Kol Nidrei

J-Vault logo

 On Tuesday night, September 25th, Jews the world over (including many who go to synagogue only once per year) will gather in synagogues for the opening evening service of Yom Kippur, a service commonly known by the name of the declaration that begins it: Kol Nidrei, "All Vows..." This liturgical climax of the Jewish year is known for its haunting and beautiful melody.

 As a 1924 article from the American Jewish Year Book explains, however, the declaration of Kol Nidrei (it really isn't even a prayer) has a history of confusion and controversy.

J-Vault logo

From the J-Vault: Kol Nidre (1924)

Kol Nidrei, Professor Israel Davidson explains,

takes its name from the opening words and is recited at the beginning of the evening service of the Day of Atonement, has come down to us in two versions, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic... [T]he Hebrew version, which contains a reference to the vows contracted during the year that has passed... presents a legal difficulty. For, according to law, vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states what these vows were and makes his statement before a board of three, and none of these conditions is required in connection with Kol Nidre. To overcome these difficulties, R. Meir b. Samuel, the son-in-law of Rashi, changed the text of Kol Nidre and made it to read as we have it now in the Aramaic version: "from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement"...

Kol Nidre presents a number of other difficulties. Why, for instance, is this prayer placed before the beginning of the services? What connection is there between the absolution of vows and the verse from Numbers 15:26, with which it concludes? If it is a prayer for forgiveness, why should the sin of non-fulfilment of vows be singled out from other transgressions for which the Day of Atonement is supposed to atone? How is it that this particular composition has come down to us in two languages?

Professor Davidson goes on to offer numerous theories and explanations related to these questions. He also discusses rabbinic objections to Kol Nidrei at many points during Jewish history, from an array of religious leaders--from medieval sages to the Reform Movement's early leaders (who completely altered the text, retaining only the popular melody). Yet, he notes, Kol Nidrei has endured:

Historic Judaism, however, still braves the storm of accusations, safe in the consciousness of its integrity, and mindful of the wise adage not to indulge in too many explanations, because friends do not need them and enemies would not believe them.

More details about this publication...

Download publication...

J-Vault logo

Bonus: for anyone interested in a contemporary religious explanation of Kol Nidrei's history and purpose, I can't resist embedding this video lecture from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (click here if you can't see the embedded video player):

Sukkot Resources

Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs says that dwelling in sukkot offers us the opportunity to connect to our own history of wandering in an African desert. 

Is erecting a sukkah publicly breaking down the separation of church and state

Latino Evangelical Christians join in the Sukkot celebrations 

Could our sins be the covering over G-d’s sukkah?
 
Sukkot as a metaphor for relocation as a preemptive response to the threat of violence 
 
Browse more Sukkot publications.
 
 

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Yom Kippur Resources

Browse more Yom Kippur and High Holiday publications.

גמר חתימה טובה

Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

J-Vault logo

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

J-Vault logo

Tishah B'Av 5771

Hayez

(Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez)

For Tishah B'Av today, excerpts from "Temple and Synagogue" by Rabbi Neil GIllman, from Sh'ma in June 2007:

The Bible knows two models of sacred space. On one model, what may be called “intrinsic sacred space,” God chooses one point on earth to reveal God’s presence. That point becomes axis mundi, the center of the world, around which the rest of the world is structured in descending levels of sanctity. The
source for this model is... the binding of Isaac. Abraham is dispatched to “the land of Moriah,” to offer Isaac as a sacrifice “on one of the heights which I
[God] will point out to you.” Subsequently, in II Chronicles 3:2, Moriah becomes the spot on which Solomon builds the Temple...

...The second model may be called “extrinsic sacred space.” Here, any spot on earth can become the center of the world. In the Bible, this model is illustrated by the Israelite encampment during the desert wanderings. The camp could be located at any place in the wilderness, but wherever it stood, the sanctuary was at its center...

...The Temple, intrinsic sacred space, could only be in Jerusalem. But the synagogue could be wherever a minyan of Jews with their Torah scroll chose to settle. God sanctifies intrinsic sacred space; the community sanctifies extrinsic sacred space.

Jeremiah 29 contains the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the community of exiles in Babylonia. It is an extraordinary document. In it, God counsels the exiles to “build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat their fruit, take wives and beget sons and daughters; . . . multiply there. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Then, “When you call Me and
come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you. You will search for Me and find Me. I will be at hand for you and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations, and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

This letter... affirms the religious legitimacy of extrinsic sacred space. Its theological basis is a statement about God. God’s power is not bounded by geography... One of the traditional names for God is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” But according to the rabbinic understanding of that name, God is “the place” of the world, not the other way around. God does not inhabit space. The exiled community can flourish but it cannot have a Temple; that is reserved for Jerusalem. But it can still worship God without a Temple, without sacrifices, through the words of prayer. “Instead of bulls, we will pay [with] the offerings of our lips.” (Hosea 6:3)

This pattern goes a long way toward explaining the ambiguities of our relationship to Israel, both land and state. For centuries, we prayed and dreamed of a return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple; we worship facing Jerusalem; we conclude Yom Kippur and our Passover sedarim with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Yet we remain here. Ironically, it is precisely our religious structures that make it possible for us to live an authentic Jewish religious life anywhere on earth. We carry our religion on our backs. Halakhah enables us to worship God at every moment of our lives, wherever we may be...