Musings and Meditations on Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei, the evening service for Yom Kippur is perhaps the most dramatic event in Jewish liturgical and ritual life. Nine days after the inauguration of the New Year, we assemble to officially ask for forgiveness and pardon from whatever transgressions we may have acted upon during the previous year. We are reminded that if we have committed any wrongdoing against another person, we must seek that person out to personally express our remorse and appeal for absolution and then make a commitment to not repeat our wrong actions. We are also reminded that God will forgive any violations of promises made to God as long as we seek out exoneration. This is done through our Yom Kippur liturgy and more specifically through the recitation of Kol Nidrei, an Aramaic Rabbinic formulation that serves as the “legal” way to be freed of any vows, oaths, or promises that one may have made to God.  Contrary to anti-Semitic sentiments, Kol Nidrei was never meant to excuse a Jew from any pledges or commitments made to another Jew or another person in the context of business or personal responsibilities. It is an existential expression of individual repentance.

The ambience of Kol Nidrei is certainly striking. In appearance and sound Kol Nidrei has the potential to provide a transcendent experience that can help transform the soul.

We take out all our Sifrei-Torah, emptying the Ark while the Rabbi and Cantor are clothed in white robes. The melody is heard three times as proscribed by the tradition of reciting the text three times in the ancient court. Each time we hear the melody it is slightly different and in a different key. Many also speak the text out loud insuring that they have properly fulfilled their obligation. Whether listened to, sung, or spoken each mode is legitimate. For most Cantors the melody, in instrumental and vocal form, is the most meaningful. To be clear, the text of Kol Nidrei is very dry and formulaic. The musical evolution of Kol Nidrei’s melody and its variations are far more compelling then the literal meaning of the words. And, it’s not just Cantors or the many Jews with emotional attachment to that particular melody who feel that way.

The world has responded to the power of Kol Nidrei’s melody.  And the proof? Here are just a few examples. Intentional or not the universality of Kol Nidrei’s melodic and harmonic structure is heard almost identically in the opening of the sixth movement from Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 1826 string quartet #14. It has been speculated by scholars that Beethoven was aware of Kol Nidrei and may have sub-consciously borrowed its tune. In 1881 the Catholic German composer, Max Bruch, composed a Kol Nidrei inspired concerto for cello and orchestra. Jumping to the 20th century, non-Jewish singers like Perry Como and Johnny Mathis recorded their own renditions of Kol Nidrei.  In sloppy transliteration, the Mathis version is stirring and sung with great passion.  Another tribute to Kol Nidrei was made by the second incarnation of the 1960’s rock group, the Electric Prunes. But, perhaps the most famous tribute to Kol Nidrei in popular culture comes from a real homemade Jewish story.

You may be familiar with the movie the Jazz Singer, and its remakes, about a Cantor and his ambitious son who would rather sing popular music than follow in his father’s footsteps. With either Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis (really?), or, if you prefer, Neil Diamond, as the hero, one of the most moving scenes ever filmed is Jack or Jakey, singing  Kol Nidre in place of his sick father. For Cantors, the year would not be the same without the honor of singing this most sacred song. For this author, it’s even more meaningful because I grew up listening to my father sing Kol Nidrei in his congregation where he served as Rabbi and Cantor.

This melody is so powerful that our tradition teaches that it came directly from Mount Sinai.  The legend goes something like this: When Moses when up the mountain to receive the Torah, not only did he receive the written word as well as the oral interpretation, but Moses was also the recipient of special tunes that were to be sung for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are the melodies that we still sing in synagogues all over the world.  Hard to believe? I don’t blame you. The version of the story that I heard seems more plausible although it too has been challenged in its historicity.

Somewhere in the Rhineland during the time of the Crusades, in between the 12th and 13th centuries, there were groups of traveling musicians who became very popular known as Minnesänger or, from the medieval German, Singers of Love Songs. More like members of the courts of nobility rather than artists for hire, these musicians’ melodies and words were so moving that the Rabbis in the area encouraged their Cantors to work the Minnesänger’ melodies into the prayers for the High Holy Days. These melodies in turn were circulated by traveling Cantors throughout central and eastern Europe. In the oral tradition of Cantors, tunes were passed down from one generation to the next. These melodies, soon dubbed the Misinai Melodies, or the melodies that came from Mount Sinai, were so important that not only are they the main melodies that we hear throughout the High Holy Days but they are also the basis and foundation for the entire system of Ashkenazic Jewish liturgical music.

As the Cantors of congregations it has been our endeavor to honor both the traditions of our individual communities and the cantorial traditions. Of course these are not mutually exclusive. I was pleased to learn, when I first started as Congregation Or Ami’s cantor, that many of the Misinai Melodies had already been a part of the musical heritage in Lafayette Hill, PA. But, just as I feel that it has been my role to  shape our musical repertoire by adhering to the past I am equally challenged to bring more contemporary songs and settings of the prayers into our observation of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And this balancing between the old and new is the Constant Cantorial Condition.

As Jews attend various synagogues and temples, in all denominations around the world, the tunes utilized by each cantor or synagogue musicians may seem unfamiliar for those newly joining a congregation. It may be because of a number of variables; from synagogue to synagogue there are variations in the Misinai melodies, the tradition may not be adhered to, the community may lack cantors and those familiar with the High Holy Day sound or, the congregation is not Ashkenazic. Regardless of the origin of our synagogue song sound, the hope is that melodies and and music is chosen on the basis of how well it expresses the text. But that is another story.

May we all be blessed with a sweet year of blessings, love and peace and may the melodies we sing and hear bring us wholeness and closer to our God.