Kol Nidrei. . . The chanting of Kol Nidrei is the moment of greatest power and emotion for most Jews during the entire High Holy Day period. But the origins of this formula are not at all clear. The most popular theory is that it was linked to the Jewish conversos in Spain (often called marranos, meaning “pigs”). The Jews who did not leave in the Expulsion of 1492 had to convert to Christianity or be burned at the stake. Many became “Crypto Jews,” living outwardly as Christians, yet maintaining their Jewish loyalty and identity in secret. The theory has it that once a year, on the Eve of the Day of Atonement, these Crypto Jews would meet in secret and recite the incantation annulling all the vows, presumably declarations of Christian faith, that they would be forced to utter during the coming year. The translation of Kol Nidrei is “all vows.” It is a compelling theory. I will return to it in a few moments.
Babylonian magic bowls. . . First, however, I would point to a more probable source of this haunting statement. Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, reminds us that the Jews of late antiquity were no less immune to superstitious beliefs than their pagan neighbors in Babylonia. (I dare say this tendency did not end in Babylonia!) Belief in the existence of supernatural forces that either worked for or against us was rampant. Apparently, a whole collection of “spells” emerged during the years of development of the Babylonian Talmud, c.300-700 CE. These spells were designed to ward off evil spirits, and it was the responsibility of “professionals” to create them so that they would be successful. Dr. Marx tells us that a number of clay bowls from this period have been unearthed from what had been residential areas, and sometimes graveyards, in and around the Babylonian city of Nippur, which is now in Iraq. These spells and incantations called upon various angels, and different appellations of God, believed to possess powers that could fight off demonic forces. Some of the incantations on the “magic bowls” contained texts like the following:
Overturned are all the vows (kol nidrei) and curses and spells and sorceries and curses and sorcerers and evil knocks that may lodge in this man.
Formulae like this one went through a number of re-workings on into the Geonic period (c.600-1100 CE) and beyond, until they became transformed into a verbal legalistic formula expressing annulment of vows.
Early Reform Jews. . . Eventually the formula we know as Kol Nidrei found its way into the traditional machzor (High Holy Day prayer book). But the early Reformers removed it, believing it to cast aspersions on the honor and trustworthiness of Jews – the last thing we would want our newfound non-Jewish neighbors to think! Indeed, there is no text for Kol Nidrei in the Union Prayer Book II (the High Holy Day prayer book of the Reform Movement). But as things grew darker for Jews in the 1930’s, and Zionist fervor increased, the sentiment for reinserting Kol Nidrei into the Yom Kippur liturgy increased among leading Reform rabbis. Within American Reform, while the text was still omitted, the page title Kol Nidrei was inserted into the 1945 edition of the Union Prayer Book II for the Holidays, and the chanting of the formula was reintroduced into Reform synagogues all over the country. The 1961 edition of UPB II had a loosely translated English paragraph, but in Hebrew, only the two words Kol Nidre appeared, without the rest of the Hebrew text. Ultimately, however, the full Hebrew text was re-inserted into Gates of Repentance, the new Reform Movement machzor, in 1978.
The Union Temple connection. . . According to Rabbi Dr. Marc Saperstein, Professor of History at the Leo Baeck College in London, it was none other than Rabbi Sidney S. Tedesche, z”l, Rabbi of Union Temple, who raised the specter of the Spanish Inquisition as the moment in history that should be associated with Kol Nidrei, during a Yom Kippur sermon in 1940:
The meaning of Kol Nidre was that all vows which a loyal Jew might be forced to make against his faith imposed by harsh inquisitor or assassin were to be forgiven. . . A nation can violate treaties, override boundaries, rain death and destruction from the skies, rob and slay and kill, deceive, betray and act in general as though there is no such thing as a moral law, yet they proclaim in utter cynicism that the only unforgivable crime is to be a Jew.
While Rabbi Tedesche’s clear allusion was to Nazi Germany, he elaborated within the sermon on the connection to the Spanish Inquisition as well. This was not a totally new theory, and particularly not within the Reform Movement. The West London synagogue, for instance, founded in 1840 as a Reform congregation with Sephardic roots, had introduced it almost a half century earlier.
Three hearings. . . The tradition prescribes that Kol Nidrei be repeated three times. Our way of fulfilling that at Union Temple has become that our cantor will sing it twice, the second version a bit different from the first, and then our soloist will play it for the third time. This year we will have a cellist playing the beautiful setting by Max Bruch, along with Shinae Kim on the piano. (The piece was originally written for cello and orchestra.)
Moment of inspiration. . . The development of liturgy makes for fascinating study. But there are times when we ought to just allow the emotional power of the elements within it to take over, and inspire us in the way they are meant to do. On this Friday night, may we be united in this inspiration as we stand together for this extraordinary moment of Kol Nidrei.