The best attended prayer in all synagogues is the Kol Nidrei, which is recited on the Eve of Yom Kippur. The emotion-laden chanting of Kol Nidrei in its moving centuries-old melody begins the Yom Kippur service at a fervish pitch. In search for the author of this so popular prayer, there is a legend that associates it with the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Many Jews were compelled on the pain of death to renounce their faith. At heart, however, they remained true to their own religion. For the benefit of these Anusim — forced ones — popularly known as Marranos, the prayer was recited on Yom Kippur. They would gather secretly in hidden chambers and tearfully ask Hashem to forgive them for having taken a false vow.

Many disagree with this theory, since the concept of absolving vows at the beginning of the year is mentioned in the Gemara (Nedarim 23b), part of the Babylonian Talmud, which was complied almost 2000 years ago, and, the text of the Kol Nidrei prayer dates back at least to the ninth century. It is found in the Siddur Reb Amram Gaon of that period. Further, much had already been written about the Kol Nidrei prayer by the codifiers of Halachah in their works which pre-dated the period of the Inquisition.

Nevertheless, many have accepted the theory that the stirring plaintive melody (Niggun) with which it is chanted in all communities originated at that time. A legend associates the melody with the heroic death of Don Manuel, who was one of the close advisors to the Spanish King Ferdinand. Unfortunately, the spies of the Inquisition discovered that he was secretly practicing his old religion and he was ordered by the tribunal to be burned at the stake.

King Ferdinand and many noblemen came to witness the execution. The king offered to pardon him if he would publicly denounce his religion and promise to accept the Christian religion. Don Manuel turned to the king and exclaimed, “The chain, the chain, how can one tear the chain.”

“What chain are you talking about?” demanded the king. “You are not chained.”

Don Manuel responded, “The long chain from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov and my personal family chain that goes back to King David — how can I agree to break this golden chain!” With all his might he screamed out Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad and leaped into the flaming fire that had been prepared to consume him.

It is claimed that a composer present at this inquisition was so impressed with the strength of the Jew that he created a melody to express this and in time it was accepted throughout the world as the traditional melody to the words of Kol Nidrei.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)

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The tune of Kol Nidrei, and even more so, the scene of Kol Nidrei is awesome and moving. The entire congregation is standing on its feet all garbed in tallit and kittel. There are many flickering flames burning, which represent our souls and those of our loved ones. The holy ark is open, and the chazan — cantor — stands surrounded by at least two people holding Sefer Torahs, and together they constitute a Beth Din — tribunal — to beseech Hashem on behalf of the congregation.

Much has already been said and written about Kol Nidrei; therefore, tonight, instead of elaborating on Kol Nidrei, I would like to discuss the Biblical passages we recite immediately after Kol Nidrei.

Upon concluding the Kol Nidrei, everyone delivers a heart rending plea “Venisalach lechol adat b’nei Yisroel velageir hagar betocham ki lechol ha’am bishgagah” — “And may the entire congregation of Israel, as well as the proselyte who dwells among them, be forgiven, for all the people acted unwittingly (Devarim 15:16). This is followed by the chazan’s beseeching Hashem, “Selach na l’avon ha’am hazeh kegodel chasdechah” — “Please pardon the sin of this people in keeping with the greatness of Your kindness.” Then the entire congregation cries out three times “and Hashem said: I have pardoned in accordance with your words” (ibid 14:20).

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Kol Nidrei prayers is its conclusion with the blessing of shehecheyanu. It is recited by the chazzan and also in undertone by the entire congregation. In it we express thanks to Hashem for having “granted us life and enabling us to reach this occasion.”

Some say jokingly that we recite it because halachically when one meets a friend whom he did not see for a long period of time he should recite the berachah of shehecheyanu (Orach Chaim 225:1), and tonight we meet so many faces that we have not seen in shul since last Yom Kippur. This is only a humorous anecdote.

The real reason is because on every Yom Tov, shehechiyanu is recited upon coming home from shul as part of the kiddush. However, Yom Kippur there is no kiddush because we are fasting and thus the shehechiyanu is pronounced in our prayers. Though, according to some opinions, it should be said at the conclusion of the Ma’ariv prayers, the popular custom is to say it at the conclusion of the Kol Nidrei to officially usher in Yom Kippur (see Tur, Shulchan Aruch 619).

In all honesty I must tell you that this part of the service which I have just described is enigmatic and puzzling. The shul is filled from corner to corner and not everyone is a Tzaddik — nor would everyone qualify as a beinoni —intermediate. The introduction to the Kol Nidrei is the pronouncement by the chazzan flanked by the other two members of the Beit Din “with sanction of the Omnipresent and with the sanction of the congregation, by authority of the Heavenly tribunal and by authority of the earthly tribunal, we hereby grant permission to pray with the transgressors.”

The transgressions committed are unfortunately varied. Some are grave and others of lesser magnitude. Among those who have transgressed there are wanton sinners, who knowingly violated Torah rules. All come to shul tonight seeking atonement. All of us humbly stand before G‑d, knowing that our future is at stake. How do we have the audacity to publicly state “ki lechol ha’am bishgagah” — “all the people acted unwittingly.” Even in a court of law when standing before the judge awaiting a judgment, one would not make a statement which is contrary to everyone’s belief and which will definitely arouse condemnation. How do we, standing before the Al-mighty on the holiest day of the year, filled with remorse and penitence, beseech G‑d’s forgiveness prefaced on a gross misrepresentation? Isn’t it contradictory. On one hand we are here because of our conviction that He has the Divine powers to forgive, and on the other hand we still think one can fool Him and misstate the truth about the gravity of our iniquities?!

The prophet Zepaniah states unequivocally “She’eirit Yisrael lo ya’asu avlah velo yedabru kazav” — “The remnant of Israel will not commit corruption, they will not speak falsehood” (3:13).

Nobody is lying tonight; everyone is telling the truth. What they are saying to Hashem is that which in our modern legal system would be called “guilty with explanation.”

To better understand the plea, I will quote a story related in a Mishnah in the tractate Nedarim (66a). According to the halachah when a person makes a neder — vow — he is bound to it unless a Torah scholar finds a way to release him from it. However, if the neder was made in error; i.e. if it was based on a mistaken premise, it never takes effect.

The Mishnah cites an incident concerning one who vowed forbidding himself benefit from his niece, for he deemed her ugly and did not wish to marry her (regardless of his families encouragement). They brought her into the home of Rabbi Yishmael, and he provided her with clothing and adornments and he beautified her. Rabbi Yishmael then brought her before the man and said to him “My son, is it from this one that you vowed not to receive benefit? Did you intend to prohibit benefit from one of such beauty?” He said, “No, I did not mean to prohibit benefit from one of such beauty.” Upon hearing this Rabbi Yishmael permitted him to her. At that time Rabbi Yishmael felt such compassion that he wept and said “The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them ugly.” Due to his great concern and compassion for the daughters of Israel, when Rabbi Yishmael died, the daughters of Israel raised a lament and they said “Daughters of Israel, weep over Rabbi Yishmael.”

This moving story sheds light not only on the daughters of Israel, but all the people of Israel as well. Jews are beautiful; they all possess an intrinsic value and beauty. Unfortunately, it is poverty that make them ugly. The poverty can be financial, lack of Torah knowledge, lack of pride of being the chosen people, ignorance of the Torah definition of right and wrong, etc. etc.

Sin is external, and the Jew who sins is not inwardly corrupt. No Jew wants to be separated from G‑d. When a person commits a sin it is due to a lack of awareness that he thereby severs himself from G‑d. Ignorantly he assumes that his Jewishness remains intact (see Tanya, chs. 24-25). The root of the evil is thus “poverty” in one form or another.

Once Jews come into the company of Rabbi Yishmael, or his like, and are cleaned up and adorned with new “garments,” their poverty of Torah ignorance is removed and replaced with the beauty and richness of Torah and mitzvot. Then their inherent beauty come to surface and the “pintele yid,” the spark of Judaism embedded in them, sparkles and shines in its full beauty.

In the verse we proclaim there are two terms used: “aidah” and “am.” We say “venislach lechol adat b’nei Yisrael” — “may the entire congregation be forgiven” — and then we conclude ki lechol ha’am bishgagah for all the people acted unwittingly.

The term “aidah” — “congregation”— is a title associated with prominence while the term “am” — “people” — is a reference to the public, ordinary folk. What we are saying is that when we sin we stoop from great heights to great depths. However, this is not intentional, it is a byproduct of the various forms of poverty that we experience that have brought us to this stage.

We are saying to Hashem, “We want to rise back to our real state of ‘aidah’ and need Your Divine assistance to do it. Help us clean off all the alien matter that has covered our intrinsic beauty and help us shine brightly as proud members of Your people.”

The Chazan in his plea on our behalf spells it out very clearly when he says “venislach lechol ha’am hazeh — pardon this am — people, (who have stooped from great height (aidah) to great depths (am).

Hashem accepts our plea and thus, with fatherly compassion, He says, “salachti kidevarecha” — “I have pardoned in accordance with your words.”

Upon hearing this we rightfully now declare, “Blessed are You Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

(הרב יוסף דוב הלוי ז"ל סאלאווייטשיק - באסטאן)