Commentary Magazine


The Curious Case of Kol Nidre

All vows, renunciations, promises, obligations, oaths, taken from this Day of Atonement till the next, may we attain it in peace, we regret them in advance. May we be absolved of them, may we be released from them, may they be null and void and of no effect. May they not be binding upon us. Such vows shall not be considered vows; such renunciations, no renunciations; and such oaths, no oaths. (Translation adapted from the High Holyday Prayer Book, edited by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser.)

In our time, the best-known ritual of the High Holy Day services—not only among Jews but among Christians as well—is unquestionably Kol Nidre. Highlighted by its strategic location at the very inauguration of the 24-hour fast of Atonement, and chanted in a traditional melody of great spiritual force, Kol Nidre exerts an enormous impact. Yet few of the millions who experience that impact every year are aware of the paradoxical and controversial history of the Kol Nidre rite. The first of these paradoxes lies in the fact that Kol Nidre is not even a prayer, but rather a legal formula for the annulment of certain types of vows. The name of God is never mentioned. The language is a curious mixture of Aramaic—the Jewish vernacular of the Talmudic period—and Hebrew—the language of classical Jewish prayer. The style is prosaic, the wording technical. Moreover, although Kol Nidre has become virtually synonymous with the Day of Atonement, it is not, strictly speaking, part of the Yom Kippur liturgy; it is a prefatory declaration which must be recited before the sunset which ushers in the holy day.

Even more paradoxical, in view of its enormous popularity, Kol Nidre has had to survive centuries of powerful and persistent opposition, expressed not only by enemies and detractors of Judaism but even by eminent rabbis who have challenged the very principle underlying its recitation—the concept of a blanket annulment of sacred vows. In response to these criticisms, the text of Kol Nidre has been amended to such an extent that the version in most common use today defies the laws of logic and syntax alike.

That a disputed formula like Kol Nidre should eventually have won a central place in the standard liturgy is a phenomenon that defies complete comprehension. An old rabbinic proverb states that everything needs mazal (good fortune), even the Torah scroll in the Ark; for where there are many scrolls available, it is often a matter of chance which is selected to be read. At least part of the “success” of Kol Nidre must be attributed to a series of accidents which we shall note as we examine the improbable story of this rite.

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No one has been able to determine just where and when Kol Nidre originated and under what special circumstances, if any. We do not know who the author was, whether the original language was Hebrew or Aramaic, nor exactly when or how its long struggle for acceptance into the Yom Kippur liturgy was won. There are many theories—some so dramatic as to border on fantasy—which attempt to solve the mysteries, but none is conclusive.

One of these mysteries is why the ritual for the dispensation of vows should have, in the first instance, been associated with the Day of Atonement. Actually the Talmudic passage which provides the legal basis for Kol Nidre speaks not of Yom Kippur but of Rosh Hashanah: “He who desires that none of his vows made during the year shall be valid, let him stand at the beginning of the year [Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah] and declare, ‘very vow [Hebrew, kol neder] which I may make in the future shall be null.’” Pious Jews still follow a procedure based on this original practice: after the morning worship on the day preceding Rosh Hashanah, they petition a “court” of three learned men to hear declarations pertaining both to vows unwittingly neglected during the past year and those which might be improperly taken during the year about to begin. However, the procedure originally established for the day before Rosh Hashanah was shifted to the eve of Yom Kippur sometime during the post-Talmudic period. The medieval authorities explain that this was done in order to accommodate the rank-and-file worshippers who did not come to the synagogue on the day before New Year but did so on the eve of the Atonement worship. Here is one of those many curious accidents which rescued Kol Nidre from obscurity and helped to transform a dry legal formula, written in a confusion of tongues and tenses, and plagued by both legal and ethical problems, into the most prominent ritual of the High Holy Days.

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The vow (neder) is one of the earliest forms of prayer known to Scripture, but a growing religious sophistication over the centuries led to a downgrading of this primitive form of prayer. The Pharisees, for example, took a dim view of candidates for their fellowship who were prone to the making of vows. Indeed, the Torah itself discourages vowing: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing” (Deuteronomy 23:21-23). The Torah further provides for the annulment of certain vows, notably those made by females who are legally within the jurisdiction of their father or husband (Numbers 30). And Scripture, generally, cautions against vows lightly taken: “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God . . . better it is that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay. Allow not your mouth to bring your flesh to guilt . . . but fear God” (Ecclesiastes 5:1,4,6).

The post-biblical moralists shared this attitude and tried to dissuade Jews from resorting to vows as a demonstration of piety. In the period of the Mishnah, the habit of making vows was held to be a mark of low breeding. Some of the rabbis permitted the use of vows as a means of reinforcing resolutions to replace bad habits with good ones, but others disapproved. A favorite Talmudic maxim says, “It is sufficient for you [to limit yourself] to that which the Torah forbids.” In third-century Babylonia, the distinguished Amora Samuel derogated those who, like the Nazarite, adopted vows of abstinence: “Even though he fulfills [the vow], he is called wicked.” The Palestinian authorities were inclined to be more indulgent than their Babylonian colleagues in the matter of vowing; yet it was a Palestinian Tanna, Rabbi Nathan, who said: “One who vows is as though he built a high place, and he who fulfills it as though he sacrificed thereon.”

Despite such injunctions, not every Jew could resist the habits of centuries of Oriental vow-making. Thus the legal authorities in the Talmudic period had to cope with the dilemma of preserving the sanctity of the pledged word in a society that continued to make ill-considered vows. The problems—legal and moral—which perplexed the most eminent rabbis in the matter of the dispensation of the many types of vows, oaths, etc., are so complex and subtle that it is impossible to discuss them here in detail. Two entire tractates of the Talmud (Nedarim and Shevuot) deal directly with these issues, to say nothing of discussions in other tractates. Chief Rabbi Hertz, in his commentary on the Pentateuch, gives this vivid summary:

Altogether aside from imbecile and rash minds, men in time of danger or under momentary impulse would make vows which they could not fulfill. . . . In such cases, the rabbis would consider it their duty to afford a man the facility, under certain definite conditions and restrictions, of annulling his thoughtless or impossible vows. Such annulment could never be effected by himself, but only by a Beth Din of three learned men in the Law, after they had carefully investigated the nature and bearing of the vow, and had become convinced that its purpose was not, on the one hand, self-improvement, nor did it, on the other, infringe upon the rights of others. For not all vows or oaths could be absolved. A vow or oath that was made to another person, even be that person a child or a heathen, could not be annulled except in the presence of that person and with his consent; while an oath which a man had taken in a court of justice, could not be absolved by any other authority in the world [Italics in original].

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The practice of annulling vows which had been made by individuals through the agency of a legal expert or an ad hoc “court” of three laymen originated in Palestine; but the first references to a specific “Kol Nidre” formula for collective use are found in the legal responsa of the Babylonian Geonim, beginning in the 8th century. These powerful authorities, however, far from approving the practice familiar to them from “other lands,” violently condemned it, with outstanding Geonim—Yehudai, Natronai, Amram, and Hai, the son of Nahshon—going so far as to forbid the recitation of Kol Nidre. Amram’s historic “Order of Prayers,” composed about 870, preserves a complete text of Kol Nidre (largely in Hebrew) but he prohibits its use, calling it minhag sh’tut, “a foolish custom” (he was probably quoting Natronai here).

What prompted the Babylonian authorities to take such a negative attitude? On the surface, the objections appear to be purely legalistic; but the passion, which is only partially hidden by their technical language, suggests that the Geonim were fighting a losing battle against a highly popular practice. Both Salo W. Baron and Cyrus H. Gordon believe that the geonic opposition to Kol Nidre was connected with an opposition to magic. Thus Gordon points out striking parallels between the Aramaic text of Kol Nidre and texts in the same language inscribed on magical incantation bowls which were popular in Babylonia around 500 C.E. According to this view, the function of Kol Nidre was “the annulment of curses or oaths (originally not in the sense of promises or contractual obligations) that touch off evil forces in the community.”

But the geonic opposition to Kol Nidre was not monolithic. A difference of opinion existed—at least during certain periods—between the two great Babylonian academies, the authorities at Pumbedita taking a more lenient view, probably in response to popular clamor, than those at Sura. By the time of Hai Gaon (son of Sherira Gaon), who flourished in Pumbedita about the year 1000, some form of Kol Nidre declaration appears to have gained general acceptance throughout Babylonia and the far-flung Jewries which accepted geonic authority. Unfortunately, the liturgical writings of Hai, the most influential of the Geonim of Pumbedita, have been lost and the quotations in later medieval writers are often inaccurate. We do not know, therefore, the exact wording of the Kol Nidre formula approved by Hai.

But what we do know is the principle underlying the Babylonian compromise on a permissible Kol Nidre formula. The Geonim rejected the concept that vows might be annulled either retroactively or in advance, a practice which had been permitted in Palestine under carefully controlled conditions. Fearful of the moral implications of such procedures, the Geonim permitted only a Kol Nidre formula which achieved the purely religious purpose of seeking divine “pardon, forgiveness, and atonement” (mehilah selihah v-kapparah) for the sin incurred in failing to keep a solemn vow (or, possibly, for having made a vow in the first instance). This purely religious function of the Kol Nidre declaration was made explicit by the closing formula: “as it is written in Thy Torah, ‘he whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among you shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error’” (Numbers 15:26). The period of time covered by the declaration was always the year just concluded; consequently the characteristic phrase of the geonic Kol Nidre is, “from the previous Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.”

The Babylonian version of Kol Nidre, however, is not the familiar formula which is used in the overwhelming majority of Jewish communities today. The Jewries of western and northern Europe, which did not recognize the hegemony of Babylonia, also did not accept the Kol Nidre text of the Geonim. In the 12th century a further major change was to be introduced into this ritual by the Tosafists (“Supplementers”) of France and Germany, from whom the Ashkenazic Rite eventually derived. These influential scholars, reverting to the original practice of Palestinian Jewry as recorded in the Mishnah, recast the Kol Nidre formula as an anticipatory cancellation of vows, oaths, etc., which might be taken “from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.” They excluded vows taken during the past year because the Talmud rules that vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states the content of his vow and voices penitence for his change of heart (haratah) before a legal expert or a court of three knowledgeable laymen. None of these conditions was required in the Kol Nidre formula accepted by the Babylonian Geonim. One of the most important of the Tosafists, Rabbenu Tam, desired, indeed, to transform all the verbs of the old Kol Nidre formula from the past to the future tense. His lack of success on this point has bequeathed to the Ashkenazic posterity a grammatical monstrosity: the time period mentioned is “from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur,” yet all the verbs (“which we have vowed,” etc.) are in the past tense. Later efforts to remove these contradictions—from R. Mordecai Jaffe of Prague, in the late 16th century, to R. Wolf Heidenheim, in early 19th-century Germany—have been conspicuously unsuccessful.

The legal arguments of Rabbenu Tam and his father, R. Meir ben Samuel, were not accepted uncritically by later Ashkenazic authorities. Such distinguished rabbis as R. Mordecai Jaffe, the Vilna Gaon, and R. Jacob Emden took issue with some of the legalistic assumptions on which the new Kol Nidre was based. Nevertheless, Rabbenu Tarn’s version (also known as the Aramaic version) has remained the standard Kol Nidre in Ashkenazic congregations to this day. This is not to say that the older (or Hebrew) version of the Babylonian Geonim was entirely displaced. The Romanian (Balkan) Rite, which has long been obsolete, and the Italian Rite, preserved today in only a handful of congregations, retained the old geonic Kol Nidre in its Hebrew form. The Sephardim of the West recite only part of the geonic text, notably its concentration on the vows of the past year, while the Oriental Sephardim and the Yemenites have compromised by adding the emendations of Rabbenu Tam to the older geonic version.

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Not all the opposition to Kol Nidre has come from within Jewish ranks or from sectarian groups (like the Karaites). Throughout the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, Kol Nidre was seized upon as a prime weapon in the continuing campaign to vilify the character of the Jew. Accusations were constantly leveled against the “perfidious” children of Israel whose religion permitted them to perjure themselves in their dealings with Christians and then—on the holiest of festivals—clear their consciences simply by reciting the Kol Nidre. It was on the basis of such accusations that the notorious “Jew’s-oath” was instituted by Christian courts.

Kol Nidre made trouble for the Jews in other ways too. Several public disputations between learned rabbis and churchmen in the 13th century included controversy over the legitimacy of Kol Nidre. In the 17th century, Manasseh ben Israel, the famed rabbi-statesman of Amsterdam, had to defend the ethical character of Kol Nidre in the course of negotiating with Oliver Cromwell to permit the return of Jews to England (whence they had been expelled in 1290). The governmental machinery of Tsarist Russia was likewise concerned with the legitimacy of Kol Nidre. On October 25, 1857, after repeated complaints from unfriendly quarters to the Russian authorities touching on the rights of Jews in the province of Kurland, the authorities issued an order prescribing a special Hebrew introduction to Kol Nidre, which stated explicitly that the declaration was valid only for vows exclusively involving the person who made them but no other human being.

The Jewish defense of Kol Nidre always was that the declaration applied only to the relations between man and God, not to contractual obligations between man and man: “For transgressions between a man and his fellow man, Yom Kippur does not effect atonement until he shall have first appeased his fellow man” (Yoma 9:9). Yet many defenders of Kol Nidre were themselves uneasy about it, haunted by the well-known criticism of illustrious rabbis, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic. Thus in 12th-century Spain, R. Judah ben Barzillai declared the recitation of Kol Nidre to be dangerous, since ignorant Jews might erroneously conclude that all their vows and oaths were annulled through this declaration and, consequently, would take obligations upon themselves without due caution. In 13th-century Italy, R. Zedekiah ben Abraham Ha-Rofe opposed the practice of absolving vows and cited the opinion of some authorities “that Kol Nidre was intended only for impulsive vows which the Mishnah deems to be not binding, so that people might learn that even in such matters our yea must be yea and our nay, nay.” R. Jeroham ben Meshullam, of 14th-century Provence, attacked “those fools who, trusting to the Kol Nidre, make vows recklessly.” Even the Shulhan Arukh, the standard code of Jewish law, recognizes that the legality of Kol Nidre rests on precarious foundations.

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Against this centuries-old background of controversy, it is not surprising that Kol Nidre was one of the early targets of the Reform movement which arose in 19th-century Germany. In 1844, the first conference of Reform leaders decided to expunge the ancient ritual entirely from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and several attempts were subsequently made by both German and American Reformers to substitute an acceptable prayer in its place. Abraham Geiger’s Breslau Prayerbook (1854) contains an original prayer, Kol pesha’ai (“All my iniquities, etc.”). The Berlin Prayerbook and the older editions of the Union Prayerbook (of the American Reform movement) substituted the 130th Psalm, a most appropriate selection since it had introduced the Yom Kippur evening service in ancient Palestine long before there ever was a Kol Nidre. But once again, the incredible resilience of the traditional Kol Nidre ritual made itself felt: in the most recent edition of the Union Prayerbook (1961), Kol Nidre has been restored with its full Aramaic text.

In the United States, also, the Reconstructionist movement attempted to abolish the recitation of Kol Nidre. But the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, later reinstated the ritual, with an emendation specifying that Kol Nidre refers only to the annulment of vows made in such a way “as to estrange ourselves from those who have offended us, or to give pain to those who have angered us. . . . These our vows, and these only, shall not be vows. . . .” This revised Kol Nidre text was incorporated into the Reconstructionist High Holy Day Prayerbook (1948) and is used in a small number of congregations.

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It should be obvious that the phenomenal capacity of Kol Nidre to withstand so many vicissitudes over the centuries cannot be explained in purely rational terms. Due regard must be given to other factors, foremost among them the powerful folk tradition that has long associated Kol Nidre with Jewish martyrdom, especially at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The fact that this deeply rooted tradition cannot be substantiated by firm historical evidence has not in the least dimmed the mystical aura with which it has surrounded an otherwise undramatic legal formula of dubious provenance.

The legendary association of Kol Nidre (and its various musical settings) with Jewish martyrdom was given some scholarly underpinning in 1917 by Joseph S. Bloch who attempted to trace the origin of the ritual to the persecution of Jews in 7th-century Spain by the Visigoths. According to Bloch, these barbarian conquerors, themselves freshly converted to Christianity, forced the Jews of their Spanish domains to renounce their religion and vow their acceptance of the Christian faith. But the forced converts remained secretly faithful to their ancestral religion, and when Yom Kippur came, they would observe it surreptitiously. Nevertheless, feeling they had broken the solemn oath given, albeit under duress, to their Christian persecutors, they recited Kol Nidre to voice grief over their apostasy and simultaneously to seek God’s forgiveness for, and absolution from, their unwilling vows. This, Bloch suggests, is the reason that Kol Nidre is recited before the prayers of Yom Kippur proper begin. Bloch further argues that Jews suffered similar persecution in the Byzantine Empire (700-850) and utilized Kol Nidre in the same fashion, as also did the Marranos who secretly practiced Judaism after being forcibly converted by the Spanish Inquisition (1391-1492).

Though Bloch’s theory has not won scholarly acceptance, it is probably true that “secret Jews,” in various times and places, did utilize Kol Nidre as a means of absolving themselves from vows made under coercion. In any case, there is a very long history in Jewish writings, going back to ancient rabbinic literature, of explaining innovations and peculiarities in worship and ritual in terms of persecutions at the hands of a variety of enemies. Whatever the merits or demerits of any particular theory of this type, the overall effect has generally been further to endear the prayer in question to the Jewish people. Thus, Bloch’s theory is reputed to have moved a number of European synagogues to restore Kol Nidre after it had been dropped from the service.

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The plaintive melody of Kol Nidre has been scarcely less important than the martyrdom tradition as a factor protecting the embattled formula against its critics and enemies. Indeed, the music itself has been associated by popular tradition with persecution and martyrdom. For this notion there is no historical basis whatsoever, yet the myth dies hard. The history of the Kol Nidre music is as obscure as that of the words; and, as with the text, there are a number of versions. To name only the best-known, there is the familiar Ashkenazic melody and the two current Sephardic melodies: one for the Western and the other for the Oriental communities, both based on the mode of Selihot (prayers of penitence) and both quite different from the Ashkenazic.

The earliest reference to a Kol Nidre melody comes, ironically, from one of the ritual’s enemies, the Karaite, Judah Hadassi of 12th-century Jerusalem. The procedure, still current, of chanting the Kol Nidre formula three times is recorded in Mahzor Vitry, a 12th-century record of the liturgical practices of Old-French Jewry. Each of the repetitions was intended to convey particular thoughts and emotions, and it is probable that the early Hazzanim improvised in order to express these ideas. In the course of time, certain melodies must themselves have become traditional. For example, we know that in the early 15th century R. Jacob Moelin (Maharil), the father of the Ashkenazic mode of worship, had his own special melody for Kol Nidre. And so well entrenched was the melody used in Prague at the end of the 16th century that the codifier R. Mordecai Jaffe could write: “Most of the text of Kol Nidre, as it is now printed in the Mahzorim, makes no sense and is quite unintelligible; the only thing that gives it substance and meaning is the melody. But they [i.e., the cantors] do not know or understand what they are reciting. Many times have I attempted to correct the wording and teach my improved version to the Hazzanim; but they were unable to incorporate the changes in the course of their chanting because they are too attached to the old melody which fits the familiar text.”

Since Kol Nidre is neither a prayer nor a hymn, it is difficult from a purely liturgical standpoint to understand why such an elaborate chant should have been provided for it in the first instance. The great Jewish musicologist, A. Z. Idel-sohn, conjectured that the Hazzanim were obliged to improvise a melody because of certain legalistic and practical considerations: they had to begin Kol Nidre while it was still daylight and prolong its recitation until sunset; moreover, in order to enable the late-comers among the congregation to hear Kol Nidre, they would have to repeat it several times. In the course of time, an elaborate melody evolved.

The Kol Nidre chant has captivated Christians as well as Jews. Long before the advent of the ecumenical age, it had become routine for Christians to visit synagogues on Kol Nidre night to hear the melody which Tolstoy once described as “one that echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” This melody has also found its way into the work of such non-Jewish composers as Beethoven (the penultimate movement of the G minor Quartet, opus 131, and the first movement of the Trio, opus 9, no. 3) and Bruch (the well-known cello Concerto entitled “Kol Nidre”).1

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The setting of the Kol Nidre service has perhaps been no less instrumental than the melody in establishing its wide appeal. The details vary from one regional or local rite to another, but the general pattern is similar. In every case, Kol Nidre is recited as a prelude to Yom Kippur. The reason is that the Talmud prohibits the asking for absolution of vows on a Sabbath or Festival unless the vows directly concern these holy days. Thus, by virtue of a minor point of law, Kol Nidre received the prominent position it holds at the very inauguration of the most sacred day of the Jewish year.

This happy accident entailed yet another which served to enhance the power of the ritual—the wearing of the Tallit. The fringed prayer-shawl is not worn at night and would ordinarily play no role at the evening service which ushers in the Day of Atonement. Since, however, the service on this occasion begins before sunset, it is permissible—and customary in nearly all communities—for men to wrap themselves in the full regalia of prayer.

In practically all communities, the Kol Nidre ceremonial begins with a dramatic opening of the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark. The white parokhet (curtain) is drawn, revealing the massed scrolls of the Torah, which are likewise vested in white—the traditional color for the Days of Awe, symbolizing the themes of purity and atonement as well as the confidence of the penitent. One, or, more commonly, a number of scrolls is removed; tradition requires that at least one scroll must be left in the Ark at all times. In many congregations, the scrolls are carried by the communal elders, led by the Hazzan and Rabbi, in solemn procession through the crowded synagogue—often to the accompaniment of chants deriving from the Kabbalistic tradition. The scrolls are usually kissed (and embraced) by the worshippers; pious Jews ask forgiveness for their neglect of the Torah throughout the year past and resolve to show greater devotion in the future. When the procession returns to the Bimah, some communities restore the scrolls to the Ark immediately but most retain two of them to be held by distinguished members of the congregation who stand at either side of the Hazzan until the Kol Nidre rite is completed.

The climax of the entire ceremonial is reached with the chanting of the Kol Nidre formula proper. In all but a few obsolete rites, the ancient words (for reasons already mentioned) are recited three times. The melody is begun almost in a whisper, gradually increasing in volume until it reaches a crescendo of clear, resonant tones, as prescribed in the 12th-century Mahzor Vitry: “The first time he [the Reader] 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.”

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Will kol nidre continue to retain its force in the generations to come? It is hard to imagine otherwise. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik contends that even Jews totally removed from any formal ties with Judaism are susceptible to Kol Nidre which, he believes, speaks to the collective Jewish unconscious of its deepest tribal memories. Such, at any rate, seems to have been the case with lapsed Jews like Heinrich Heine, Edmond Fleg, Theodor Herzl, and Franz Rosenzweig (who was dissuaded from converting to Christianity by an exposure to the Yom Kippur service). It also seems to be the case today with many anti-religious Israelis—not to mention American and Russian Jews of similar bent. And this too is one of the many paradoxes surrounding the long and curious history of the Kol Nidre rite.


Footnotes

1 The composition for speaker, mixed chorus, and orchestra entitled “Kol Nidre” (opus 39), by Arnold Schoenberg, does not use the traditional melody, it is an entirely new musical treatment of the text.

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