Jewish Calendar - TISHREI - Yom Kippur

The intense emotion and spiritual energy that can be generated by a Yom Kippur eve Kol Nidrei service is demonstrated by the story of the German Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). Rosenzweig grew up like many European Jews of his generation: his home was nominally Jewish and his religious education minimal. As a young man, he decided to convert to Christianity, as many of his contemporaries had done. He further decided that he must become a Christian not as "a pagan" but "as a Jew," i.e., not by rejecting his Jewish origin but by re-enacting what he saw as the culmination of Judaism in Christianity.

On Yom Kippur in 1913, he attended Kol Nidrei Services at a small orthodox synagogue in Berlin. Something dramatic happened to Rosenzweig that evening; while he never discussed the experience, he was clearly transformed by it. Not long after Yom Kippur, Rosenzweig wrote to a friend, "After prolonged, and I believe thorough, self-examination, I have reversed my decision. It no longer seems necessary to me, and therefore being what I am, no longer possible. I will remain a Jew."

The evening service on the Eve of Yom Kippur is preceded by the chanting of Kol Nidrei ("All vows"), a formal annulment of vows. The worshipers proclaim that all personal vows and oaths made between themselves and God during the year that not have not been fulfilled should be considered null and void. In Jewish tradition, the nullification of vows can only be performed a religious court, which always consists of at least three judges and is convened only on weekdays. The recitation of Kol Nidrei is therefore begun before sunset; two distinguished congregants, holding Torah scrolls, stand next to the Cantor in order to constitute a court. [Text and translation]

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Vows and obligations involving duties "between man and man" are not encompassed in the Kol Nidrei ritual. This is in accordance with the principle stated in the Mishnah: "Of all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord (Lev. 16:30) — for transgressions as between man and the Omnipresent the Day of Atonement procures atonement; but for transgressions as between man and his fellow man, the Day of Atonement does not procure atonement until he has made peace with his fellow."[1]

Not really a prayer, Kol Nidrei has little thematic relationship to the rest of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Its purpose is to alleviate the congregation's anxiety about unfulfilled and possibly forgotten vows before the beginning of the Yom Kippur prayers, and to begin the Day of Atonement with a clear conscience. The prayer is in Aramaic and recited three times while standing; the talit (prayer shawl) is worn.

We do not know when or where the current ritual and text of Kol Nidrei originated. The first references to Kol Nidrei as a collective declaration are found in the responsa of the Babylonian geonim (8-10th century scholars); the geonim vigorously opposed the practice of chanting the declamation, which they claimed originated in unspecified "other lands." Although Palestine is an obvious candidate, none of the surviving ancient Palestinian prayer texts include Kol Nidrei.

Scholarly hesitations aside, popular demand kept Kol Nidrei in the liturgy and by the time of Hai Gaon (c.1000 C.E.), it was generally accepted. Geonic texts of Kol Nidrei speak of annulling vows made "from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement." Authorities in early medieval Europe (12th century) did not accept this version and amended the text to refer to future vows made "from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement." Different communities adopted different versions and some have incorporated both.

Although all Jewish sources and interpretations of Kol Nidrei agree that the formula covers only vows between the individual and God, many anti-Semites have taken Kol Nidrei as evidence that a Jew's oath is worthless. In Germany in 1844, the Reform movement recommended that Kol Nidrei be eliminated from the liturgy. Intense popular attachment to the prayer — to its moving musical composition and to the solemnity of the ritual — had the upper hand, and Kol Nidrei prevailed. As a compromise, early Reform prayerbooks offered substitute versions, especially Psalm 130, as in the Berlin tradition[2]; text . In the latter half of the 20th century, most Reform congregations reinstated the traditional Aramaic text.

The standard Ashkenazi melody for Kol Nidrei is an example par excellence of the Jewish musical tradition. It is not a melody in the usual sense, but rather a collection of motifs in the general musical style of the High Holy Days. They include both solemn syllabic "proclamations" and virtuoso vocal runs. Many cantors and communities developed their particular variations of the basic musical material and many synagogue composers have made their own arrangements.[3] It remains an open question whether the solemnity and importance of the text shaped the musical rendition of Kol Nidrei, or whether the stature of the text was heightened by the extraordinary effect of the music. The source of the melody is still a subject of research, and the frequent attempts to relate it to the Sephardi traditions have not been successful.

The Sephardi and Oriental Jewish communities each have their own Kol Nidrei traditions: Sephardi, Moroccan and Yemenite.[4]


[1] PBT Yoma 8:9 [Back]

[2]The Musical Tradition of the Jewish Reform Congregation in Berlin (1998), courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish Music Dept. Recorded at the Lundstrom Studio, Berlin, May 8, 1929; music arranged by Lewis Lewandowski; soloist Hermann Shey, organ Paul Mania. [Back]

[3] From: The Koenigsberg Tradition: The High Holydays (1984), courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish Music Dept. "Rinat" Israel National Choir is conducted by Stanley Sperber; Cantor Naftali Hershtik and organ Raymond Goldstein. [Back]

[4From: The Kol Nidrei Prayer in the Traditions of the Communities of Israel, courtesy of Renanot, The Institute for Jewish Music (no date).
Sepharadi: Ezra Barnea; Moroccan: Moshe Almakis; Yemenite: Aharon Amram[Back]


Elbogen, Ismar. Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. translated by Raymond Scheindlin. Copyright © 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA) and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York, NY).

Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971), Vols. 10, 14.

Millgram, Abraham. Jewish Worship. Copyright © 1971 by The Jewish Publication Society of America (Philadelphia, PA).


RENANOT, The Institute for Jewish Music was established in 1957, to gather and disseminate information about the world's Jewish music. The institute uncovers, nurtures, preserves and teaches the musical traditions of various Jewish communities; promotes cantorial music and establishes institutions for advanced training and the study of hazzanut according to respective Jewish community traditions. renanot[Back]
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tel: 972-2-624-8761, fax: 972-2-625-5771

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