A Brief History of the Kol Nidrei Prayer

September 17, 2018Cantor Deborrah Cannizzaro

For most North American Jews, Kol Nidrei surely is the single piece of liturgy that best represents Yom Kippur. This haunting melody, often played by a cellist then chanted by the cantor and choir in front of the open ark, causes all who are present to delve deeply into their heart and soul, looking for forgiveness. Indeed, the Kol Nidrei liturgy has become so intensely associated with Yom Kippur that the service itself is known throughout our Reform community as “Kol Nidrei.”

The phrase Kol Nidrei comes from Aramaic and means far more than its literal translation, “All Vows.”  In fact, it is not a prayer at all, but rather a legal formula used for the annulment of vows.  These “vows,” according to Torah, refer to solemn, binding promises made before God.  (Numbers 30:3, Deuteronomy 23:24). 

All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to take 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. Let our vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths. 

The prayer is recited in its entirety three times, first softly, then a little louder, and finally with full voice. No one knows where this custom originated, but we find this text in the 9th-century High Holiday prayer book, Machzor Vitry:

The first time [the hazzan (cantor)] must utter it very softy, like one who hesitates to enter the palace of the king to ask a gift of Him whom he fears to approach; the second time he may speak somewhat louder; and the third time more loudly still, as one who is accustomed to dwell at court and to approach his sovereign as a friend.

Although the origin of Kol Nidrei is shrouded in mystery, there are theories about its origins. One popular theory connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews during the Inquisition in the 15th century, during which many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or face death. These cypto-jews, many of whom converted in name only and found a way to practice Judaism in privacy at home, created Kol Nidrei to nullify their vows of conversion before God. The formal and legalistic nature of the prayer lends validity to this theory. Additionally, by setting it at the beginning of the first Yom Kippur service, these Jews found a way to confront their worst sin imaginable and could then devote the rest of Yom Kippur to their other transgressions.

Most scholars, however, believe that Kol Nidrei has much earlier roots and probably pre-dates the cypto-jews. Although it is still unclear exactly when or where the formula originated, the wording is very similar to contracts written by the Babylonian Jewish community during the 6th and 7th centuries.

The haunting melody of Kol Nidrei comes from a body of music called MiSinai (“of Sinai”) melodies, which originated in Germany between the 11th and 15th centuries. These melodies became “attached” to prayers of the Ashkenazic Jews and were passed down through the generations. 

According to noted ethnomusicologist, Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, this melody was transmitted over time to each area in which Ashkenazic Jews settled. As with any folk melody, each hazzan evolved his own style. Kol Nidrei combines syllabic chanting (one note per syllable) with melismatic passages (one syllable extended over many notes).  By the time the melody began to be notated, somewhere in the late 18th century, significant differences in placement of text, order of tunes, and particular patterns of individual melismas had appeared. Notwithstanding these variations, each setting was recognizable as Kol Nidrei, and each one began with the distinctive intervals that mark its haunting opening. Listen to this rare recording (circa 1945) of Richard Tucker singing the version with which most Ashkenazim are familiar.

The melodies of the Sephardim (Jews who originated in the Iberian peninsula) are quite different and tend to be more like chant. According to Dr. Edelman, these melodies vary widely because the Sephardim have lived on many different continents and have been exposed to a diversity of cultural influences.

Here are two different versions of Kol Nidrei, both from Morocco:

  • In the first one, performed by Eyal Bitton, you will hear a melody quite different from the Ashkenazic setting, although the mood and ensemble are similar.
  • The second version, chanted by Rabbi Eliahou Elbaz, has a noticeably Middle Eastern sound and creates a totally different mood. Regardless of the setting, the words and meaning of the prayer reach out and beg us to reflect on our behaviors and actions during the past year. 

As we enter this period of repentance and self-reflection, may the words and melodies of our High Holiday services lead to a deeply spiritual understanding of our lives, our relationships, and our deeds. I leave you with this final setting of Kol Nidrei, performed by Yo-Yo Ma. 

Shanah tovah u’metukah, wishing you a sweet and happy New Year!

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