Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Al Jolson and Kol Nidre Sermon

“In every living soul, a spirit cries for expression—perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of Jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer.”

—opening lines to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer

The story of Kol Nidre is one of endurance. It is one of success. It is the story of the Jewish people. One prayer. No other liturgical piece can better encapsulate our people’s story. Its artistic and musical rendition is one of the highlights of our cultural achievements.

Kol Nidre, much like the Jewish people, had an obscure beginning. It was a response to biblical laws and mandates. Numbers 30:3 states, “When a man voweth a vow unto the Lord, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” Also, from Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy23:22–24 states “(22) When you make a vow to Adonai your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for Adonai your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; (23) whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. (24) You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to Adonai your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”

The biblical passages here discuss vows and oaths, although many rabbinic sages are fixated vows and oaths. Rabbinic Judaism evolved as a response to a world with a different set of mandates not directly from the biblical period, for the Jewish people would function outside of the Temple, largely in a world dominated by non-Jews. Oaths and vows suddenly began to be a matter of heightened importance during this period. According to the Rambam, the seventh commandment is that we must take oaths in His holy name when we need to establish or contradict something, for in this manner it is an honor to God (to use His name))[1]So clearly there is room for such an oath invoking G-d’s name in Jewish thought; however, Rambam also notes that the Torah is hesitant about making vows altogether. If a person does make a new vow, there is the hazard of neglecting or deferring its fulfillment, and thus a sin is committed. “Without the vow, is without the risk.”[1]After committing the sin, the person achieves biblical penance by the traditional sacrificial offerings.

The Chasam Sofer says that one is forbidden to take an oath altogether, no matter whether the content is truth or falsehood, and he cites Kohelet, which says, “All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner, and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.”[2]

From the Talmud, Nedarim is a section fully dedicated to oaths and vows. Nederim 2a states, that “when an individual takes a vow, he renders an object forbidden to himself or to others as though it were a sacrificial offering; this parallels the act of consecrating an offering, which also renders an item forbidden for personal use by means of a verbal declaration.” Additionally, the Mishna here states “that all substitutes for the language of vows are like vows [specifically of invoking G-d’s name].” Nederim here specifically highlights the value of oaths and vows for legal procedures.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs (a rabbi from the modern period) states that “the Kol Nidre formula is a means of nullifying unwitting vows. Some pious Jews, when making any promise, declare that they do it b’li neder, ‘without a vow,’ that is, they are declaring that they do not wish the promise to have the status of a vow, to break which is a serious offense.”

So why did the rabbinical sages suddenly become fixated with oaths and vows? What happened between the biblical period and the rabbinical period? Between Sinai and the Middle Ages? Vows and oaths were regularly relied upon in legal courts, and they continue to this very day to be part of the legal system. It is likely that the fixation was a response to the Jewish world’s adapting to the legal procedures of the nations in which Jews found themselves.

Kol Nidre was the vow-annulment procedure needed to remedy the potential wrongdoings of oaths and vows. Kol Nidre in the Middle Ages was propelled into the liturgical spotlight.  This was a response to anti-Semitism. During this period, libelous claims asserted that Jews were not to be trusted; that their oaths, vows, and words could not be trusted; and that the Kol Nidre was evidence of this untrustworthiness.[3]In some communities, Jews responded by rephrasing the text; some even canceled Kol Nidre.[4]However, the voice heard during Kol Nidre is the voice of the oppressed being liberated in song. It is jazz—Jewish jazz. Today, you have heard a female sing Kol Nidre. In preparing for Kol Nidre, not many women’s voices have been recorded, and not many women’s voices have been heard. Women have just started to sing Kol Nidre in the past fifty years, and if you listen carefully, Daniella’s voice captures some of that emotion. Kol Nidre is reflected in the opening lines of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, and those words capture the experience of the Jewish people perfectly: “In every living soul, a spirit cries for expression—perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of Jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer.” For Jews, Kol Nidre is our prayer. It is our story of endurance. It is our living soul’s spirit crying out for expression

[1]https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/76971.?lang=bi

[2]https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/15826/are-there-cases-where-you-are-allowed-to-swear-to-g-d

[3]https://thetorah.com/the-significance-of-kol-nidre-a-footnote/

[4]https://thetorah.com/the-significance-of-kol-nidre-a-footnote/

[1]https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/15826/are-there-cases-where-you-are-allowed-to-swear-to-g-d

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
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