Sunday, October 2, 2011

For Yom Kippur 2011 -- Kol Nidre

Memorial stained glass behind The Great Synagogue, Budapest
     In honor of the Jewish High Holidays:  L'Shanah Tovah and Yom Kippur, I have posted the history and several versions of Kol Nidrei (All Vows), the musical recitation that opens the prayer services on Yom Kippur eve. I certainly do not claim to have great knowledge about this topic, but I have always been tremendously moved by the musical piece. Here you can learn along with me about its origins, history and reason for survival for at least 15 centuries. Accompanying the words are my husband's photographs of The Great Synagogue or the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary. This synagogue is the largest in Eurasia and second largest in the world, second only to El Emmanuel in New York City. Also view some photos of the wall of the ghetto from WWII Budapest and some monuments from the grounds and the neighborhood of The Great Synagogue. Hit read on to view and learn about all of these treasures.

       Kol Nidrei (All vows)  is a muscial announcement that opens the synagogue services on Yom Kippur. It is usually sung by the cantor but sometimes is sung by a choir or small ensemble. It is sung in Aramaic unlike the rest of the service that is sung in Hebrew in the US. Kol Nidre is actually not a prayer, strangely enough. It is a pronouncement that all agreements to which God was asked to be a witness in the time between the this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur are declared null and void.  ( In some sects, the time period is between this Yom Kippur and the last.)  And God's forgiveness is asked for Him being asked to witness these agreements. In the sense that this pronouncement is made in apology to God, it might be termed a prayer, but it is definitely done in a different tone than the rest of the ancient prayers of the Shabbat service.

Facade of The Great Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

Historical etching of The Great Synagogue, Budapest
     The usual order of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service is this: The synagogue congregation gathers ideally and according to Jewish law, just before sunset. This pronouncement is to be done just before the actual service begins at sunset. The Ark is opened and two lay members of the congregation take the Torah scroll from the Ark. Sometimes only one scroll, sometimes two are used. In some congregations all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark. Then these two people go to stand flanking the Cantor. These three people symbolize the rabbinical court and recite: "In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God, praised be He, and by the permission of the holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors."
The cantor then chants the passage beginning with the words Kol Nidrei with its touching melodic phrases, and in varying intensities from pianissimo (quiet) to fortissimo (loud), repeats twice (for a total of three iterations) (for the late comer not to miss the pronouncement) the following words (in the Ashkenazi form). 
     "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal 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." The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the usual Shabbat evening service begins at sunset. (There is another form of the Kol Nidrei pronouncement that arose even before the Ashkenazi version, and is still used in many congregations. In this form the renunciation of vows is done for the previous year, beginning on last Yom Kippur and extending to this particular Yom Kippur evening. Sometimes this is call the Sephardic form).

The rich interior of The Great Synagogue, Budapest.
The bimah in The Great Synagogue, Budapest

The dome of The Great Synagogue
The stained glass window at the apex of the dome.
     This pronouncement being made on the highest of Jewish holidays in the secret place of the synagogue has over the centuries stimulated all sorts of Anti Semitic feelings. The idea that no oath made by a Jew needs to be kept was the source of many discriminatory practices all over Europe and no doubt in other places as well. Some local governments, because they knew of the Kol Nidre, made Jews swear to a separate oath of promise over and above what a non-Jew was made to swear. Yet many thought that even such an additional law and oath would not serve; that even such extra oaths would be null and void in the Jew's mind.

     Yet there are two major points that need to be made about this pronouncement. The first and most important is that this pronouncement does not apply to secular oaths. It is meant to apply only to the individual Jew and his promises to his God, Yahweh. In no way does it apply to promissory notes, to oaths of allegiance, to agreements and contracts in the secular world, or even to any interpersonal promises in the real world. Of course, those are expected to be kept and are not released on the Day of Atonement. So the Anti Semitic ideas about this part of the Yom Kippur hold no truth and are like the blood libel, used to continue the misunderstanding and even outright persecution of the Jewish people.

     The second very important point is that indeed this pronouncement is needed exactly because the Jew takes his oaths so seriously. It was very common over the centuries for Jews to swear often and repeatedly to their God. It still is. We all, even the non Jew, have made an oath to our self or to God such as: "If you help me pass this exam, I promise you, God, that I will pray to you two times a day for 6 months."  "God, if you help me impress this girl, and she goes out with me, I promise I will use the tifillim forever." and so on. We all do this frequently, make promises to our God, that we know we can not keep. Apparently, as evidence in the Torah, the tendency to make such vows to God was even stronger in ancient Israel. Therefore, the Torah found it necessary to protest against the excessive use of such vows and the estimate of the religious value of such obligations. "When thou shalt vow unto the Lord, thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it, for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee, and it will be sin in thee. That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt observe and do, according as thou has vowed freely unto the Lord, thy God, even that which thou has promised with thy mouth."  (Deut. 23: 21-23). It may be that the Jew especially in medieval times when the Kol Nidre became a prominent part of the Yom Kippur service took his oaths so seriously, that he would have been tremendously troubled by all of these "casual" oaths that we all make. If he felt the fervent responsibility to keep all of the oaths, he would become miserable; he would become dysfunctional. Because he is human and can't possibly keep them all. Therefore this pronouncement to handle all of these flippant promises to God became necessary. It is an admission of humanity. It is saying to God, "I am human and I know I am going to make all kinds of these promises to You that I can't keep. Therefore, I apologize and I ask Your forgiveness ahead of time for failing You in these many ways." In this way, and through this part of the Yom Kippur service, the Jew can start the coming year as pure as possible with nothing hanging over his head. He even has sought release from God for the little oaths he makes every day that he can't keep and he apologizes to God for treating these oaths in this way.

The Tree of Life, behind the Great Synagogue, with its leaves naming those
killed in WWII.
Each willow leaf has a name on it. A hallowed place indeed.

     But because of all the misunderstanding about the Kol Nidre, there has been much controversy about it over the centuries. Authorities in Judaism, rabbinical groups, and famous interpreters of Jewish law have sometimes eliminated the Kol Nidre from use on Yom Kippur. Some sects have not used it for periods of time. ( It was largely eliminated from services in Ashkenazi Europe during the 19th century). Sometimes words of a German hymn or a Hebrew psalm were used instead of the Kol Nidre pronouncement. And yet it has survived, often requiring explanation, but survived nonetheless. Probably this survival has had a lot to do with the most common plaintive melodic phrases used. They are very very moving. Even in the Reformed movement, the melody may be used with different words recited. Also the melody varies considerably from congregation to congregation, from sect to sect, from location to location. One would expect that to be the case since this melody and word combination dates back to at least the 500s AD, when the main teachings of Judaic history and law occurred in Babylonian Jewish schools. Through those 1500 years, many changes have come and gone and been reestablished in the melody. Yet what remains in common, is the emphasis and intensity of the recitation. It is prescribed that the recitation start out softly as though the humble human being is almost fearful to approach his God about this matter. It begins therefore almost with a sighing and very breathy mournful tone. But as the recitations are repeated, it becomes louder and at some points almost triumphant. By the third recitation, the beseecher seems to feel comfortable in seeking his God's forgiveness and the singing seems more straightforward.  I think it is these variations in intensity along with the melody that are so moving.

    Then there is another Kol Nidrei which was written by Max Bruch usually for cello with orchestral backup though other instruments and even voice is used. These two Kol Nidreis are not identical though Bruch's composition is highly based on the synagogue version. Both pieces are very soulful.

     In honor of the Jewish High Holidays, I have gathered some various Kol Nidreis here. Some are from famous movies. Some are by famous cellists. Some are by famous singers. Some are in Aramaic. Some are in Hebrew.  After listening to a few of these you will see some differences and no doubt you will decide which version you prefer. No matter what, you can not fail but be moved by this music. It moves the Jewish soul, and the Christian soul, and it moves my agnostic insides. Enjoy and BE in the moment with this music!

     Here is the religious version with some nice photos of synagogues from around the world. You might recognize the Budapest Synagogue in these pictures. I picture it above in our photos.

     This version is a little different and is followed by humming of music that probably had its origin in the Jewish communities of Europe. I can imagine hearing it at celebrations in the Great Synagogue pictured here.

     Of all people, here is Johnny Mathis doing Kol Nidre. It is a phenomenal rendition. Also Perry Como has done a very nice one as well.
The Perry Como one:

     And of course, the one that moves me to tears: Neil Diamond in the Jazz Singer, 1980.

     Here is Stephen Hauser, famous young cellist playing Max Bruch's Kol Nidre.

     A Moroccan version. The melody is a little different. But it is still very soulful. Sephardic Jews might identify with this one better.

      On this site, there is an excellent explanation about What Kol Nidre means.

     And finally this site presents a timeline with many, many versions of Kol Nidre. Some are videos of the musical versions, some are discussions of the purpose of Kol Nidre, some express some of the controversy over this traditional part of the Yom Kippur service. Perry Como's version of Kol Nidre is here.  It includes the version sung by Al Jolson in the 1927, The Jazz Singer, and the version sung by Neil Diamond in the modern film of the Jazz Singer. I always cry when I hear the latter, mostly because of the moving nature of the back story -- that is, a huge chasm between father and son over religion -- which is crossed and healed after Neil Diamond's character sings the Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur service.

Through this courtyard, the wall of the ghetto of Budapest can be seen.

The length of the old wall of the ghetto of Budapest.
     Much of the information for this piece was taken from the Wikipedia piece, which is very thorough. For those who would like even more of the actual Jewish history of Kol Nidrei, I refer you to this Wikipedia piece. The photos that appear above were taken by my husband of the Budapest Synagogue. If any have more accurate knowledge regarding any of the writing here, please let me know in the comments. Or write me at I would appreciate hearing anything you might have to say. My goal is to learn.

A sculpture in the Jewish neighborhood of the Great Synagogue.

The plaque on the wall reads: "Whoever saves life is considered as if he has
saved an entire world / Talmud
In memory of those who in 1944 under the leadership of the Swiss Consul Carl
Lutz/ 1895-1975 rescued thousands from National Socialist persecution.

Detail of the sculpture.

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