04 October 2022

Releasing the vows of the past
and praying for a year of
happiness and redemption

Reading from the scrolls in the synagogue … ‘Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,’ Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Vienna, 1878, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

The Jewish High Holy Days, which began with Rosh haShanah last week on Sunday evening (25 September 2022) mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5783. Yom Kippur 2022 begins at sunset this evening (4 October 2022), when the evening service begins with Kol Nidre, and ends at nightfall tomorrow (5 October).

The High Holy Days, also known as the ‘Days of Awe,’ began on Rosh haShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎) literally meaning the ‘head of the year.’ This is a time of repentance when Jewish people reflect on actions over the previous year. Traditional celebrations will see families and friends spend time together, pray, listen to the sound of the Shofar (the ram’s horn) and eat special food.

Yom Kippur falls on the Hebrew calendar date of 10 Tishrei. The tenth day, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins this evening at sunset and ends at nightfall tomorrow.

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 Nidre 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.

In synagogues this evening, 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 Nidre 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 procedure of annulling vows. 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.

Avinu Malkeinu, the traditional prayer I described on Friday evening, is considered by many as the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur service. The ark is still open and will soon close. As the service is reaching its end, there is a feeling that the gates of heaven are closing. The emotions that have been built up throughout the day are expressed as the entire congregation sings this traditional tune together.

It is an important reminder of how to cherish the past, and allow it to help shape and focus the days ahead. The old and the new are side by side, blessed by renewed energy year after year.

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Tuesday 4 October 2022

The Chapel in the Bar Convent, York, the oldest surviving Catholic convent in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship commemorates Francis of Assisi, Friar, Deacon, Founder of the Friars Minor, 1226, with a Lesser Festival. Later today, this evening in the Jewish Calendar is Kol Nidre begins at sunset, marking the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Before today gets busy, however, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This morning, and throughout this week, I am continuing last week’s theme of reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in York, where I stayed in mid-September.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a church, chapel or place of worship in York;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Bar Convent on the corner of Blossom Street and Nunnery Lane, York, dates back to 1686, when Mother Frances Bedingfeld, under the alias Frances Long, signed the deeds for the site (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Francis was born in Assisi in central Italy in 1181 or 1182. He was baptised Giovanni but given the name Francesco by his father, a cloth merchant who traded in France and had married a French wife. There was an expectation that he would eventually take over his father’s business but Francis had a rebellious youth and a difficult relationship with his father.

After suffering the ignominy of imprisonment following capture while at war with the local city of Perugia, he returned a changed man. He took to caring for disused churches and for the poor, particularly those suffering from leprosy. While praying in the semi-derelict church of San Damiano, he distinctly heard the words: ‘Go and repair my church, which you see is falling down.’ Others joined him and he prepared a simple Rule for them all to live by.

As the order grew, it witnessed to Christ through preaching the gospel of repentance and emphasizing the poverty of Christ as an example for his followers. Two years before his death, his life being so closely linked with that of his crucified Saviour, he received the Stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ, on his body. At his death, on the evening of 3 October 1226, his order had spread throughout western Christendom.

Luke 12: 22-34 (NRSVA):

22 He [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

The Altar and the Reredos in the Chapel in the Bar Convent, York (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Bar Convent, Micklegate, York

The Convent of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin at Micklegate Bar, York, better known as the Bar Convent, is the oldest surviving Catholic convent in England, established in 1686. As the laws at this time prohibited the foundation of Catholic convents, the convent was established and operated in secret.

The community at the Bar Convent traces its story back to Mary Ward, whose work led to the foundation of the Congregation of Jesus, based at the Bar Convent, and the Sisters of Loreto or the Institute of the Blessed Virgin.

Mary Ward (1585-1645) was born in Yorkshire and died near York at height of the English Civil War. Over 40 years after her death, Mother Frances Bedingfeld, a member of the Sisters of Loreto, signed the deeds for the site on 5 November 1686 under the alias Frances Long. The foundation of the convent was inspired, at least in part by Sir Thomas Gascoigne, who wanted ‘a school for our daughters.’

The nuns were the victims of frequent discrimination. Mother Frances and her great niece were held in Ousebridge Gaol in 1694, and the house was attacked and severely damaged by an angry mob in 1696. The engraving of St Michael over the front door commemorates this, with a local legend claiming the terrified mob fled the scene when Saint Michael appeared over the house on horseback.

The convent later came under attack from Dr Jaques Sterne, who ordered the convent to shut and the children sent home from the school. Mother Hodshon and a colleague were charged with not receiving Anglican Holy Communion at Holy Trinity Church, Micklegate. But, as there was no service on the day in question, the case fell apart and was thrown out.

The convent was expanded and rebuilt under Mother Ann Aspinal. The original property was demolished and rebuilt, and a new house was built in 1766-1769. The chapel was the most significant addition to the new convent. Mother Ann hired Thomas Atkinson, the architect responsible for the neo-gothic additions to Bishopthorpe Palace. Due to continuing hostility to Catholics in York, he modified his designs, incorporating the chapel into the structure of the house.

The chapel dome was concealed beneath a slate roof and hidden from the street. Atkinson also built eight different escape routes into the chapel, to ensure that if the building was stormed, the nuns could escape.

The First Catholic Repeal Act (1778) made life easier for the convent, and for the first time the nuns were able to wear their religious habit in public. The passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1791) led to the Bar Convent receiving a licence as a public place of worship.

Mother Mary Aikenhead, who founded the Irish Sisters of Charity, was a novice in the Bar Convent in 1812-1815.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Mother Superior, Catherine Rou, and the convent offered shelter to refugee priests and fugitive nuns, including Carmelites from Brabant, Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre from Liège and Poor Clares from Dunkirk.

When the convent was bombed during World War II, five nuns died and the east wing was destroyed.

The main convent building facies directly onto Blossom Street. The entrance hall was initially built as an open courtyard but has since been enclosed and Victorian tiles added. The court has a decorative tiled floor and a glass roof supported by iron trusses which are, in turn, supported by iron columns. The court also has a clock designed by Henry Hindley.

The chapel block is masked by extensions housing the Lady Chapel, and a stone staircase leads to the chapel on the first floor.

The chapel has a domed sanctuary, a nave with three bays and a north and south transept. The sanctuary is a domed rotunda with eight detached and fluted columns and a frieze depicting features such as vine leaves, urns and posies. The dome itself has eight bays, each of which features garlands of various fruits and foliage and is topped by a painted glass lantern.

The south transept leads into the Lady Chapel which is lit by a small dome and cupola. Beneath the north transept is a square space that may once have served as a priest hole.

The altar, dating from 1969, incorporates scrolled legs with winged cherub heads from the 18th-century original. Behind the altar, the 20th-century reredos is topped by 18th-century carved figures of Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory and a Spanish ivory crucifix.

The Bar Convent is England’s oldest living convent, and is home to a resident community of sisters belonging to the Congregation of Jesus. The Grade I listed buildings were renovated in 2015. The Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre now includes a museum, a café, meetings rooms and a guest house.

Inside the Chapel in the Bar Convent, York, facing the liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Tuesday 4 October 2022):

The Collect:

O God, you ever delight to reveal yourself
to the childlike and lowly of heart:
grant that, following the example of the blessed Francis,
we may count the wisdom of this world as foolishness
and know only Jesus Christ and him crucified,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Francis
that he served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Mission in a Crisis.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Father Rasika Abeysinghe, Priest in the Diocese of Kurunagala, Church of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (4 October 2022) in these words:

Let us pray for the Diocese of Kurunagala. May their mission and outreach continue to reach those in need.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The entrance hall was initially built as an open courtyard but has since been enclosed and Victorian tiles have been added (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

A plaque on the Blossom Street façade commemorates Mother Mary Ward (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)