The synagogue is filled on the eve of Yom Kippur. The rabbi and cantor are dressed in white. The entire congregation grows silent as the ark is opened. All the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark. Then, that familiar, haunting melody of Kol Nidre is chanted by the cantor. The congregation experiences a rush of emotions and feelings — but how does one explain these feelings?
It is difficult to describe the myriad feelings that I, as a cantor, feel while chanting Kol Nidre. As I pray, I am transported to many worlds — the past, present and future. I am praying for myself and on behalf of my congregation. There is an unimaginable attempt to send this sacred text and melody up to God, for it is the beginning of the Jewish people’s Day of Atonement, and the importance of connecting with God is unquestionable.
As the Torahs are taken out of the ark, enveloping and protecting me like soft blankets, they are comforting signs that support comes to us through God’s teachings. The responsibility of protecting those teachings becomes so immediately present that I feel numb and standing on the bimah becomes difficult because God’s presence is so overwhelming. A deeply religious feeling drowns everything else away. What gives Kol Nidre its enormous power?
I have observed that many Jewish people consider Kol Nidre the spiritual highlight of the liturgy during the High Holy Day period — perhaps even the yearly cycle of holidays. Most can either hum the first musical motif or identify its melody. However, very few understand the actual content of Kol Nidre.
Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration, meaning “All Vows.” It states that all personal vows and oaths that a person makes unwittingly, rashly or unknowingly during the year should be considered null and void since these types of vows would have been difficult to fulfill. It is interesting to note that Kol Nidre acquired particular significance during the period of persecutions in Spain in which some 100,000 Jews were forced to forswear the Jewish faith and adopt Christianity. The prayer was used by these secret Jews, or Marranos, as they were called, to renounce the vows that had been imposed upon them by the Inquisition.
The text and chant of Kol Nidre was introduced by Rabbi Yehuda Gaon in his synagogue during the eighth century. According to musicologist Eric Werner, it originally had a different function and certainly a different melody than its present form. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Ashkenazi rabbis decided that each holiday should have its own unique melody that would express the significance of the day.
The birthplace of these tunes was southwestern Germany in the cities of Worms, Mayence, Speyer and the Rhineland, which were the centers of talmudic Judaism and the Ashkenzi ritual during the 12th and 13th centuries. Many of them were written during the Crusades as laments of martyrology.
While most of the lament texts were forgotten, their tunes were absorbed by some of the prayers of the High Holy Days and festivals. They were given sacred status and called mi’Sinai tunes, which means “received by Moses on Mt. Sinai.”
Among these mi’Sinai tunes is a motif from Kol Nidre, whose exact origin is unknown. Note that the touching melody adopted by the Ashkenazim throughout the world is not used by Sephardim, who recite Kol Nidre in a different manner.
Despite the fact that many synagogue-goers are not familiar with the specific content of Kol Nidre, the melody of this prayer sparks intense feelings. Although the traditional Ashkenazic melody heard in synagogues today is very moving and has become one of the most treasured melodies of the Ashkenazi people, it is not the melody alone that gives Kol Nidre its power.
After all, had this melody provided the musical setting for another prayer, it is unlikely that the melody alone would have taken on such extraordinary importance. So we must ask: What is it that provokes this “deeply religious feeling? What gives Kol Nidre its power?
I suspect that the chanting of Kol Nidre during the Days of Awe has become a musical symbol for a moment in time when most Jewish people are highly aware of their Jewishness.
The Torah scrolls are out of the ark and we are all standing together as we did at Sinai to receive the commandments. At that moment this sacred motif arises from the human voice. Kol Nidre sounds the moment when Jews are doing the same thing. They are standing facing the Torah scrolls, listening to a mi’Sinai tune, a melody received by Moses on Mount Sinai, which brings every Jew that much closer to God. It is a moment when every Jew has the potential to connect to the Jewish people, Torah and God.
A community in this state of closeness is thereby renewing the Jewish people’s covenant with God. Once again many Jews are taking part in sacred history, symbolically playing out the traditional Torah reading on Yom Kippur, a passage found in Deuteronomy 29:9-14 titled Nitzavim from the Hebrew word which means “to stand firmly” with total commitment:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women and children, and the strangers in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water — to enter into the sworn covenant which the Lord your God makes with you this day in order to establish you henceforth as the people whose only God is the Lord, as you had been promised, and as God had sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant. I make it with those who are standing here with us today before the Lord our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.”
Kol Nidre is a powerful moment of community, during which we are not only united with those Jews in the synagogue, but we are aware that at the same moment Jews all over the world, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, are standing — physically, mentally and spiritually — listening to those same strains of sacred melody.
Consciously or unconsciously, we know that this has been a practice for more than 1,000 years of Jewish history and that this practice will continue as long as Jews live and continue “to stand firm” in their commitment to the message of God’s teachings.
Every Jew makes a difference in prolonging the life of the Jewish people by becoming part of this sacred history, through praying, studying and engaging in acts of kindness. May you and your family be blessed with a healthy, peaceful and spiritual New Year, filled with your commitment to stand firmly before God.
Deborah Staiman is a freelance cantor in Toronto. This column previously appeared in the Canadian Jewish News.