The following article appear on the ‘Point’ Magazine, (USA) on November of 1957, which was edited by Fr. Leonard Feeney.
If any of our readers happened to stray by a synagogue one night last and heard a strange, woeful melody pouring forth, he was probably listening to the Kol Nidre. For one month the Jews celebrated their most solemn religious festival, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement); and the liturgical high-point of the Yom Kippur observance is the singing of the Kol Nidre.
What our wandering reader may not have realized is that the annual exercise of intoning this hymn performs for the Jews a most remarkable function. As that mournful wail reverberates through the synagogues of the world, the Jews are readying themselves for another strenuous year among the Gentiles. They are, then and there, dissolving all promises, oaths, and obligations that they may incur during the next twelve months.
The following authorized translation of the Kol Nidre (“All Vows”) appears in a book of Jewish prayers published by the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York:
“All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness), we repent, aforehand, of them all. They shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.”
Though in spirit it is as old as the Talmud, Jewish historians trace this astonishing declaration in its present form to medieval Spain — where, before the Inquisition intervened, some four million Jews advanced themselves in Church and state by posing as Christians. Through the simple device of annually chanting the Kol Nidre formula, these secret-Jews (“Marranos”) conditioned their Jewish consciences for swearing belief in Christ while despising Him, loyalty to the Church while plotting its destruction. “Kol Nidre was no dry document to them,” says the Jewish Advocate of Boston. “Every phrase was freighted with significance, every word carried salvation.”
Eventually, in 1492, Queen Isabella got on to the “significance” with which the phrases of the Kol Nidre were freighted, and had the Jews expelled from Spain. But this action by no means put an end to the Jews’ annual singings. The Kol Nidre had proven its utility; it quickly passed into the ritual of world Jewry, as the central feature of the Yom Kippur ceremonies.
Last month, virtually every adult Jew in the United States went to his synagogue to renew his Kol Nidre disavowals. Non-Jewish Americans will be noting the effects of this visit during the coming year.