Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown October 8, begins at synagogue in the early evening with Kol Nidre (”all vows”). Kol Nidre is a haunting melody. You can hear an excerpt from it here from Neil Diamond’s Jazz Singer album.
The Kol Nidre is a bit of a mystery. No one knows its exact origin. It has several words in it that are mysterious.
Yet Kol Nidre is perhaps the highlight of the High Holidays. It stirs a Jewish soul. To hear this melody many Jews will come who never come at any other time to synagogue. The following is a little exploration . . .
In his book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Alan Lew, a conservative rabbi in San Francisco, describes the Kol Nidre as a call out to the Jewish soul, comparable to the sound of the shofar. He tells a story about visiting a homebound senior adult who was mostly lost to dementia. Talking did not get the man’s attention, but when Rabbi Lew blew the shofar for him on Rosh HaShanah, the man came for a little while out of his mental fog. His Jewish soul was awakened.
So, Lew, argues, is the Kol Nidre an awakening cry for Jews:
When we recite the Kol Nidre, God calls out to the soul, in a voice the soul recognizes instantly because it is the soul’s own cry. You may have come to the service for other reasons. Nevertheless, here you are, sitting in your body, and suddenly your soul hears this music and it gives a jump, and it startles you. Your soul is hearing its name called out, and its name is pain, grief, humiliation, loss, failure, death . . .
The history of the Kol Nidre is not precisely known. It is a controversial prayer. Jewish leaders have argued that it should not be used. In some places and times it has been banned. Yet its popularity brought it back. Its unspoken but deep-felt message strikes too fitting a chord for controversy to banish it to non-existence.
Lew explains the history of the Kol Nidre as it is popularly believed, though the historical record does not provide any support for this understanding. Allegedly the Kol Nidre was instituted in the sixth century when a Visigoth king in Spain (Reccared I) forced Jews to convert to Christianity on pain of death. These forced converts in the early medieval era would gather secretly on Yom Kippur and renounce all vows, asking God to wipe away their guilt for abandoning Torah instead of dying to sanctify his name. This same pattern repeated in the Byzantine persecution in the ninth century and the Inquisition in the thirteenth and late fifteenth centuries.
In popular understanding, Kol Nidre especially serves as a way for a Jew to be cleared of vows undertaken by force by those who would despise God’s covenant with Israel.
There are other mysteries in the Kol Nidre. It is preceded by a declaration that “it is lawful to pray with the avaryanim,” a word which is not exactly translatable as written. Some read it as a code word for Marranos, the Jews of Spain who converted under pressure but were called Marranos or pigs by the Christians because they were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism. Avaryanim could be a Hebrew way of saying “Iberians.”
Most prayer books translate it “transgressors,” and there is a tradition that a true holiday service should have non-observant Jews present. At the holy days of Israel, it would be a shame if there were no Jews being called back to God and to Torah.
Lew prefers to see avaryanim as “passers through.” He notes that we are all passing through this world. The declaration before Kol Nidre would then be an acknowledgment that no one thinks the congregation is filled with perfect saints. The Kol Nidre prayer is one heard by an audience that knows its limitations.
In the first line of the Kol Nidre, we find more mystery. It refers to all offerings, whether they be konamay or kinoosay. The Artscroll Machzor says these are slang terms devised by the sages. They refer to sacrifices but their meaning is unknown. What is a konamy or a kinoosay? No one knows exactly. In general, they are kinds of vows or offerings from which we pray to be released if there is any guilt in not having fulfilled them.
Barry Budoff, a Messianic rabbi and editor of the prayer book we use both for regular Shabbats (our siddur) and the one we use for the High Holidays (our machzor), notes that the Kol Nidre has been banned at times and some rabbis have argued against its use:
. . . the fact of the matter is that early rabbinic authorities are unclear about how this practice began, and where it gains its authority. In fact, it is considered to be one of the “laws” that “hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:8). . . . Many leading rabbinic authorities were hostile to this idea of holding a mass public ceremony for the annulment of vows. . . . When Kol Nidre was introduced into the liturgy of Yom Kippur it was repeatedly attacked by many halakhic authorities, and in the 19th century it was expunged from the machzorim of many communities in Western Europe. However, it became more and more difficult to ignore the fact that people all too often spoke recklessly and would get themselves into obligations they were unable to fulfill. In the end, the rabbis were compelled to make a difficult choice between insistence on respect for one’s word, and compassion for those who needed release from vows.
As Budoff goes on to explain, the Kol Nidre is no license to break vows. Instead, it is a cry for mercy to God when we face the reality that we have promised things we cannot fulfill. Its haunting melody eases the pain of realization that we fall short of God’s glory.