The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the customary evening service begins. All told, I was alerted that the service will last about three hours.

The history of Kol Nidre is a checkered one. There were heated discussions and arguments wihin the Jewish community through the centuries whether it should even be recited. The formula was also modified periodically, and, as with most human and religious groups, practices regarding the Kol Nidre vary among various regions and synagogues.

The teachers of the synagogues have never failed to make clear that the dispensation from vows in the Kol Nidre refers
ONLY to those which an INDIVIDUAL voluntarily makes for himself/herself alone, and in which no other persons or their interests are involved: e.g., contracts, business agreements, etc. The formula refers solely those vows which have to do with the relation of one to one's own conscience or to the relation of one with the Heavenly Judge. The purpose of the Kol Nidre in nullifying one's vows, in the opinion of Jewish teachers, is to give protection from God's punishment in the event that one violates the vow(s). Nevertheless, no vow, promise, or oath concerning another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the Kol Nidre.

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