Rabbi Cantor Gershon Silins
High Holy Days 2019/5780
The High Holidays are marked by unique liturgy and special music. From the eve of Rosh Hashanah through to Ne’ilah, the last service on Yom Kippur, the Jewish season of repentance and renewal, we hear dramatic musical moments that are unique to this period in our calendar. These holidays are solemn, but in their solemnity, there is a great opportunity to delight in song. Each blast of the shofar (which A. W. Binder calls the ultimate musico-liturgical symbol) fills the listener with awe and amazement. And on the eve of Yom Kippur, a service known by the name of what is perhaps the best-known prayer in Jewish life, the Kol Nidre, we hear another ancient sound, a tune that is unique to this service.
The traditional presentation of Kol Nidre begins just before sunset on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the congregation has gathered in the synagogue. The Ark is opened and two (or more) Torah scrolls are taken from it. The scrolls are held behind or alongside the cḥazzan, and after a brief prayer declaring it lawful for the community to include transgressors, the cantor chants the Aramaic prayer, beginning with the words “Kol Nidre,” three times.
The text dates to the 9th Century. In its current form (it has gone through a number of changes over time) Kol Nidre absolves the one who recites it of vows that he or she made, or will make in the coming year, that cannot be kept. It is sometimes connected to the forced conversions of Jews to Christianity in Spain and their desire to return to Judaism, but it long predates that period, and in modern times it has become a liturgical commentary on the difficulty we all have in squaring our ideals with our own failure to live up to them. This is the moment when we remember the person we want to be, and the choices we actually made in the year that is past. The imperfect tense which we see in the current version of the prayer (Rabbenu Tam changed it from the perfect tense in the 12th Century) reminds us that this struggle towards an ethical life never ends and that we will again be challenged in the coming year.
The unique and instantly recognisable melody of Kol Nidre is one of the “Mi-Sinai melodies” that emerged in Germany between the 11th and 15th centuries. “Mi-Sinai” literally means “from Sinai.” Of course, we know that none of these tunes came from anywhere in the Middle East, but the hold they have had on Ashkenazic Jews has made them as venerated as if they “came down from the mountain,” as Marsha Bryan Edelman puts it in a Reform Judaism Magazine article. They include not just the Kol Nidre, but also “The Great Aleinu,” the “Ma’ariv tune,” sections of the Amidah, various settings of Chatzi Kaddish, and others. Mi-Sinai melodies are not tunes in the Western sense. They are not complete melodies — with beginnings, middles, and ends — and do not function as independent songs. Rather, they are tunes in the Eastern sense: short pitch rows (motifs) that combine to form melodic passages. There are (by one count) thirty-nine individual Mi-Sinai tunes, which are woven together in various ways to make different melodies. As these tunes are heard in our High Holiday services, we are drawn into the history of our people and our deepest commitments to our prayers, which were, traditionally, always sung. The Kol Nidre prayer is theologically complex, and over the years there have been attempts to expunge it from the liturgy. But it was so important for people to hear it, and the tune that is linked with it, on Yom Kippur that it has proven nearly impossible to dispense with. Even when early Reform Judaism resisted the use of the text of the Kol Nidre, the melody persisted, attached to Psalm texts or other penitential prayers.
There are many different versions of the Kol Nidre tune, and they employ some or all of the brief motifs that are part of the Mi-Sinai melodies. The Jewish Encyclopedia speculates that a motif from the Great Aleinu was added in 1171, after fifty Jews were executed at Blois, chanting the em>Aleinu as they died.
The musical traditions of the High Holidays provide a link to generations long before our own. This is nowhere more poignant than the moment of the chanting of Kol Nidre, a prayer that reminds us of the significance of the words we say, and a melody that speaks a message which the heart recognises.
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