Kal Nidrei is by far the most celebrated prayer in all Jewish Communities around the world and the most attended prayer throughout the Jewish year. Tens of thousands of Jews who would otherwise never attend a synagogue service will make sure they are “there” for Kal Nidrei. Not a few will leave shortly after the prayer is said and only re-appear a year later for the same occasion. The tune of this prayer has become the most famous Jewish melody ever, by far outdoing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva. Its tune is so magnificent that the famous non-Jewish author, Tolstoy, called it “a melody which echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Not even Beethoven’s C Sharp Minor Quartet opus 131(six movement) is able to convey its grandeur, although it comes close.
Yet, Kal Nidrei is not a prayer, but a legal statement. It is not an inherent part of the Yom Kippur service but was later inserted. For hundreds of years it was not said in many Jewish communities; in fact, it was looked down upon. Famous rabbinical authorities, especially the Geonim of Sura, condemned it as anti-Jewish(1) and anti-Semites often attacked it as an example of Judaism’s moral inferiority. Still, it survived all assaults and condemnations, in the same way as Jews for thousands of years survived their enemies. Just as the Jews are still here, so is Kal Nidrei.
Kal Nidrei takes only a few minutes to say. It is a dry, legal formula stating that all vows, oaths and promises between man and God made in the last year are annulled for the coming year. It is stated in a way that only an official court is able to do. It deals only with promises made by man towards God and does not annul any promise made by man to his fellow man.(2) Still, many rabbinical authorities were unhappy with its declaration. Why annul vows and promises at the beginning of the most solemn day of the entire Jewish year? Would it not be more in the spirit of Yom Kippur to call on the community members to keep their promises and make sure that all be fulfilled as soon as possible in the coming year? Indeed, why annul vows? Only in the most specific instances is it permitted for an individual to annul their vows in front of a rabbinical court. A vow can be annulled, reluctantly, only after a thorough investigation through which it becomes apparent that the individual made his vow in all sincerity and now, because of circumstances beyond his power, is not able to fulfill it.
Did the Rabbis not warn against making vows? Better not to make them at all than to have to go back on them. The word of man is to be taken seriously and in no way is one allowed to take a promise or vow lightly. That is Jewish Law. So, why this mass annulment of community vows without even investigating their nature?
In 1240, at a Christian Jewish disputation, the Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kal Nidrei, stating that it proved once more that one cannot believe Jews at their word. Although the famous sage Rabbi Jechiel ben Joseph of Paris proved that Donin had it all wrong, it did not prevent “Kal Nidrei” from becoming a “cause celebre” for anti-Semites throughout the whole of Europe.
Indeed, how did this problematic “prayer” get into the Yom Kippur service, and why did it survive all attacks?
The famous scholar Joseph Bloch advanced a theory in 1927 which may very well explain this.(3) He suggested that Kal Nidrei was instituted in the seventh century when the Visigoths forced Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity. Many of the Jews at the time decided to save their lives by openly accepting Christianity, but in secret tried to live a Jewish life. These were the first Marranos, or conversos. On Yom Kippur, however, their conscience got the better of them. They secretly arranged synagogue services but before they would ask God’s forgiveness on this solemn day, they first wanted to rid themselves of their vows to Christianity. How would they be able to stand before God while still under the vow of the Christian faith?
This would also explain why the Kal Nidrei declaration includes the statement: “By the authority of the heavenly Court above and by the authority of the court below, we grant permission for the transgressors to pray with us”. This no doubt refers to the fact that it is normally forbidden to pray together with Jews who have converted to another religion. There was a need to lift that ban so as to give the secret Jews the opportunity to join the prayers. It is this historical fact which caused the Kal Nidrei declaration to be said before the actual Yom Kippur service started.
Why then did the Rabbis not remove Kal Nidrei after the Marrano experience came to an end? Today, most Jews live in countries where they are no longer forced to convert to other religions and where they can practice their religion openly. So why hold on to a “prayer” which is no longer relevant?
Perhaps the reason is that in the last few hundred years nearly all Jews have become Marranos. Since the days the Jews were emancipated, they have bought into all sorts of ideologies and philosophies. Socialism, Marxism and a myriad of other “isms” became the new religion for large numbers of Jews. To this very day, and with an increasing percentage, many Jews are losing their Jewishness. Although they are no longer forced to convert to Christianity or any other religion, they willfully adopt philosophies which estrange them from their Jewish origin. Alienation has become the very condition under which most Jews today live their lives. They believe that Judaism is outdated and needs to be replaced. Often they arrive at such conclusions because of a severe lack of Jewish knowledge combined with an excellence in general education. This causes them to be subconsciously and deeply influenced by anti-Jewish ideas and they do not know how to differentiate between genuine knowledge and knowledge based on misconceptions and superficial insights, often promoted by the media, cults and popular belief, which have become accepted by western civilization as indisputable facts.
Even the religious community has lost much of its genuine Jewish values as it is more and more influenced by foreign concepts.
But once a year most Jews realize that they are Marranos; that they still want to remain Jews, after all. On Yom Kippur many a Jew with the slightest Jewish affiliation knows that there is a need to undo his Marrano status and to annul his vows to secularism and other non-Jewish ideologies. He may not even know anymore why Kal Nidrei pulls him away and wants to free him from all sorts of artificial masks. Like a Jungian archetype, deep in his soul something tells him that even for just a moment he needs to return “home” and be part of his people and its faith. He needs, through his personal Kal Nidrei, to be a fully authentic Jew liberated from all foreign influences and social pressures.
It may hold him for only five minutes, but its implications are eternal.
More than the fact that Jews kept Kal Nidrei alive, Kal Nidrei kept the Jews alive. That is the secret of its eternity.
Tizku leshanim raboth.
(1) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch deleted it in 1839, but seems to have re-instituted it later. See Eliyahu Meir Klugman: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, Artscroll History Series, New York, 1996 P. 306 and footnotes.
(2) See Ran and Rabbi Asher ben Jechiel to Nedarim 23b and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 211:4.
(3) Dr. Joseph Bloch, Israel and the Nations, Benjamin Harz, Berlin-Vienna, 1927, pp 172-282.
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