Kal Nidrei (1) is by far the most celebrated prayer in all Jewish communities around the world and the most attended throughout the Jewish year. Tens of thousands of Jews who would otherwise never participate in a synagogue service will make sure they show up for Kal Nidrei. Many will leave shortly after the prayer is said and only reappear a year later. Its melody has become the most famous Jewish tune ever, by far outdoing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. It is so magnificent that famous non-Jewish author Tolstoy referred to it as “a melody that echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Not even Beethoven’s C-Sharp-Minor Quartet, Opus 131 Movement 6 is able to convey its grandeur, although it comes close.
Yet, Kal Nidrei is actually 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 recited in many Jewish communities and was, in fact, looked down upon. It was condemned by famous rabbinical authorities—especially by the Geonim of Sura—as anti-Jewish (2) and often attacked by anti-Semites as an example of Judaism’s moral inferiority. Still, it survived all assaults and condemnations in the same way as Jews survived their enemies for thousands of years. Just as the Jews are still here, so is Kal Nidrei.
Kal Nidrei takes only a few minutes. 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 does not annul those made by man to his fellow man (3). Still, many rabbinical authorities objected to it. Why annul vows and promises on the eve of the most solemn day of the Jewish year? Would it not be more in the spirit of Yom Kippur to call on community members to fulfill their promises as soon as possible in the coming year? Indeed, why annul vows? Only in the most specific instances are individuals permitted to annul their vows before a rabbinical court. This can be reluctantly done only after ascertaining that the person’s vow was made sincerely and that because of circumstances beyond his control it cannot be fulfilled.
Did the Rabbis not warn against making vows? Better not to make them at all than to have to renege. Man’s word is to be taken seriously; Jewish law forbids one to take a promise or vow lightly. So why do we have this mass community annulment, without even investigating the nature of these vows?
In 1240, at a Christian-Jewish disputation, Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kal Nidrei, stating that it proved once again that one cannot believe Jews at their word. Although the famous Sage Rabbi Yechiel ben Yosef of Paris proved Donin wrong, it did not prevent “Kal Nidrei” from turning into a “cause celebre” among anti-Semites throughout Europe.
Why was this problematic prayer admitted into the Yom Kippur service and how did it survive the attacks?
In 1917, famous scholar Dr. Joseph S. Bloch proposed a theory that may well explain this (4). In an essay he wrote that year, later to be included in a book authored by him, 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 decided to save their lives by openly accepting Christianity while secretly trying to live a Jewish life. These were the first marranos or conversos. On Yom Kippur, however, they were struck by pangs of conscience. Secretly arranging synagogue services, they would begin by asking God for forgiveness on this solemn day, wanting to first rid themselves of their vows to Christianity. How could they 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 these Jews the opportunity to join the prayers. According to Joseph Bloch, it is this historical fact that led to the inclusion of the Kal Nidrei declaration before the actual Yom Kippur service started.
This then begs the question: Why did the Rabbis not remove Kal Nidrei when the marrano experience came to an end? Today, most Jews live in countries where they are not forced to convert to other religions and can openly practice Judaism. So why hold on to a prayer that is no longer relevant?
I would like to suggest that in the last few hundred years nearly all Jews have become marranos. Ever since the days when Jews were emancipated, they have bought into many ideologies and philosophies. Socialism, Marxism and a myriad of other “isms” have become the new religion for a large number of Jews. There is a steady increase in the percentage of those who are losing their Jewishness. Although no longer forced to convert to Christianity, or any other religion, they willfully adopt philosophies that estrange them from their Jewish roots. 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 due to a lack of Jewish knowledge and a greater familiarity with non-Jewish sources. Their excellent general education allows them to be subconsciously influenced by non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish ideas. They don’t know to differentiate between genuine knowledge and knowledge based on misconceptions and superficial insights often promoted by the media, cults and popular belief, all accepted by western civilization as indisputable fact.
Even the religious community has lost much of its genuine Jewish values as it is more and more influenced by foreign concepts.
Once a year, though, most Jews realize that they are marranos, that they still want to remain Jews after all. On Yom Kippur, even a Jew with only the slightest Jewish affiliation knows that he needs to undo his marrano status and annul his vows to radical secularism and other non-Jewish ideologies. He may not even know anymore why Kal Nidrei pulls him, wanting to free him from artificial masks. Like a Jungian archetype, something deep in his soul tells him that, even for just a moment, he needs to return “home” and be part of his people and its faith. He requires his personal Kal Nidrei in order to be a fully authentic Jew, liberated from all foreign influences and social pressures.
It may engage him for only five minutes, but its implications are eternal.
More than the Jews have kept Kal Nidrei alive, Kal Nidrei has kept the Jews alive. That is the secret of its eternity.
Tizku leshanim rabot.
(1) Though usually pronounced Kol Nidrei, the correct Aramaic pronunciation is Kal Nidrei. There is no word “kol” in Aramaic.
(2) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch deleted it in 1839, but reinstated it the following year, albeit with a request that the congregation recite it only once, not three times. See Eliyahu Meir Klugman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (New York: Artscroll-Mesorah Publications, 1996) p. 306 and footnotes.
(3) See the Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona) and the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel) on Nedarim 23b, as well as Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 211:4.
(4) Dr. Joseph S. Bloch, Israel and the Nations (Berlin-Vienna: Benjamin Harz, 1927) pp. 172-282.