Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre Prayer and Music

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The Kol Nidre prayer is one of the most powerful, recognizable and beloved prayers in Jewish liturgy.  It is heard only once a year, at the beginning of the Yom Kippur Evening Service. The most dramatic and popular musical composition for the Kol Nidre was written by the German Protestant composer Max Bruch, who was inspired by the words of the prayer.  His work was published in 1881, and since then many musicians have written different arrangements of his classic piece.  The Kol Nidre has become so important and so ingrained in the Jewish psyche, that the Yom Kippur Evening Service is often called the Kol Nidre Service!

Here is a beautiful performance of  “Kol Nidre” by cellist Ernst Simon Glaser, and pianist, Torleif Torgersen at the 2010 Sion Festival.

The Kol Nidre Prayer Controversy

As amazing as this music is, the centuries old Kol Nidre prayer itself has stirred controversy. Here are the words:

“All vows we are likely to make, all 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 vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.”

Given these words, the controversy is understandable and predictable. Many anti-Semites point to this passage as proof that Jews cannot be trusted to keep their promises.  The text says that you will be forgiven regardless of what promises you will make and break? Understanding the history of the text reveals the true intent.

The Kol Nidre was written at time when Jews were being persecuted and forced to convert or deny their Jewish identity in order to save their lives and the lives of their families.  The Kol Nidre text has never been interpreted or understood by leading rabbis, and by Jewish communities, to mean that we are not held accountable for rash and deceitful promises. Yet, in an attempt to end any controversy, many rabbis throughout the ages, advocated deleting this passage from their prayers.  Some were successful, but the Kol Nidre remains a powerful part of the Holy Days.  The music soars, affirming and expressing the full range of emotions experienced during the High Holy Days – of self-reflection, repentance, forgiveness and renewal. Today, the original text of the Kol Nidre is often left unread, while its original intent is explained in our prayer books. Here is the reading that accompanies the Kol Nidre in the Classical Reform Union Prayer Book for the High Holy Days, Sinai Edition.

Kol Nidre began as the prayer for Jews who were not free to make their own decisions, people who were forced to say what they did not mean. In repeating this prayer today, in our own times and in this land of freedom, we continue to identify with the agony of our ancestors who had to say “yes” when they meant “no.”

The Kol Nidre also represents our confession: that we are all transgressors, all exiled from the Highest that we know, all in need of healing, of forgiveness and reconciliation. For what we have done, for what we may yet do, we ask pardon. For rash words, broken pledge, insincere assurances, and foolish promises, may we find forgiveness. (pg. 138.)

Links to more details about the Kol Nidre

For detailed history the Kol Nidre, go to http://www.reformjudaism.org/sounds-kol-nidre; and  https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-curious-case-of-kol-nidre/


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