Kol Nidre — All Vows

In a few hours, Jews throughout the world will make their way to synagogues for the solemn evening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is the longest service in the Jewish liturgy ranging from some three hours on the eve of the holiest holyday and continuing the next day for approximately twelve hours in the synagogue, fasting without food or drink for twenty-four hours.

The evening service begins with the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, an Aramaic prayer annulling all past vows which were not kept.

Interestingly, the melody of Kol Nidre was written in 1889 by Max Bruch, a Protestant composer who wrote the melody for cello, inspired by a Jewish cantor in Germany who had been his friend.

The theme of the prayer of Kol Nidre, one of the most famous hymns in Judaism, is to ask God’s forgiveness for vows we had made in the year just past, vows which we were unable to keep. We admit to God our failure to keep promises made but were not kept and we ask for His mercy and forgiveness.

Yom Kippur is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fear following the earlier Rosh Hashanah new year. On the two days of that holyday we implored God not to judge us harshly, to forgive sins which we have committed knowingly or unknowingly in the past year now ended.

On Rosh Hashanah our deeds are written in God’s Book of Life and ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the Book is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be forgiven and who not forgiven.

Solemn days of soul-searching, fear and dread mixed with hope and mercy as we stand before God’s holy throne awaiting our verdict.

For twenty-four hours no food or water may be taken. Our minds and thoughts are completely concerned with the new year’s judgment. We cry out to God to see our tears, to look into our hearts, and to judge us with the love and understanding which a father has for his children.

Since God is our spiritual father we depend upon him for mercy and compassion and forgiveness.

Kol Nidre, the evening prior to Yom Kippur’s Day of Judgement, is the great hymn of the holy day.

Jews who infrequently attend synagogue services during the year hasten to listen to the melody of a prayer written by a non-Jew who was deeply inspired by the words of the prayer.

All vows, made but not fulfilled, can be pardoned by sincere prayer, charity and righteousness.

We ask forgiveness from anyone whom we may have offended during the past year. It is not God who forgives the offense but rather the offended one.

The length of the Yom Kippur service is unusual. In my synagogue the prayers commence at eight o’clock in the morning and come to an end shortly after seven o’clock in the evening after which we return to our homes and break the Fast with a simple meal.

For me, Kol Nidre is a magnificent melody for a prayer filled with fear of the judgment which God has determined. Therefore, the fear inspires me to pray more fervently as I beg for His forgiveness.

It is the day, as its name implies, to atone… to be at one with God, solemnly admitting our sins and praying for a new year of life.

“Tzom kal”, an easy Fast is wished from one to another. But the purpose of the twenty-four hour Fast is not to be easy but rather to be meaningful.

Ten days ago our deeds were inscribed in the Book of Judgment. Tonight and tomorrow the Book will be sealed.

On Rosh Hashanah we prayed for a “k’tiva tovah”… a good inscription in God’s Book.

On Yom Kippur we pray for a “chatimah tovah”… a good sealing in God’s Book.

May our prayers be fulfilled with the gift of renewed life and peace for our people in Israel and in all the lands of the diaspora.

“Oseh shalom bimromav”… may God send peace from above.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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