Kol Nidre

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(The following has been imported from the 1906 public domain "Jewish Encyclopedia". It already has been edited and Wikified, but does not yet incorporate modern scholarship. Please help by modifying as needed.)

Kol Nidre (ashk.) or Kal nidrÚ (sef.) is a Jewish prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Its name is taken from the opening words, meaning "All vows".

"Kol Nidre" has had an eventful history, both in itself and in its influence on the legal status of the Jews. Introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbinic authorities, attacked in the course of time by some rabbis, and in the nineteenth century expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe, this prayer has often been employed out of context by anti-Semites to support their claims that Jews cannot be trusted.


1 Use by Anti-Semites

2 In the Nineteenth Century
3 The Melody

Form of Prayer

Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"), the congregation gathers in the synagogue. The Ark is opened and two people take from it two Torah scrolls. Then they take their places, one on each side of the cantor, and the three recite:

In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God — praised be He — and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors."

The cantor then chants the prayer beginning with the words Kol Nidre with its touching melody, and, gradually increasing in volume from pianissimo (quiet) to fortissimo (loud), repeats three times the following words:

All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal 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 personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.
(Translation of Philip Birnbaum, from High Holyday Prayer Book, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY, 1951)

The leader and the congregation then say together three times "May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault." The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the customary evening service begins.

Philip Birnbaum, in his classic edition of the Mahzor (High holy day prayer book) comments on this passage: "It refers to vows assumed by an individual for himself alone, where no other persons or interests are involved. Though the context makes it perfectly obvious that no vows or obligations towards others are implied, there have been many who were misled into believeing that by means of this formula all their vows and oaths are annulled. In the eleventh century Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (Rashi's son-in-law) changed the original wording of Kol Nidre so as to make the Ashkenazi version apply to the future instead of the past; that is, to vows that one might not be able to fufill during the next year." The Sephardi version still refers to the past year.


The tendency to make vows to God was strong in ancient Israel; the Torah found it necessary to protest against the excessive estimate of the religious value of such obligations. "When you make any vow to the Lord your God, you must pay it without delay...If you refrain from making a vow, that is no sin for you; but you must be careful to perform any promise you have made with your lips." (Deut. 23:22)

Rash vows to God that for whatever reason were not fulfilled created painful religious and ethical difficulties for those who had made them; this led to an earnest desire for dispensation from them. This need gave rise to the rite of absolution from a vow ('hattarat nedarim') which might be performed only by a scholar, or an expert on the one hand, or by a board of three Jewish laymen on the other.

This rite declared that the petitioners, who were seeking reconciliation with God, solemnly retracted their vows and oaths which they had made to God during the period intervening between the previous Day of Atonement and the present one; this rite made them null and void from the beginning, entreating in their stead pardon and forgiveness from God. This is in accordance with the older text of the formula as it is preserved in the Siddur of Amram Gaon.

Adoption into the prayer services

The readiness with which vows were made and the facility with which they were annulled by the scribes gave the Karaites an opportunity to attack rabbinic Jews. This forced the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to minimize the power of dispensation. Rabbi Yehudai Gaon of Sura (760 CE), author of the Halakot Pesukot, forbade the study of the Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths. Thus the Kol Nidre was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies and was not accepted by them.

Amram Gaon in his edition of the Siddur calls the custom of reciting the Kol Nidre a foolish one ("minhag shetut"). According to others however, it was customary to recite the formula in various lands of the Jewish dispersion, and it is clear likewise from Amram's Siddur that the usage was wide-spread as early as his time in Spain. But the geonic practice of not reciting the Kol Nidre was long prevalent; it has never been adopted in the Catalonian or in the Algerian ritual.

Together with the Kol Nidre another custom was developed, which is traced to Me´r of Rothenburg (d. 1293). This is the recital before the Kol Nidre of the formula mentioned beginning "Bi-yeshivah shel ma'alah," which has been translated above, and which gives permission to transgressors of the Law or to those under a ban "to pray with the congregation", or, according to another version, to the congregation "to pray with the transgressors of the Law." From Germany this custom spread to southern France, Spain, Greece, and probably to northern France, and was in time generally adopted.

At one time it was believed that the Kol Nidre was composed by Spanish "Marranos", Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, yet who secretly maintained their original faith. This idea has been shown to be incorrect, as the prayer pre-dates this era by many centuries. However, this prayer was indeed used by the Marranos.

Change of tense from past to future

An important alteration in the wording of the Kol Nidre was made by Rashi's son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel, who changed the original phrase "from the last Day of Atonement until this one" to "from this Day of Atonement until the next." Thus the dispensation was not a posteriori, and concerned with unfulfilled obligations of the past year, but a priori and having reference to vows which one might not be able to fulfil or might forget to observe during the ensuing year. Meir ben Samuel likewise added the words "we do repent of them all", since real repentance is a condition of dispensation. The reasons assigned for this change were that an "ex post facto" annulment of a vow was meaningless, and that, furthermore, no one might grant to himself a dispensation, which might be given only by a board of three laymen or by a competent judge.

It appears to have been Rabbenu Tam, however, who accounted for the alteration made by his father as already stated, and who also tried to change the perfects of the text, "which we have vowed," "have sworn," etc., to imperfects. Whether the old text was already too deeply rooted, or whether Rabbenu Tam did not correct these verbal forms consistently and grammatically, the old perfects are still retained at the beginning of the formula, although a future meaning is given to them.

The alteration made by Me´r ben Samuel, which agreed with Isaac ibn Ghayyat's view was accepted in the German, northern French, and Polish rituals and in those dependent on them, but not in the Spanish, Roman, and Provenšal rituals. The old version is, therefore, usually called the "Sephardic." The old and the new versions are sometimes found side by side.


In the Siddur of Amram and in the Roman Mahzor the Kol Nidre is written in Hebrew, and therefore begins Kol Nedarim. The determination of the time in both versions is Hebrew. The words "as it is written in the teachings of Moses, thy servant," which were said in the old form before Num. xv. 26, were canceled by Meir of Rothenburg.

Method of Recitation

As to the manner in which the hazzan is to recite the Kol Nidre, the Mahzor Vitry gives the following directions: "The first time he must utter it very softly 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."

The number of Torah-scrolls taken out for the Kol Nidre varied according to different customs. In some places it was one; in others, two, three, seven, or even all. The first Torah-scroll taken out is called the Sefer Kol Nidre. The Kol Nidre should be recited before sunset, since dispensation from a vow may not be granted on the Sabbath or on a feast-day, unless the vow refers to one of these days.

Use by Anti-Semites

The Kol Nidre has been one of the means used by Jewish apostates and by enemies of the Jews to cast suspicion on the trustworthiness of an oath taken by a Jew. This charge was leveled so much that many non-Jewish legislators considered it necessary to have a special form of oath administered to Jews ("Jew's oath"), and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, basing their objections chiefly on this prayer. As early as 1240 Jehiel of Paris was obliged to defend the "Kol Nidre" against these charges. It can not be denied that, according to the usual wording of the formula, someome might think that it offers a means of escape from the obligations and promises which he had assumed and made in regard to others.

Refers Only to Individual Vows

Rabbis have never failed to point out that the dispensation from vows in the "Kol Nidre" refers only to those which an individual voluntarily assumes for himself alone and in which no other persons or their interests are involved. The formula is restricted to those vows which are between man and God alone; they have no effect on vows made between one man and another. No vow, promise, or oath, however, which concerns another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the Kol Nidre. According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.

Five geonim (rabbinic leaders of medieval Babylonian Jewry) were against while only one was in favor of reciting the prayer, and furthermore that even so early an authority as Saadia wished to restrict it to those vows which were extorted from the congregation in the synagogue in times of persecution ("Kol Bo"), and he declared explicitly that the "Kol Nidre" gave no absolution from oaths which an individual had taken during the year.

Judah ben Barzillai, a Spanish author of the twelfth century, in his work on Jewish law "Sefer ha-'Ittim," declares that the custom of reciting the "Kol Nidre" was unjustifiable and misleading, since many ignorant persons believe that all their vows and oaths are annulled through this formula, and consequently they take such obligations on themselves carelessly.

Jewish Opposition

For the same reason Jeroham ben Meshullam, who lived in Provence about the middle of the fourteenth century, inveighed against those fools who, trusting to the "Kol Nidre," made vows recklessly, and he declared them incapable of giving testimony ("Toledot Adam we-Ḥawwah," ed. 1808, section 14, part iii., p. 88; see Zunz, "G. V." p. 390). The Karaite Judah Hadassi, who wrote the "Eshkol ha-Kofer" at Constantinople in 1148 (see Nos. 139,140 of that work), likewise protested against the "Kol Nidre." Among other opponents of it in the Middle Ages were Yom-Ṭob ben Abraham Isbili (d. 1350) in his "Ḥiddushim"; Isaac ben Sheshet, rabbi in Saragossa (d. 1406), Responsa, No. 394 (where is also a reference to the preceding); the author of the "Kol Bo" (15th cent.); and Leon of Modena (d. 1648 [see N. S. Libowitz, "Leon Modena," p. 33, New York, 1901]). In addition, nearly all printed maḥzorim contain expositions and explanations of the "Kol Nidre" in the restricted sense mentioned above.

In the Nineteenth Century

Yielding to the numerous accusations and complaints brought against the "Kol Nidre" in the course of centuries, the rabbinical conference held at Brunswick in 1844 decided unanimously that the formula was not essential, and that the members of the convention should exert their influence toward securing its speedy abolition ("Protocolle der Ersten Rabbiner Versammlung," p. 41, Brunswick, 1844).

At other times and places during the nineteenth century emphasis was frequently laid upon the fact that "in the 'Kol Nidre' only those vows and obligations are implied which are voluntarily assumed, and which are, so to speak, taken before God, thus being exclusively religious in content; but that those obligations are in no wise included which refer to other persons or to non-religious relations" ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1885, p. 396).

The decision of the conference was accepted by many congregations of western Europe and in all the American Reform Judaism congregations, which while retaining the melody substituted for the formula a German hymn or a Hebrew psalm, or changed the old text to the words, "May all the vows arise to thee which the sons of Israel vow unto thee, O Lord, . . . that they will return to thee with all their heart, and from this Day of Atonement until the next," etc. Naturally there were many Orthodox opponents of this innovation, among whom M. Lehmann, editor of the "Israelit," was especially prominent (see ib. 1863, Nos. 25, 38).

According to many Jewish writers, the principal factor which preserved the religious authority of the "Kol Nidre" is its plaintive melody.

The Melody

Even more famous than the formula itself is the melody traditionally attached to its rendition. This is deservedly so much prized that even where Reform has abolished the recital of the Chaldaic text, the air is often preserved, in association with some other passage.

And yet there are probably no two synagogues in which the melody is chanted note for note absolutely the same. So marked is the variation in the details of the melody that a critical examination of the variants shows an approach toward agreement in the essentials of the first strain only, with transformations of the greatest diversity in the remaining strains. These divergences, however, are not radical, and they are no more than are inherent in a composition not due to a single originator, but built up and elaborated by many in turn, and handed on by them in distinct lines of tradition, along all of which the rhapsodical method of the hazzanut has been followed.

The musical structure of "Kol Nidre" is built upon a simple groundwork, the melody being an intermingling of simple cantillation with rich figuration. The opening of "Kol Nidre" is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a "pneuma," or soul breath. Instead of announcing the opening words in a monotone or in any of the familiar declamatory phrases, some ancient hazzan of South Germany prefixed a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could find utterance before the officiant could bring himself to inaugurate the dread Day of Atonement.

Reminiscences of Catholic Plain-Song

Breslaur draws attention to the similarity of these strains with the first five bars of the sixth movement of Beethoven's C sharp minor quartet, op. 131, "adagio quasi un poco andante."

An older coincidence shows the original element around which the whole of "Kol Nidre" has been built up. The pneuma given in the Sarum and Ratisbon antiphonaries (or Catholic ritual music-books) as a typical passage in the first Gregorian mode (or the notes in the natural scale running from "d" to "d" ["re" to "re"]), almost exactly outlines the figure which prevails throughout the Hebrew air, in all its variants, and reproduces one favorite strain with still closer agreement.

The original pattern of these phrases seems to be the strain of melody so frequently repeated in the modern versions of "Kol Nidre" at the introduction of each clause. Such a pattern phrase, indeed, is, in the less elaborated Italian tradition (Consolo, Nos. 3 and 6 in the following transcription), repeated in its simple form five times consecutively in the first sentence of the text, and a little more elaborately four times in succession from the words "nidrana lo nidre."

The northern traditions prefer at such points first to utilize its complement in the second ecclesiastical mode of the Church, which extends below as well as above the fundamental "re." The strain, in either form, must obviously date from the early medieval period, anterior to the eleventh century, when the practice and theory of the singing-school at St. Gall, by which such typical passages were evolved, influenced all music in those French and German lands where the melody of "Kol Nidre" took shape.

Thus, then, a typical phrase in the most familiar Gregorian mode, such as was daily in the ears of the Rhenish Jews, in secular as well as in ecclesiastical music, was centuries ago deemed suitable for the recitation of the Absolution of Vows, and to it was afterward prefixed an introductory intonation dependent on the taste and capacity of the officiant. Many times repeated, the figure of this central phrase was sometimes sung on a higher degree of the scale, sometimes on a lower. Then these became associated; and so gradually the middle section of the melody developed into the modern forms.

Inspiration for other musical pieces

The prayer and its melody has been the basis of a number of pieces of classical music, including a setting of the prayer by Arnold Schoenberg, and a piece for solo cello and orchestra by Max Bruch.

See also: Yom Kippur, Jewish services, Siddurde:Kol Nidre


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