22 September 2023
Releasing the vows of the past
and praying for a year of
happiness and redemption
The Jewish High Holy Days began with Rosh haShanah last week on Friday evening (15 September 2023), marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5784. Yom Kippur 2023 begins at sunset on Sunday evening (24 September 2023), when the evening service begins with Kol Nidre, and ends at nightfall the following evening tomorrow (25 September).
This Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, ‘Shabbat of Return.’ It is also referred to as Shabbat Teshuvah because it falls during the Ten Days of Repentance, and is also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths and the White Sabbath.
The name derives from the Haftarah for this Shabbat, which opens with the words ‘Return O Israel unto the Lord your God …’ (Hosea 14: 2). This Shabbat in the Ten Days of Repentance is regarded as an auspicious time to rectify the failings and missed opportunities of the past and positively influence the coming year.
The master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (‘Ari’) taught that the seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which always include one Sunday, one Monday, etc – correspond to the seven days of the week. The Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur includes within itself all Sundays of the year; the Monday embodies all Mondays, and so on. Shabbat Shuvah is thus the archetypal Shabbat – the juncture in time at which we are empowered to influence every Shabbat of our year.
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 on Sunday evening at sunset and ends at nightfall on Monday.
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 on the evening of Kol Nidre, 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 is the traditional prayer 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.
לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תִכָּתֵבוּ וְתֵּחָתֵמוּ
May your name be sealed for good in the Book of Life