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

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

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!

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 13, 2015. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5776!

Before Kol Nidre

The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.

I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?

The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.

As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.

So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.

My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.


Yom Kippur: The Rehearsal

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA
Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

What sort of people rehearse their own deaths?

Jews, that’s who.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.

One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.

This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.

I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.

What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen? 

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

  1. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
  2. Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
  3. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
  4. The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
  5. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
  6. Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
  7. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices:  We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
  8. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
  9. On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
  10. The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
  11. Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
  12. In 2015, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 22.