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.

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!

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

What is Shabbat Shuvah?


You may have noticed the words “Shabbat Shuvah” written on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It means “Shabbat of Returning” or “Shabbat of Repentance” because it falls in the midst of the days in the Jewish calendar dedicated to teshuvah.

Sometimes I find this Shabbat is especially good for reflection, because I have become accustomed to the High Holy Day tunes, but there is less pomp and circumstance in the service. I can gather my thoughts and feelings and let my process of teshuvah progress. Also, for those who are not members of congregations, these are services that don’t require tickets, so they are easily accessed.

Don’t think, “The rabbi will know I wasn’t at Rosh Hashanah, and will glare at me.” The Rosh Hashanah service was a crowd scene. No one will scold you for showing up at Shabbat Shuvah, I promise. Just the reverse!

There are several special Shabbatot [sha-bah-TOTE, plural of Shabbat) scattered throughout the Jewish year, and this year I’m going to identify them as we encounter them. Each points to something special that’s on our minds that Shabbat, often a nearby holiday.

L’Shanah Tovah! I hope that your holidays are sweet and full of blessing!

What Song is in Your Head?


There’s a refrain that always bounces around in my head during the Days of Awe:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry

–from “Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon

The whole song sings to me during these days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. (You can read the whole lyric by clicking on the link.) I don’t know exactly what it means, but it feels to me like it’s pointing towards my state of mind: Look. Listen. Think. Reflect. Wonder.

Is there a pop song that says “Days of Awe” to you?

Teshuvah 101


For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

The Art of the Good Apology


The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?