What does Kol Nidre Mean?


Kol Nidre [All Vows] is one of the most dramatic and moving moments of the Jewish year. It is normally sung at the beginning of the service for Yom Kippur, and it sets the tone for the solemn Day of Atonement.

In a formal presentation of Kol Nidre, three leaders of the congregation stand before the open ark and before the congregation, holding one or three Torah scrolls. The cantor sings the text three times, with emotion:

All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

The whole community of the Children of Israel, and the strangers dwelling among them, shall be forgiven, for all of them were without premeditation. – Numbers 15:26

O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt.

The Lord said, ‘I pardon them according to your words. (three times) –Numbers 14:20

That’s a literal translation of Kol Nidre from its original Aramaic into English. The lines in italics are Hebrew, and from the book of Numbers. What does it all mean?

First let me talk about what Kol Nidre is not: it is not a “get out of jail free” trick. It does not apply, nor has it ever applied, to business obligations, contracts, or to personal promises and vows.  Through history, it has caused a lot of trouble when those who hate Jews have read it that way. And let’s be honest – the words do sound quite problematic on a surface reading. Rabbis have challenged its use periodically, but it is one part of the service ordinary Jews have always seen as essential.

Kol Nidre is a very old part of the service. We know that it was already part of the Yom Kippur service well before the year 1000 CE.  Unlike most prayers, it is a legal formula, echoing the legal formulas of Babylon during the period of 800-1000 CE. As with many things in Jewish life, there are several explanations for its origin and meaning:

  1. Some say that it began during a period of extreme persecution, when many Jews were forced to convert to the dominant religion against their will. Those Jews then approached the Day of Atonement with false vows on their consciences, and Kol Nidre was a release from that guilt. While this is an appealing and very popular understanding of the prayer, it doesn’t hold up historically. For one thing, while the persecution mentioned in this version of the story is usually located in Spain, the Expulsion from Spain took place in 1492 CE, and we know that the prayer is at least 500 years older.
  2. A passage in the Zohar suggests that we recite Kol Nidre at the beginning of the Day of Atonement because on that day we are painfully aware that we have sinned and God has issued decrees [vows] of Heavenly judgement from which there is no escape. By standing up and making a formal statement of annulling our vows, we are suggesting that God reconsider any decrees of judgment against us. First we recite the formula, then we quote from the Torah itself examples of God pardoning the people of Israel.
  3. Another understanding of Kol Nidre is that we say it as we embark on 25 hours of intense fasting and prayer. As the day goes on, perhaps we will be so overwhelmed by our sins, and disoriented by the fast, that we will make promises we cannot keep. How many Jews have promised, on Yom Kippur, to stop smoking tobacco? And by the next Yom Kippur, how many have managed to keep that vow? We ask God to give us the benefit of the doubt: we’ll try very hard to keep our vows, but we may foolishly make vows we cannot keep.
  4. Rabbi Eric Solomon has suggested that the truth of Kol Nidre is not intellectual, but emotional. The words are in Aramaic, a language few understand. The music (which has its own complicated origins) is solemn and heart-wringing. It is one of the few tunes in the year where the cantor is encouraged to embellish for the greatest emotional impact. Rabbi Solomon writes that the purpose of Kol Nidre is not so much the annulment of vows as the opening of hearts and souls to the vulnerability required for Yom Kippur. It sets the tone for the day – an explanation that I think comes as close as any to explain the fierce affection for this prayer that is evident in every synagogue.

What does Kol Nidre mean? It means that the day like no other days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths has begun. It means “Get Serious.” It is a signal sent to every Jewish heart that the Day of Atonement is here, an opportunity not to be missed.

A Fragile Home


My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us


I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

Dreaming of a “Someday Sukkah”

At my synagogue, they used palm fronds to make the roof.

There was a great conversation in the comment section on this blog a while back around the particular issues of military families and the sukkah. To the Nth wrote:

I have such big dreams for our “someday sukkah!” We’ve built our own in the past, but not consistently. I thought we were set when we gathered all the stuff for a wood lattice sukkah in Virginia. When a military move came down the pipe, though, we had to leave it behind because the movers wouldn’t pack “construction materials.” Our attempt at something more portable last year was less than successful, so this year we are just going to enjoy our community sukkah while I try not to be too wistful about the lack of one in our yard.
In some ways, I feel that military families don’t need quite as much of a reminder about the ultimate ephemerality of our dwellings. We’ve had to be nomadic enough that every house feels temporary. ;-)

And Lurkertype replied:

Possibly a special dispensation for military families? Your house is already sukkoh-like!

I love it when y’all talk to one another in the comments (and I am grateful that those conversations are civil!) You’ve made me think about military families, and other families for whom a sukkah is impractical and wanted to share my thoughts.

Not everyone can have a sukkah every year. Nth’s story is one example. I’ve had years when disability kept me from even thinking about it, and homes in which there was no place for a sukkah. That’s just life, and circumstance. I admire Nth’s insight that military families are already in touch with impermanence. That is certainly one of the big lessons of Sukkot.

The mitzvah is to “dwell” in the sukkah. OK, so if I can’t build a sukkah in the yard or on the balcony or roof, what am I to do? One thing is to cultivate that awareness that buildings aren’t forever, and that in fact, there are many people in this world who are homeless (especially this year, with the huge refugee population.) If our bodies can’t dwell in the sukkah this particular year, how about our hearts? Can we build a sukkah in our hearts, by looking for ways to alleviate the homelessness of others?

Sukkot is also about hospitality. We invite others into our sukkah. But if I don’t have a sukkah, what about inviting friends to “dwell” or “sit” (same word in Hebrew) with us at our table, or even at a table somewhere else? Invite a friend for coffee. Invite someone you’ve “been meaning to call” to share a meal. This is a chance to share happy time with one of those relationships we mended back during Elul.

and don’t forget:

Jewish institutions almost always have a sukkah. If you can’t dwell in your own sukkah, call the local synagogue or Federation or JCC and ask about times that their sukkah is open. Go visit! Take a sack lunch, and maybe something you can share with a new friend that you meet there. Learn about the institution, and perhaps you can make friends with it, as well.

New Talmud Study Resource Online!

Talmud Tractate Berakhot

Interested in Talmud study, but looking for a manageable study program online?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has just begun publishing Ten Minutes of Talmud. Each week she offers a bit of Talmud text in English with introductory notes and a commentary. You can follow it on the blog or sign up to receive it by email.

The program requires no tuition, no books, nothing but access to email and your time and attention.

Here is some background on Rabbi Scheinerman from her blog:

I am a Jewish community hospice rabbi, and I teach and write. I have served on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and as president of both the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Greater Carolinas Association of Rabbis. I was a congregational rabbi for 27 years, serving Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated congregations. You can visit my home page at http://scheinerman.net/judaism, my Torah commentary blog at http://taste-of-torah.blogspot.com, and the Talmud Blog I share with my chevruta, Rabbi Louis Rieser, at http://nuviewtalmud/blogspot.com.

I wish you fruitful study with her!

Approaching Yom Kippur

"Torah" by Ben Faulding (Some rights reserved)

Yom Kippur begins today at sundown.

Ready or not, it’s here. If you are thinking, “Wait! I didn’t get it all done!” bear in mind that while the symbolic “Gates of Repentance” close at sundown on Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah is really a life-long project. No human being is without flaw, and for the wise, teshuvah is a way of life. 

However you observe the day, use the time wisely. It is truly the holiest day of the Jewish year, and as such, our hearts are especially open now. No matter what you do or do not believe about God, the fact is that for thousands of years, Jews have taken this day to reflect and plan a better path for themselves. It’s a day for taking responsibility and telling the truth to ourselves.

“Telling the truth” is different from “beating yourself up.” If you find that you are tipping over into unmanageable guilt or mental anguish, take a break, talk to someone, be kind. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to another human being. Listen to your heart!

As for fasting, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about both the mitzvah of fasting and the mitzvah of taking care of a sick body. Resist any urge to make a competition or a display out of the fast. It is, ultimately a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whether we fast or not, I suggest we all ponder the teaching on fasting in Isaiah 58:2-9 :

Day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

I wish you a fruitful Day of Atonement, full of insight!

The Inclusion Confession

Disability symbols

I am reposting this vidui from Zeh LeZeh, the Ruderman Family Foundation blog, by permission of the writer. There are many reasons I am proud to call Rabbi Schorr my colleague, but none more than this prayer. If you are interested in Judaism and disability issues, I strongly recommend Zeh LeZeh (For One Another) as a wonderful source of learning.   – Rabbi Adar

By: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The central section of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the public confession known as the “viddui.” Originally patterned after the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, the current iteration, with its poetic catalogue of sins, is the work of our rabbinic sages, who believed that the best way to have mastery over our behaviors is to recognize, name, and internalize our wrongdoings. Only then can we hope to overcome them. Following the traditional rubric, this new viddui is meant to help us recognize, name, and internalize the many ways we continue to exclude those in our community whose abilities differ from ours.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have  sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by failing to include every member of our community.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by making it difficult for those who are different to find their places in our synagogues, schools, and organizations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for thinking that we are doing all that we can.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by building ramps without widening doorframes.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for dedicating seats for those with mobility difficulties without constructing accessible bathrooms.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for installing assisted hearing devices and allowing speakers who believe themselves to have loud voices to speak without using the sound system

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for believing we are being inclusive when we don’t truly include all.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by using words to tear down rather than build up.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by not removing words from our vocabulary that are outdated, outmoded, and unacceptable.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for standing idly by while our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers use words like “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or situation

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not speaking out when these words are  bandied about by rock stars, sports figures, and pop icons.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for staring at the child having the public tantrum and assuming he needs better discipline.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for judging that child’s mother rather than offering her a sympathetic glance.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by accommodating those with physical limitations while not making accommodations for those with developmental limitations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not providing support and respite for the parents and caregivers.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You turning away from those who seem different.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by putting those who seem different into categories such as “less able” and “undesirable.”

For the sin that we have sinned before You for failing to recognize a piece of You in every soul.

For ALL these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!

What is Kapparot?


Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may have seen news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing or wave it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. This practice was first reported roughly a thousand years ago: it is neither a Biblical nor a rabbinic practice, and it is certainly not a mitzvah in and of itself.

Rabbis have spoken out against kapparot for centuries. Only teshuvah atones for sins. No amount of chicken-waving will do a thing to remove sins. The rabbis also expressed concern that it might be confused with the sacrifices of idolaters or with the Biblical practice of animal sacrifice. Also, while ideally the chickens are given to the poor for food, in actual practice many of them are simply thrown out: that is both wasteful and a cruel slaughter for nothing. As distinguished an authority as Rabbi Josef Caro warned against the practice of kapparot.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it isn’t teshuvah. Giving to the poor is a mitzvah, but it is not a substitute for the sincere repentance for our sins. God cannot be bought off. Instead, we should make teshuvah for our sins, and give tzedakah to agencies that serve the poor.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this to chickens, as some antisemites have written and said. The vast majority of Jews don’t do anything of the sort.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic, because it is real. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5776 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!

Image: Gady Munz PikiWiki Israel Project