KOL NIDREI (Aram. כָּל נִדְרֵי; "All Vows"), a declaration of annulment of *vows with which the evening service of the *Day of Atonement commences. The worshipers proclaim that all personal vows, oaths, etc., that they made unwittingly, rashly, or unknowingly (and that, consequently, cannot be fulfilled) during the year should be considered null and void. The recitation must begin while it is still daylight and must be prolonged until sunset. It is the custom to repeat Kol Nidrei three times in order to accommodate latecomers. In Kol Nidrei only vows affecting the self, i.e., vows made between man and God (Tosafot, R. Nissim and R. Asher b. Jehiel to Ned. 23b; Sh. Ar., YD 211:4) are comprehended. Not formally a prayer, Kol Nidrei nevertheless became the most beloved ritual of the Day of Atonement. It alleviated anxiety which was especially intense in the *Rosh Ha-Shanah season because of possible violation of the sanctity of pledges (cf. Deut. 23:22–24). Sensitive to inherent juridical and ethical difficulties, the rabbis set definite conditions and restrictions on the annulment procedure. Vows could only be abrogated by a bet din or by an expert scholar, after careful investigation of their nature and bearing (Bek. 36b; Tur, YD 228:1). The Mishnah (Naz. 5:3; Ned. 3:1; cf. Ned. 23b) permits the nullification of the vows of an individual; its extension to an entire community, however, taxed the ingenuity of later authorities and aroused bitter controversy.
The origins of Kol Nidrei are unknown; none of the many theories is conclusive. The first reference to Kol Nidrei as a collective declaration is found in the responsa of the Babylonian geonim (beginning in the eighth century). It is stated that Kol Nidrei was familiar to them from "other lands"; but the geonim (especially of Sura) sharply condemned it for many generations. The "other lands" are not identified. An obvious possibility is Palestine, yet none of the extant sources of the old
The geonim of Pumbedita were more lenient than those of Sura, probably in response to popular demand. About the time of Hai Gaon (c. 1000 C.E.), general acceptance had been gained for a Kol Nidrei formula; it invoked divine "pardon, forgiveness, and atonement" for the sin of failing to keep a solemn vow (or, possibly, for having vowed at all). The period envisioned was "from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement." The tosafists of 12th-century France and Germany, notably R. Meir b. Samuel and his son Jacob (known as Rabbenu Tam), did not accept the geonic version but reworded Kol Nidrei as an annulment of vows which may possibly be made "from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement." Rabbenu Tam's (Aramaic) version has remained standard for *Ashkenazim. The geonic (Hebrew) version was adopted by the Romanian and Italian rites. Western *Sephardim recite only the geonic text referring to vows of the past year, while Oriental Sephardim and Yemenites add Rabbenu Tam's version.
Antisemites have frequently taken Kol Nidrei as evidence that the oath of a Jew is worthless. In the Disputation in Paris in 1240 it was attacked by Nicholas Donin and defended by R. Jehiel b. Joseph. Suspicion about the effects of Kol Nidrei on testimony given by Jews influenced the wording of the more judaico. It appeared too in the attacks of antisemitic writers such as *Eisenmenger, *Buxtorf, and *Wagenseil. To counteract these accusations, Jewish apologists have cited the severe limitations that the halakhah has imposed on Kol Nidrei. In 1860 a Hebrew introduction to Kol Nidrei was included in prayer books in Russia on the recommendation of a rabbinic commission. It explained that Kol Nidrei was not meant to apply to oaths taken before courts of law. In Germany in 1844, a synod of the Reform movement recommended that Kol Nidrei be expunged from the liturgy; later Reformers, however, offered substitute versions. The 1961 edition of the Reform Union Prayer Book (U.S.) restored the full Aramaic text. Kol Nidrei's persistent popularity is partly attributed to emotional factors, especially its association with Jewish martyrdom. In 1917, Joseph S. Bloch propounded a dramatic, though unsubstantiated, theory that Kol Nidrei arose as a reaction to forced Jewish conversions to Christianity by the Visigoths in seventh-century Spain, to persecutions in the Byzantine Empire (700–850), and in Spain to persecutions by the Inquisition (1391–1492).
The standard Ashkenazi melody for Kol Nidrei is deservedly famous as a superior example of the musical tradition of the Diaspora, and, with much justification, of "Jewish music" as such. It is not a melody in the conventional sense, but an artistic concatenation of motives, stylistically related to the general melodic conventions of the High Holy Days. The motives alternate between solemn syllabic "proclamations" as in the opening, intensely devotional wave-like phrases, and virtuoso vocal runs. It may even be asked whether the musical rendition of Kol Nidrei was shaped by the solemnity of the liturgical and ideological status of the prayer, or whether the latter did not come about in a great measure, at least during the last two centuries, through the extraordinary effect of the melody.
The source of the melody is still a subject of research, and the frequent attempts to relate it to Sephardi traditions (because of the presumed connections of the text with the Spanish *Marranos) are highly hypothetical. In the Sephardi traditions Kol Nidrei is rendered by the entire congregation, which alternates with the ḥazzan, and the rendition is, therefore, more syllabic in character; there seems to be no standard melody common to the entire Sephardi Diaspora. In the *Carpentras (Provençal rite) the Kol Nidrei is said in a whisper and therefore has no melody.
The Ashkenazi version of Kol Nidrei was arranged in 1880 by the non-Jewish composer Max Bruch for cello and orchestra, on commission from the Jewish community of Liverpool, and it became his most popular work. Arnold *Schoenberg's Kol Nidrei for speaker, chorus, and orchestra, opus 39 (1938) is based on a text by Jacob Sonderling, and some of the traditional motives are reworked there in Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. The text itself, written in close collaboration with the composer, is a personal philosophic reinterpretation of the prayer.
Davidson, Oẓar, 2 (1929), 480; idem, in: AJYB, 25 (1923/24), 192–4 (incl. bibl.); Baron, Social, 7 (19582), 78–79, 252; H. Leshem, Shabbat u-Mo'adei Yisrael, 1 (1965), 161–6; C.H. Gordon, in: Biblical Motifs (1966), 6–7; J.J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe (1968), 334–47; H. Kieval, in: Commentary 46 (Oct. 1968), 53–8.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.