"All vows, renunciations, promises, obligations, and oaths taken from this Day of Atonement till the next, may we attain them in peace; we regret them in advance. May we be absolved of them, may we be released from them, and may they be null and void and of no effect. May they not be binding upon us. Such vows shall not be considered vows; such renunciations, no renunciations; and such oaths, no oaths." (Translation adapted from the High Holy Day Prayer Book, edited by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser)
Kol Nidre ("all vows" in a literal translation) refers to a piece of sacred Jewish music intentionally composed for incorporation into the Yom Kippur liturgy. The piece premiered in a formal Yom Kippur eve service in an Ashkenazi community, with hopes that it would take off in the Jewish world and become customary in synagogues around the world.
The origins of the Kol Nidre largely remain a mystery, though some scholars, researchers, and historians make connections back to the Inquisition as Spanish Jews during medieval times when the Jewish people were being forced to convert to Christianity (or Islam) or be killed. The Kol Nidre may have originated from those days, when Jews practiced their faith secretly at home and used the Kol Nidre as a method of nullifying their vows of conversion to Christianity before God. The Kol Nidre, they believed, absolved before God vows that they made under extreme duress that they would have otherwise never made.
Though other historians and scholars have alternative ideas on the origin and may pin the origins as far back as the 6th and 7th centuries in Babylonian culture, The melody of the associated musical composition most likely originated in Germany in medieval times and was passed down through the centuries.
In North America, the Kol Nidre is the best-known piece of liturgy associated with Yom Kippur. The wording of the Kol Nidre was changed in the 12th century from "from the last Day of Atonement until this one" to "from this Day of Atonement until the next." It is neither a prayer nor are there any requests addressed to God. It is simply a declaration or proclamation made prior to the Yom Kippur prayers. It is often performed by a cantor and/or choir in front of an open Ark, accompanied by a cello player.
Despite the "all vows" translation from the Aramaic, the meaning is more profound than a simple two-word literal translation. More profoundly, the Kol Nidre is a legal formula that annuls and renounces vows before God (Numbers 30:3, Deuteronomy 23:24). Our oaths, our pledges, and our pursuit of striving for holiness are important, as God knows our hearts and our desire to seek His ways, but our promises are often merely ropes in the sand. Vows, pledges, and oaths are not to be made unless we have every intention of fulfilling them.
In ancient Israel, it was not uncommon for the people to make various vows to God, and thus the Torah spoke out against such vows in Deuteronomy 23:23. The Torah states that we are to keep our word, so making vows, commitments, or oaths and then not fulfilling those vows, commitments, or oaths is viewed as a serious misdeed and transgression against the Almighty.
The Kol Nidre does not nullify sins involved in breaking vows or oaths made with other people; if these vows are broken and one is not faithful to the word, then forgiveness must be sought from the other individual before atonement can be received from God. As the Talmud teaches, "Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between a person and his fellow until he has appeased his fellow."
There have been rabbis, writers and editors of prayer books, and others who have sought to expunge the Kol Nidre from the liturgy all together or perhaps revise the Kol Nidre with alternative text derived from stanzas of Psalm 130, various Jewish poetry, or prose written in rhyme. Yet there was some resistance to these efforts, particularly among the German Jews of Europe, some Reform Jewish communities, and even a few more modern Jewish communities.
Some of the early prayerbooks printed in America omitted the Kol Nidre, though the Kol Nidre started to resurface in some prayerbooks printed after the Holocaust to accommodate those with fond memories of the Kol Nidre from their childhood or other family traditions. This is not to be interpreted as rabbis or scholars endorsing the Kol Nidre, but as an accommodation and compromise for those with an emotional attachment to the piece without providing additional commentary or endorsement.
Many scholars lament that the Kol Nidre has grammatical errors in the Aramaic language, but grammatical corrections have been rendered impossible because the necessary changes that would bring about proper grammar would interfere with the integrity of the traditional, beloved melody. Some of these technicalities are challenging to explain in the English language due to differences in composition, terminology, structure, and nuance in the English language compared to Aramaic.
The musical composition of the Ashkenazi Kol Nidre interestingly parallels the five bars of the sixth movement of Ludwig von Beethoven's C sharp minor quartet, op. 131, "adagio quasi un poco andante." Furthermore, the most well-known instrumental version today may have been written by a German Protestant composer in the late 19th century.
However, many synagogues remained reluctant to accept the Kol Nidre as a standard component of liturgy; even some liberal synagogues known to take liberties in their approach to the faith have objected, viewing it as more of a spiritual concert or a personal work of art than something that belonged in the standard liturgy. Other congregations have remained skeptical of the Kol Nidre from the beginning, believing it to be more of a musical tradition that lacks historical and scriptural significance.
The Kol Nidre in Synagogue Services
For those congregations that have chosen to incorporate the Kol Nidre in their High Holy Day services, the Kol Nidre is either sung or recited immediately prior to sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur. It is not a prayer, however, even though it might seem like one to the untrained ear.
Written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the Kol Nidre is more of a proclamation before God that annuls any vows, oaths, or prohibitions that are made between oneself and God from one Yom Kippur to the next Yom Kippur. Traditionally, the Kol Nidre is recited three times, increasing in volume each time from pianissimo to fortissimo. This is to ensure the entire congregation hears everything, lest someone miss something or walk into services late.
The Kol Nidre traditionally follows the opening prayer at synagogue services at sundown on Erev Yom Kippur. The Ark is opened, and the Torah scrolls (Sifrei Torah) are removed by two rabbis or two other men of honor in the community (the equivalent of elders). The cantor holding the Torah scroll may recite "Bi-yeshivah shel ma'alah..." ("By the authority of the Heavenly Court and by the authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere, and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it"). Then the congregation will be invited to pray, "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." This tradition Is based on Talmudic teachings stating that "Any community fast in which avaryanim (sinners) do not participate is not considered a valid fast."
Then the cantor continues, "O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt." Three times, the cantor and the congregation will recite, "The Lord said, 'I pardon them according to your words." (Numbers 14:19–20). The original text of Kol Nidre concludes with the following: "As it says, may all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are at fault.'"
The Torah scrolls are then returned to the Ark. Following the Kol Nidre service, a synagogue service may include the Shema, the Amidah, the Al Chet confession of sins, and the piyyutim. In these evening services, it would not be uncommon for the entire Book of Psalms to be recited. The rabbi might provide a sermon to the congregation.
Depending on the community, the Kol Nidre portion of the service is expected to be complete before sundown. This is because the annulment of any vows (hatarat nedarim) is not to be performed on major holidays, which includes Yom Kippur, obviously the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar according to halacha. The piece may have originally been written for Rosh Hashanah, but it is now standard for Yom Kippur liturgy due to the increased solemnity of that holiday. There are those who believe that Yom Kippur was once referred to as Rosh Hashanah in scripture.
Because there are those congregations that have kept the Kol Nidre as part of their liturgy, and some people have become attached to the musical work out of tradition and simply grown to love the tune and associate it with Yom Kippur traditions throughout their lives, the piece lives on in certain congregations and communities. Without that, the pressure to expunge the Kol Nidre may have been successful, and the piece may have died out a long time ago.