Yom Kippur: Relinquishing the bonds

All the promise I deny
the labels I affix
the vanities I cherish
the image I project
the shell that shields me
from changing who I am
the vow that stops me
from being something more
the bonds that tie me
to last year’s former self

I now relinquish
from this Yom Kippur
to next


Before darkness, as we approach Yom Kippur, we recite the “Kol Nidrei” prayer that lends its name to the entire opening service of Yom Kippur: “All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement, may it come to us for a blessing. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”

This prayer has, in fact, a very chequered history. It was widely believed that it originated during a period of unbearable persecution, during which Jews were forced to convert on pain of death (either to Christianity or Islam) and that Kol Nidre was intended to nullify that forced conversion. However, it was already in existence in the Geonic period (589–1038 CE). The Torah very clearly prohibits the indiscriminate making of vows, and because of the ethical difficulties arising from unfulfilled vows, the Halachah has a mechanism for absolution from them (either by a scholar or expert, or by a “court” of three Jewish laymen). Thus the ease with which vows could be made and annulled spurred the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to diminish the power of dispensation. (The study of Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths was thus outlawed for a hundred years). So Kol Nidrei  was regarded as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom. The Kol Nidrei declaration was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies. Even today, certain communities do not recite it.
Originally, the ceremony of the annulment of vows took place on Rosh Hashanah – the New Year, ten days before Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Nedarim 23b) says, “Who wished to cancel his vows of a whole year should arise on Rosh Hashanah and announce, ‘All vows that I will pledge in the coming year shall be annulled.'” (There is a ritual for this – the hatarat nedarim – annulment of vows) in which the person comes before a tribunal of three others and recites a Hebrew formula (nothing like the one in the Kol Nidrei prayer) and he asks for annulment of every vow or pledge that he swore and the trio responds by reciting a formula three times, reminding him that there exist pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and releasing him of his vows. He then declares the vows null and void.
So prior to the formulation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, there was this ritual for Rosh Hashanah. According to Asher ben Yechiel (early 14th century), Kol Nidrei was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, because that service seemed more solemn and appropriate to the underlying themes on Yom Kippur of repentance and remorse, and also, perhaps, because Yom Kippur services (even then!) were better attended. In addition, the Kol Nidrei prayer includes an expression of penitence with which to open the Day of Atonement (as opposed to the legalistic formula employed in the hatarat nedarim), and the entire congregation is present.
Although the notion has been disproved that Kol Nidrei was composed by Spanish Anusim (Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity, yet who clandestinely practised their Judaism as far as they were able), they did recite this prayer, and this may account for its resonance and widespread adoption.
The original wording of the Kol Nidrei prayer actually said “…from the last Day of Atonement until this one” and Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century) made a significant change in the tense, from past to future ie “from this Day of Atonement until the next”. Thus the annulment does not concern past vows, rather future ones. He also added the words “we do repent of them all”, as annulment is conditional upon genuine repentance. The Talmudic discussion of annulment of vows relates to those to be made in the future. Furthermore, should a person die with his vows unfulfilled, having annulled them in advance would be preferable than dying with them unfulfilled and unatoned for.
Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel’s son tried to render the grammatical tenses more accurately, but for unclear reasons, did not succeed, so two versions still exist, and because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some communities, (especially in Israel) recite both versions (usually referring to the previous Yom Kippur the first and second times and the next Yom Kippur in the third).

The Kol Nidrei prayer is prefaced by the words “With the sanction of the Omnipresent, and with the sanction of the congregation, by authority of the Heavenly Court, and by authority of the earthly court, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed,” and the Zohar offers a very different slant to that suggested above. It submits that if we, in the earthly domain, can unbind ourselves from vows we made using the Kol Nidrei mechanism, perhaps God, in the Heavenly Court might be persuaded to annul vows He has made concerning punishments He might otherwise inflict upon the people for their sins. The Orot Sephardic machzor (festival prayer book) says: “According to the holy Zohar, Kol Nidrei is recited on Yom Kippur because, at times, the Heavenly judgment is handed down as an ‘avowed decree’ for which there can normally be no annulment. By reciting the Kol Nidrei annulment of vows at this time, we are asking of God that He favor us by annuling any negative decrees of judgment that await us, even though we are undeserving of such annulment.”
The Kol Nidrei prayer was used by non-Jews as proof for their accusation that an oath taken by a Jew may not be honored. There was even a special oath formulated for Jews (“Oath More Judaico”) and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, due to the untrustworthiness they believed was reflected in this prayer. In 1240, in the Disputation of Paris, Yechiel of Paris defended Kol Nidrei against these charges. However, Rabbinic sources unanimously confirm that the only vows released by this prayer relate to obligations a person undertakes towards himself or regarding his own religious obligations. The formula is constrained to those vows between man and God alone; and not to those vows made between one man and another. No form of vow or oath that concerns someone else (Jew or non-Jew), a court of law, or the community is implied in the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.”
Regarding the annulment of vows (described in B’midbar 30), in his additional notes on vows and vowing in Judaism, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz wrote:”… 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.”
None-the-less, concerned about possible anti-Semitic ramifications, the prayer was omitted from the liturgy by the pioneers of the Reform movement, but was restored by popular demand (its haunting melody is considered by most to be an inextricable element of the entire Yom Kippur service). However, it was not only among the Reform communities that the prayer was omitted. The eminent pioneer of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, omitted it during Yom Kippur services at least twice, but then restored it.

In his Shabbat Shuvah (5777) derashah, The Power of Custom and the Limits of the Law: The Case of Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sinclair surveyed the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer, from its beginnings, when it was outlawed by the Geonim, until its almost universal recital today. He noted that if we look at the confessions that we recite together throughout the Yom Kippur services, the vast majority of sins that appear on the lists are speech-related. He pointed out the tendency to speak unthinkingly, unkindly or coarsely, rather in the manner of a rashly made vow. So he sees a value in starting the whole service, relating to the Kol Nidrei prayer as a way to contemplate the adoption of thoughtful, appropriate speech.

In his book Or P’nei HaMelech (In the Light of the Countenance of the King) Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsalz) notes that we attach to ourselves all sorts of labels, nicknames, associations, definitions. He says a person might define himself as an intellectual or a Chasid or not a Chasid or someone not easily roused to emotion. We splint ourselves, he says, into all sorts of limitations: there’s a certain thing we convince ourselves that we cannot do; there are certain things about which we are not willing to think or talk; and there are certain issues that we convince ourselves do not relate to us at all. And then, when we shut ourselves up in our shell, nothing can influence us. So he paraphrases “All those associations, affiliations and definitions that I have fixed on myself and perhaps will fix on myself, they should all be annulled and revoked. I release myself from all of these, from the past and in the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may it come to us for a blessing.”

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Yom Kippur: Like Jonah

When God asks something of us
do we flee like Jonah:

take the next ship out
never mind to where?

Do we find ourselves unmoored
adrift in roiling waves

living out a nightmare
swallowed up by darkness?

And do we find that in the end
all paths lead back to Him?

Yom Kippur: Together

We gather as one,
mortal and fragile,
in a great ornate temple
lit by glass chandeliers
or a shelter-cum-hall
under fluorescent lights.

We pray together, fast together,
confess, “We have sinned,”
we’re all being judged, so
we won’t judge each other;
standing together
we pray with one voice.

Time moves relentlessly,
the gates will soon shut,
in mutual appeal
our plea rises, hearts crack:
as we turn back to God,
we return to each other.


In the Sefer Chasidim*, it says, “A person should feel the suffering of his neighbour, so that when he prays, he shall pray for his neighbour, too… If he does not commiserate with the suffering of others, how does he expect that God will commiserate with him and answer his prayers?”

We learn in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9, 24) that Yom Kippur does not bring atonement for sins against our fellow until we have obtained his forgiveness. Yom Kippur heightens our awareness that we are all in the same human predicament, sinning and struggling. When we confess our sins, we do it in the plural. We know that we are all being judged. We go through the day together and at the end of it, we hope that our differences may have dissolved and have been replaced by an enhanced feeling of community.

Yom Kippur is also the day when the people of Israel received the second set of tablets after they committed the sin of the Golden Calf and then repented. In a blogpost entitled, “Together, not Alone,” http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2010/09/yom-kippur-together-not-alone.html,  Dr Rachel Anisfeld quotes the Sefat Emet, who teaches that when the people did teshuvah, they not only returned to God but also to each other, creating a unity which, he says, is vital for accepting the Torah. So he reminds us that the teshuvah, return, for which we strive on Yom Kippur is both to God and to each other. She adds, “This attempt at unity and closeness is directly tied to our experience of God’s greatness both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are repeatedly reminded of the contrast between the eternal almighty God and the fragile, mortal human. The distinctions that matter, in other words, the lines that are drawn again and again are only those between heaven and earth. There are no lines drawn among humans. Compared to God, all of us down here are similar. We will all die one day and we are all being judged by God above.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgment, but it is not the day of our judgment of our fellows. We are commanded (on other days) to establish a judicial system and sit in judgment of those who do wrong in this world. But on this day, it is God alone who does the judging, and we humans are, all of us, the judged. And this experience of being judged, together, as a group, binds us. We are all in the same boat.
Yom Kippur is the day we become aware of the boat we ride together, like the ship that tossed and turned in the stormy waters of the Jonah story, affecting Jonah as well as all the other sailors aboard. Fasting together, going through the ordeal of not eating or drinking for a day together, provides a concrete experience of exactly this feeling, this sense that we are passing through life, with all its challenges, not alone, but as a community…
It is precisely through our experience of this day, through our shared confessions, prayers and fasting, through our new awareness of our shared struggles and challenges, that somehow the broken ties between us begin to repair, somehow we do return to each other, return to the kind of unity and community that, the Sefat Emet points out, is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah.”

*The Sefer Chasidim (Book of the Pious) is a text by Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg, a foundation work of the teachings of the Chasidei Ashkenaz (“Pious Ones of Germany”). It offers an account of the day-to-day religious life of medieval German Jews, and their customs, beliefs and traditions. It presents the combined teachings of the three leaders of German Chasidism during the 12th and 13th centuries: Samuel the Chasid, Judah the Chasid of Regensburg (his son), and Elazar Rokeach.
This Hebrew book originated between the late 12th and early 13th centuries in the Rhineland, shortly after the Second Crusade. After this time, it circulated widely. It influenced the distinctive religious practices and Hebrew literary style of Jews in Ashkenaz and also shaped the discourse about Jewish ethics in medieval Europe and beyond. Several manuscripts are in existence, some more extensive than others. An edition based on the Parma manuscript, published by Chevra Mekitzei Nirdamim in 1891, was reprinted in 1955. Recently Otzar haPoskim Institute has published an elaborate version with numerous commentaries.

Yom Kippur: If we are the clay

If we are the clay in the potter’s hand,
may we mould of ourselves a vessel
in which to hold Your love.

If we are the stone in the mason’s hand,
may we build of ourselves a sanctuary
that You may dwell within.

If we are the iron in the blacksmith’s hand,
may we forge of ourselves a foundation
upholding truth and peace.

If we are the tiller in the helmsman’s hand,
may we steer the ship to safety
across tempestuous seas.

If we are the glass in the glazier’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a mirror,
to reflect Your boundless light.

If we are the cloth in the weaver’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a tapestry
to beautify Your world.

If we are the silver in the silversmith’s hand,
may we shed our dross in the crucible,
yet our purest essence retain.


The piyyut* – Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter – was composed by an unknown author possibly in the twelfth century. The piyyut is based on a biblical theme which appears first in Isaiah, (64:7-8) “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and we are all the work of Your hand.” This theme reappears in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet has been told by God to go down to the potter’s house and there to hear God’s words. He does so and sees the potter working at his wheel, and how he sculpts the clay. Then God speaks to him: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter? says the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer. 18:6).

The author of the piyyut commences with the words, “Ki hinei kachomer beyad hayotser – behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter,” (the word yotser is a general word for craftsman or creator). He then continues the theme with God as a different artisan in each verse, shaping us with whichever medium the craftsman works with. The author emphasizes the helplessness and passivity of man. Each verse ends with the plea, “laberit habet, ve’al tefen layetser – look at the covenant, not at the sin.” Ostensibly, we are asking God to remember the covenant which He made with us and to overlook our sins. However, there is a play on words which hints at another meaning: the word yetser also refers to man’s inclinations (frequently yetser refers to the yetser hara – the evil inclination). In this case, the chorus could be referring to the two-way covenant: we ask God to remember His promise to us and to overlook our digressions, but we are also enjoined to remember our covenant with Him and not to turn away to the side of the evil inclination. Maybe we are being asked to be the yotser – we are each the artisan and we are to fashion ourself into a work of art: on Yom Kippur we aspire to elevate the clay of which we are formed to loftier heights.

This piyyut, considered by many one of the high points of the service, is traditionally sung on the evening of Yom Kippur, with the Ark open. All the congregation stands and sings in unison with the Chazzan. The best-known melody was composed by a Chasid from Lubavitch, Aharon Charitonov,** in the 19th century in Ukraine. Originally, he composed it as a melody with no words, but later the words of the piyyut were put to his melody.

Here is a translation of the piyyut:

Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold as the clay

Behold as the clay in the hand of the potter,
who expands or contracts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of love;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the stone in the hand of the mason,
who hews or fragments it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of life;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the iron in the hand of the blacksmith,
who forges or rejects it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God Who sustains the poor;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the anchor in the hand of the sailor,
who weighs or casts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O good and forgiving God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the glass in the hand of the glazier,
who shapes or melts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the cloth in the hand of the weaver,
who drapes or twists it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant and overlook our sin.

Behold as the silver in the hand of the silversmith,
who alloys or refines it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O healing God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

And here is a link to a beautiful contemporary rendition of Ki Hinei Kachomer to the traditional melody.

*A piyyut (from Greek poiétḗs “poet”) is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Temple times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.
Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam – Master of the World, sometimes (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists of a repeated rhythmic pattern of short-long-long-long, and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal – May God be Magnified, which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.
The author of a piyyut is known as a paytan.

**Reb Aharon Charitonov of Nikolayev, Ukraine belonged to a family of ritual slaughterers and examiners of kosher animals and birds. Besides the Charitonovs’ expertise in shechitah and bedikah (ritual slaughter and examination), they also demonstrated an amazing talent for composing niggunim – sacred melodies. Many of these niggunim were extremely elaborate but even the simple ones were imbued with expression.