Recently, while in a breakout group during Shabbat services, Rabbi Birnholz and I asked some of the members of our community about their favorite prayer of the High Holidays. Almost everyone answered that their favorite prayer was Kol Nidrei. For reference, here is a translation of the text of Kol Nidrei:
All vows – resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation, sworn promises and oaths of dedication – that we promise and swear to G-d, and take upon ourselves from this Day of Atonement until the next day of Atonement, may it find us well: we regret them and for all of them we repent. Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone; they are not valid and they are not binding. Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves; and our oaths – they shall not be oaths.
I find it fascinating that so many people, not just in our community but throughout the greater Jewish community, find such meaning in a text that essentially looks like a contract written by a particularly competent lawyer.
Let’s take a look at the history of the text. It was originally composed between the sixth and eight centuries, but it was rejected by the community leaders at the time, called the G’onim, because they thought it would lead to people not taking their vows with G-d seriously. Several medieval commentators echoed this sentiment, including the well-known Maimonides. In the 13th century, copies of the Talmud were burned in Paris because it was it was alleged that Kol Nidrei, by absolving the reciter of their vows, made it so that Jews could exploit non-Jews. The so-called trial of the Talmud, led to a practice throughout Europe called juramentum more judaico, in which Jews would have to perform humiliating acts to “cancel” their recitation of Kol Nidrei. In France, for example, Jews had to wear a halo of thorns around the neck and stand on their knees, legs tied together with a sharp thorn between them. In Germany, Jews had to stand on pig’s skin and point at the Torah. It was not until the 16th century that Kol Nidrei became a regular part of the Yom Kippur liturgy under Rabbi Yosef Karo.
Considering the troubled history of Kol Nidrei and the legal nature of the text, Jews throughout the ages have attempted to extract Kol Nidrei from the liturgy, but they have never been successful, and one has to wonder why. The answer lies in the music; the traditional Kol Nidrei motifs transcend the Jewish soul. When I hear (or, now, sing) the first half step, I am transported back to my childhood, sitting in shul, listening to my own cantor sing this timeless melody. Jewish composers of all stripes have interpreted these motifs in unique ways, from the chazzanut of Israel Alter, which you will hear me sing; to the classical stylings of Louis Lewandowski (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8fZ9wETa8Y); to the choral masterpiece of Henry Russotto (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ILfQF3aiYs); to the dramatic and distinctly American stylings of Herbert Fromm (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBV5jV3IY3I). There is even a version by the late Bonia Shur, former Artist in Residence at the Cincinnati Campus of HUC-JIR that is meant for non-cantors to sing. A non-Jewish composer, Max Bruch, even composed a well-known version for cello solo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i91RX2LhY8s).
This year, as we are not able to be together in person, you will have the opportunity to listen to Kol Nidrei not just during our Zoom services, but also on our social media. I hope that you will take the time to listen and to allow this timeless melody to transport you back to your favorite memories of the High Holidays.
Cantor Sara Kheel