15 September 2021
The Greeks have a word
for it (26) Synagogue
During these two weeks in Crete, I have been reminding myself of familiar words in the English language that are Greek words, deeply rooted in Greek classics, antiquity and culture.
But the word synagogue is Greek, word, not Hebrew. In Hebrew, a synagogue is called בית כנסת (beit Knesset), which means, a ‘house of gathering.’ The word synagogue comes the classical Greek word συναγωγή (synagogē), meaning assembly.
Ashkenazic Jews in English-speaking countries use the Yiddish word shul (שול) for a synagogue, but many Sephardic and Romaniote Jews use the word esnoga (אשנוגה), from the Ladino (‘bright as fire’) or kahal (קהל).
I am in Crete in the middle of the High Holy Days, with Rosh Hashanah last Monday evening (6 September 2021) marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5782. Yom Kippur 2021 begins at sunset this evening (15 September), when the evening service begins with Kol Nidre, and ends at nightfall tomorrow (16 September).
I had hoped to travel from Rethymnon to Chania to visit the Etz Hayyim synagogue this evening. But the pandemic restrictions make this difficult if not impossible because only a very small number are being allowed inside.
Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania, where there has been a synagogue since the Middle Ages. It is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.
There were Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans.
They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the arrival of Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.
At the beginning of the Greek-Turkish war in 1897, there were 225 Jewish families in Crete, or 1,150 people in a total population of 250,000, spread across the three cities in the island: Chania, Iraklion and Rethymnon.
Early on the morning of 9 June 1944, while the 256 remaining Jews of Crete were being sent by the Nazis to Athens for deportation to Auschwitz, the Tanais, the container ship carrying them from Chania to Athens, was torpedoed by a British submarine HMS Vivid off the coast of Santorini. In all, about 1,000 prisoners were on board, including 400 Greek hostages and 300 Italian soldiers. No one survived.
Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty after World War II. The sleeping building was desecrated. It was used as a dump, a urinal and a kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.
The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. His family ties inspired many visits to Crete. He returned in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.
Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, often comes to Chania from Athens to help with the services.
Yom Kippur falls on the Hebrew calendar date of 10 Tishrei. The central themes of this holy day are atonement and repentance, and it is observed with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, and many Jews spend most of the day at synagogue services.
According to Jewish tradition, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah or New Year and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. During the intervening Days of Awe, Jews seek to amend their behaviour and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other people.
The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private prayer and confessions of guilt.
The evening of Yom Kippur is known as Kol Nidrei night because of the Kol Nidre prayer which is charged with so many emotions and so many memories for Jews everywhere. The words are in Aramaic, not Hebrew, and it is sung to a haunting, traditional melody that has inspired many composers and singers.
There is a tradition that during the Spanish Inquisition, when the conversos or Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity under the threat of death, they remained faithful to Judaism at heart, and tried to observe Jewish practices in their homes.
These conversos would gather in the evening shortly before Yom Kippur began in their secret synagogues. Before beginning the Yom Kippur services, they would tearfully and emotionally pray to God, asking for forgiveness for all the public statements they made in the previous year which were contrary to Jewish doctrine.
This is supposedly also the reason why Kol Nidre is prefaced with the statement: ‘… by the authority of the heavenly tribunal and by the authority of the earthly tribunal, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.’
However, the Kol Nidre prayer predates the Inquisition by at least 500 years. It is said with great devotion as the opening prayer of the holiest day of the year and not because of its content.
Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration recited in the synagogue before the beginning of the evening service on every Yom Kippur. Although, strictly speaking, Kol Nidre is not a prayer, it has many emotional undertones and creates a dramatic introduction to Yom Kippur. The term Kol Nidre refers not only to the actual declaration but is also used as the name for the entire Yom Kippur service in the evening.
The name ‘Kol Nidre’ comes from the opening words, meaning ‘all vows.’ It is a pledge that annuls any personal or religious oaths or prohibitions made to God by the person for the next year, so as to avoid the sin of breaking vows made to God that cannot be or are not upheld.
Kol Nidre was introduced into the synagogue liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbis, although it was expunged from the prayer book by many communities in western Europe in the 19th century.
Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, the congregation gathers in the synagogue, the Ark is opened and two people take out two or three Torah scrolls. They then take their places, one on each side of the cantor, and the three, forming a symbolic beth din or rabbinical court, recite:
By the authority of the Court on High
and by authority of the court down here,
by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere
and by the permission of this congregation,
we hold it lawful to pray with sinners.
The last word, usually translated as sinners or transgressors, is used in the Talmud (Niddah 13b; Shabbat 40a) for apostates or renegades and in the Talmud of Jerusalem (Ketubot 7, 31c) for someone whose offences are of such magnitude that he is no longer recognised by the Jewish community.
The cantor then chants the passage beginning with the words Kol Nidre with its touching melodic phrases, and, in varying intensities, repeats twice, giving a total of three declarations, these 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.
The leader and the congregation then say together three times:
May all the people of Israel be forgiven,
including all the strangers who live in their midst,
for all the people are in fault. (Numbers 15: 26)
The leader then says:
O pardon the iniquities of this people,
according to thy abundant mercy,
just as thou forgave this people
ever since they left Egypt.
The leader and the congregation say together three times:
The Lord said,
‘I pardon them according to your words.’ (Numbers 14: 20)
The Torah scrolls are then placed back in the Ark, and the customary evening service begins.
Kol Nidre is not a prayer; indeed, it makes no requests and it is not addressed to God. Instead, it is a declaration before the Yom Kippur prayers begin. It follows the juridical practice of requiring three men as a tribunal, the procedure beginning before sundown, and of the proclamation being announced three times.
It is believed that Kol Nidre was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, because that service is much more solemn, because the Day of Atonement is attuned to the theme of repentance and remorse and because Yom Kippur services are better attended. Kol Nidre also includes an emotional expression of penitence that sets the theme for the Day of Atonement.
Rabbi Meir ben Samuel made an important change to the wording of Kol Nidre in the early 12th century, changing the original phrase ‘from the last Day of Atonement until this one’ to ‘from this Day of Atonement until the next.’
The older text is usually called the Sephardic version, but the two versions are sometimes found side by side. Because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some Sephardic communities and a small number of Ashkenazic communities recite both versions.
Kol Nidre is performed before Yom Kippur begins, and should be recited before sunset, since dispensation from a vow may not be granted on the Sabbath or on a feast-day, unless the vow refers to one of these days. However, Sephardic communities wait until nightfall, when Yom Kippur officially begins, before reciting Kol Nidre.
There is a tradition that makes Kol Nidre more than a technical vow-annulment procedure. Instead, by releasing these vows God is being asked to reciprocate in kind. In the event that he has pledged not to bring the redemption just yet, in the event that he made an oath to bring harsh judgments on his people in the following year, God is asked to release these vows and instead grant a year of happiness and redemption.
גְּמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה
G’mar Chatima Tovah, May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life.
Kol Nidrei, sung by Rabbi Angela Buchdahl at Central Synagogue, New York