The passage has a unique fascination, the melody breathes pathos, the atmosphere is charged with emotion, and no worshipper can fail to be moved.
Its words, however, are Aramaic and legalistic, and even those who are quite adept at Hebrew can barely understand them.
Yet battles have been fought for the sake of Kol Nidrei, and every attempt to exclude it from the liturgy has brought passionate multitudes to its defence.
Kol Nidrei is not so much a prayer as a legal declaration. Beneath it, wrote Arthur Davis, “lurks a thought that is God-inspired, a conception of the sanctity of Truth”.
A basic teaching of the Torah is that your word must be your bond. It is better not to make promises than to promise and not fulfil your word. Nonetheless, people are liable to make rash vows and grandiose promises, perhaps when overcome by emotion and carried away by joy or by grief, or when under duress and with no other way to save yourself.
Hence there must be a way of release from a promise that is really incapable of fulfilment. If it is a promise made to another human being, it is they who have to waive the promise. But if it is a vow to God, or a private promise made in His presence, Kol Nidrei provides a means of absolution.
It declares that undertakings of this kind made from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur are annulled and of no effect.
It comes at the commencement of the day of at-one-ment with God, because otherwise one would be unable, with unfulfilled or unfulfillable promises on one’s conscience, to face the heavenly Judge.
The passage was originally retrospective, as the Sephardi text has it, dealing with the year from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur. Rabbenu Tam made the formula prospective, looking ahead to vows made from now until next Yom Kippur, and implying, in effect, “God, we might be overcome by emotion and promise You too much; we beg You, be patient and forbearing, and release us from things we cannot fulfil.”
Many a liturgical commentator has carefully explained all this and stressed that Kol Nidrei has nothing to do with promises made between man and man, and does not apply to contractual undertakings, or to oaths taken in a court of law.
But antisemites are never so happy as when they deliberately misunderstand, and Kol Nidrei was sometimes quoted as evidence that one could not trust the word of a Jew.
There were congregations which sought means of avoiding the embarrassment, and worse, which Kol Nidrei inadvertently occasioned. Some medieval rabbinic authorities, in fact, had opposed the prayer in case it led a person to treat their vows lightly.
The early Reform movement eliminated the words of Kol Nidrei or changed them, usually keeping the melody and substituting the words of Psalm 130, and thus possibly lent support to the antisemitic argument that the prayer was dangerous.
There is an Australian chapter in the story of Kol Nidrei which is little known. It emanates from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, of the early 1930’s, when the congregational elders were jealous of the remarkable position of acceptance and esteem which Australian Jewry had won amongst the general population.
The board of the synagogue wrote to Chief Rabbi JH Hertz on 29 February, 1932, seeking permission to revise Kol Nidrei. Their letter read, in part:
Our laws, methods and customs are not so unalterable that a stigma on the followers of Judaism must remain for no other reason than that it had been allowed so to remain for a lengthened period. Our Holy law continually directs us to observe the virtues of honesty, integrity, truth, mutual consideration etc. etc. and where the reverse seems to be inculcated (as in the reading of the Kol Nidrei prayer here under review) it obviously becomes the bounden duty of those in authority to have corrected what patently is an error which has crept in, or an impression created which was not intended, or that the translation does not convey the true meaning of the original. We Jews have surely more than enough to bear and the stigma on our religion created by the Kol Nidrei prayer adds an additional unbearable burden.
It has been intensely humiliating to the Jews of this City that in a Law Court here it was expressed that no reliance could be placed on the oath of a Jew, which was of no value. When we are confronted with the Kol Nidrei prayer how can this charge be refuted or a justification presented? Whatever may be advanced as an explanation can have no force for no logical one can be formed.
Now did Rabbi Cohen support the Synagogue board’s request to London? The answer is that he not only approved of their action but took the initiative which led to it. He had written to the president of the Synagogue on 12 February, 1931, stating, “I am afraid we must continue to endure unpleasant outside comment whilst the formula of the Kol Nidrei and the wording of the thanksgiving for men not being made women remain in our Prayer Books in their present equivocal form, however different their real intention from the Gentile interpretation given to them.”
The rabbi amplified his views in a letter dated 19 July, 1931. After setting out in detail the differences between the Ashkenazi and the older Sephardi versions of Kol Nidrei, he went on:
In view of the deep feeling on the part of so many of our own people, that ground is given by our wording of the Kol Nidrei to the idea prevalent outside, that Jews recognise mental reservations in entering into obligations, as evidenced even in friendly Australia by the recent comments on the Governor-General, and last week a certain physician, taking oath bareheaded, some action is obviously called for. But I fear it would be inadequate to revert in our local ritual to the ancient form. Few of our people are Hebraists enough to recognise emendation of the text; and a correction in one Synagogue, however important, would as little meet the situation as do the explanations tucked away in certain editions of the Machzor. If a General Meeting, on the other hand, were to carry a resolution referring to the problem to the Chief Rabbi for consultation with the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Ministers, any emendation there recommended would be embodied in future editions, and meanwhile go out to all British Jewry with the desired effect of providing a public counterblast to a dangerous misunderstanding.
The Synagogue president, EL Davis, agreed on 9 December to confer with the Rabbi on the text of a letter to Dr Hertz. On 20 January, 1932, the board heard the rabbi had agreed to Davis’ suggestions; the draft would be considered at the next meeting. On 10 February it was decided to write to the Chief Rabbi, and copies of the letter were sent to communities in Australasia and England, and to the British Board of Deputies.
Replies came from a number of congregations. Those that approved the Great Synagogue’s stand were Auckland, Newcastle, East Melbourne, Dunedin, and possibly others not mentioned in board minutes. Those that disapproved were Brisbane, Adelaide, and possibly others.
The Eastern Suburbs (Central) Synagogue were doubtful, St Kilda favoured the present text with an explanatory note, and Canterbury (Christchurch), Melbourne and the New Synagogue (London) reported they were considering the matter. Board minutes do not mention any other replies.
The Chief Rabbi’s reply came in mid-year. The minutes of 10 August, 1932, state: “A reply to the Board’s memorial suggesting alterations to the Kol Nidrei prayer in its present form was received, the Chief Rabbi raising no objection to the substitution of the Sephardic form of Prayer.”
Rabbi Cohen supplied the board with an English translation of the Sephardic version with its retrospective reference to the vows of the past year. But now, further action was deferred from meeting to meeting. On 8 February, 1933, the Board resolved “to ascertain from Rabbi Cohen if it would be possible to have an English translation bringing out the meaning of the Hebrew as interpreted by the Chief Rabbi in his letter to the Board.”
The Chief Rabbi’s full reply is summarised in the Hertz commentary on the Pentateuch. In a note entitled “Vows and Vowing in the Light of Judaism” (pages 730-1 of the one-volume edition), Dr Hertz quotes correspondence with an “Overseas Congregation” on the subject of Kol Nidrei. The Overseas Congregation was the Great Synagogue.
This is what the Chief Rabbi wrote:
Proposed alterations in the Liturgy, even of its non-essential portions, call for the greatest care and consideration. The question of altering the Kol Nidrei prayer especially bristles with difficulties. Chief among them is this: the prayer as it stands has for centuries been a weapon of malicious attack by enemies of Israel. If, in consequence, the prayer is abolished, we are held as pleading guilty to their charges, and by our action seem to justify these charges. Historic Judaism has, therefore, ever braved these misrepresentations. Conscious of the sacredness and inviolability which attaches to an oath in Jewish Law and life, it indignantly repudiates the construction its maligners place upon this Prayer, and proclaims that the dispensation from vows in it refers only to those in which no other persons or interest are involved; and that no private or public vow, promise or oath which concerns another person, is implied in the Kol Nidrei.
On further consideration. Recent historical studies have shown the Kol Nidrei to be a unique memorial of Jewish suffering and repentance. It arose in Spain, as a result of the Jewish persecutions by the West Goths, in the seventh century. Entire Jewish communities were then doomed to torture and the stake, unless they forswore their Faith, and by the most fearful oaths and abjurations bound themselves nevermore to practise any Jewish observances. In this way, even when better times came and the fury of the oppressor abated, the unfortunate members of those communities felt themselves perjured before God and man if they returned to their Holy Faith, or kept even the most sacred of its Festivals. It was to ease the conscience of these crushed and distracted men and women, that the Kol Nidrei was formulated. In view of this origin of the prayer – which has only recently become known and which alone explains all its anomalies – various congregations on the Continent that had formerly abolished the Kol Nidrei have reintroduced it; realising that the awakening of historic memories, and the forging of links with the past, are vital factors in Jewish traditional life and worship.
Dr Hertz did, however, advise the Great Synagogue that he would not object to the substitution of the Sephardi for the Ashkenazi version.
In the end the Great made no changes. Rabbi Cohen died in 1934, and the synagogue faced the challenge of finding a new senior minister. He, when he was appointed, conflicted with the board on many matters, but Kol Nidrei was not on the agenda.
Then there descended upon world Jewry the horrific darkness of Nazism, when the wording of a prayer, however important, faded into insignificance as an immediate, urgent priority.
This article originally appeared in the September 1995–Tishri 5756 edition of the Great Synagogue Journal, Sydney.