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What is Kol Nidrei?

by Rabbi Dov Grossman

  

Library » Holidays » Yom Kippur » The Prayers | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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Kol Nidrei is a prayer which initiates the holiday of Yom Kippur starting with the words “Kol Nidrei”. Although its content is not out of the ordinary, this prayer has become accepted as one of the most solemn and sacred within Jewish liturgy. Over the generations it has acquired much traditional meaning and has taken on deep mystical context.

The Kol Nidrei is a statement in which we publicly annul all vows that we might make in the coming year.1 The exact source of this prayer is unknown, yet there are discussions regarding the legality of this annulment in commentaries written as early as the 12th century.2

The Jew comes to realize that he has a prior commitment, one which supersedes all others. He fears none, but his G-d
Over the years, this prayer has evolved into one of the most solemn in Jewish liturgy. The somber, almost haunting melody with which it is sung, doubled with the tension of the onset of the day of atonement, brings many Jews to tears.

Tradition tells of Marranos3 who would gather and recite this prayer with much fervor. To them it meant that although they would outwardly continue leading Christian lives, they were nonetheless still true to their Judaism. All vows they would make to inquisitors and the like to preserve their outward Christian appearance, were now becoming null and void.

In a mystical sense, this prayer delivers a deep message. Kol Nidrei tells a Jew that although throughout the years he has made numerous vows and commitments. Be it to his community, his job, or even bound to his own greed and aspirations. In Kol Nidrei, these vows are all annulled. The Jew comes to realize that he has a prior commitment, one which supersedes all others. He fears none, but his G-d.

Kol Nidrei is often associated with the classical cello arrangement of the Kol Nidrei melody by Max Brach. This inspiring piece of musical artwork is based on the most commonly used melody for Kol Nidrei as sung in Ashkenazi synagogues worldwide.

Footnotes

  • 1. In Jewish law, a vow, regardless of its content, is a severe matter, we therefore wish to annul all vows.
  • 2. Ran, Nedarim 23b.
  • 3. Jews in medieval Spain who professed conversion to Christianity in order to avoid persecution but continued to practice their religion secretly.

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Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Ashkenazi
(pl. Ashkenazim). A Jew of Northern or Eastern European ancestry.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
Kol Nidrei
A solemn prayer stating the annulment of vows recited at the start of Yom Kippur.