All Vows/Kol Nidrei


Tradition is a funny and a complex creature.

My father, who was not religious at all, insisted on going to services every year on the eve of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). I didn’t understand why, but that was the beginning of my special feeling about the importance of the holiday.

Moreover, both my parents fasted, despite being irreligious. That was another unusual phenomenon considering the fact that both loved to eat.

There weren’t many explanations – here and there a story about the Marranos (the Jews in Spain that were forced to convert to Christianity), but mostly it was just done this way, and because everyone repeated these rituals every year, they became sacred.

And in Israel, during Yom Kippur, the country came to a complete standstill, even more than here on Christmas. When I was a child, people didn’t drive on Yom Kippur.  So, in the eyes of a young child, it was as if the world had gone out on strike…  People wore white, rushed to synagogues, and we – the children raised in non-orthodox homes, went with our parents to the synagogue and played outside. From time to time an adult would come out to shush us; and we would stop, look at him with amazement, and go back to our games. I had no idea what was going on there, but it must have been important for my dad to spend the entire day praying, and not eating.

Many years later when I studied rabbinic literature, I realized that the first prayer, recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, called Kol Nidrei [All Vows], actually went through many transformations.  I realized this unique prayer was originally not recited on Yom Kippur to begin with!

Learning about it made me feel like the child who realizes that there’s no Santa Claus.

I could not believe that there was a time when one Rabbi, as learned as one could be, decided to change the wordings of the prayer. I could not believe that some Rabbis, as devout as they could be, would dare change the day in which this prayer would be recited.

I was taught that this is the most important prayer of all Jewish rituals.  This is evidenced by the fact it is recited three times, which can get quite boring if you get to synagogue on time, since the latecomers were given a chance to recite it as well.

I was taught that the reason it’s in Aramaic, and not in Hebrew, is because Aramaic was the common language at that time, and it was important that everyone could understand it, and recite it.

Additional drama and strong emotional importance and significance were imbued through tragic and painful stories about Jews saying this prayer when forced to convert to Christianity.  

So despite my realization that the most sacred night and prayer in the Jewish liturgy – which is not exactly a prayer but a legal recitation- went through its own change, maturation process and development, I could not shake up the feeling of it being holy.  As much as I wanted to use logic and dismiss this event, I couldn’t.

And whether I go to synagogue or not, whether I fast or not, I’m incapable of going to work on that day, and I experience the internal feeling of quietness, where daily life comes to a complete stop for me, despite all the hustle and bustle outside. And I do manage to think of forgiveness and wrongdoings. I feel compelled to pause and reflect on my behavior in the previous year, realizing that I gossiped about someone and that I was not always kind and other transgressions.

I like the pause.  I like the silence.  I like the memory of my father going to pray taking his tallit – his prayer shawl with him.  Even though I know that the prayers are our invention, or our form of poetry to the divine (depending on your level of religiosity), I cannot deny the glue of tradition which adhered so profoundly to my bones.

And it is an eve that binds us together, the orthodox and the non-believer, the Jew from Ethiopia to the one in Argentina, the soldier and the merchant, the one who thrives and the one who’s on death’s door, and then we know in unison that one’s level of devoutness notwithstanding, we have this overwhelming tie to our unique history and shared destiny, just like Daniel Pearl’s words before his murderers: “I am a Jew”!


About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in jewish, Religion, Tradition and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to All Vows/Kol Nidrei

  1. Dale Joyner says:

    Wherever we might be – let us all feel that “quiet” time of peace and tranquality. And may it spread to all peoples of the earth. Shana Tova!

    • rachel bar says:

      Yes, Dale, this year more than others, with the Middle East in termoil, and Israel being more isolated than ever, and wars in Africa and drug wars in Mexico, all seem just too much. I think that being so technologically connected is emotionally disturbing. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Shana Tova to you and yours. Peace.

  2. Dalia Kenig says:

    Finally, I am the first reponder…..
    Beautiful! you really captured the feeling of Yom Kippur in Israel, at least at the time when we were kids. I share similar memories with my non-religious parents in synagogue. It is true that the ritual binds all the Jews that observe it in some ways, but just like you shared in here, people find different, special personal meaning and connection to this ritual. I personally don’t observe this ritual. I reserve the right to atone any day and time during the year, in white, blue or red clothing, while I walk in the park, lay down in bed or drink my coffee. Wishing you an easy fast!

  3. Amy says:

    Well said, Rachel! Despite my own lack of religiosity, I also love practicing certain traditions and rituals, and respect the sense of community and connectedness to others derived from being part of a particular religious culture. The truly ancient religions (like Judaism) are amazing in the power of its followers to keep the traditions and rituals going over the centuries despite incredible adversity and persecution. It makes sense some of the words of the prayers would get a bit (or a lot) tweaked over time but it sounds like the emotional tone and meaning remained.

  4. ShimonZ says:

    Sometimes, when a relationship has grown sour, it is hard… very hard… to remember that spark of love, that was enough, at one time, to make a commitment of heart and soul… was enough to lead to the conception of a child we love in this world. We can look at the person and ask ourselves, innocently… did I love him/her? It is similar with religious feelings. I consider you lucky, Rachel, that there are still certain aspects of the relationship to our religion, that inspire a sense of sanctity… even if you got a non religious upbringing. I have great respect for those feelings you mention… even when they seem strange and irrational to those who don’t recognize where they come from. My best wishes to you for a very sweet new year.

    • rachel bar says:

      Actually, the feelings towards our religion developed more after studying it at the university, and later in the US. I had no religious feelings at all as a child or adolescent, but knowing that I’m witnessing something unusual. My feelings about religions in general went through many transformations. Today I know that even when things do not make sense, they can still be very significant, and my bond to my people and history is more powerful than my religious feelings. However, the Jewish rituals can elevate us when we do them with “Cahvanah”, as opposed to most people who go to synagogue and pray by rote. Hope you have an easy fast.

      • ShimonZ says:

        My fasts on yom kippur are not only easy, but these are the most pleasurable and beautiful days I have had, all through my life. I have had students who studied religious subjects in the university, and after much discussion on what was learned there, I would say that the teaching ranges from anti-religious (on the verge of all out hatred), to a total misunderstanding of our religion. At best, it is very misleading. It consistently misses the point. As you probably realize by now, I have no interest in converting anyone, nor in חזרה בתשובה. I believe that we all have to find our own way. I myself had many doubts, and much resistance because of circumstances connected with my own childhood. But I do agree with you that כוונה is one of the keys to realizing the power of the religion, even though I have discovered many miracles along the road… that defy rational understanding, included among them, prayer by rote. I wish you a very beautiful day, and am touched by this friendship of ours, and the communication we have, coming from the opposite ends of the world.

      • rachel bar says:

        Actually my teachers who were mostly non religious expressed a lot of admiration to the brilliant discourse of the Rabbis and towards Halacha. Some of them were religious. If anything, my courses in the Halachic literature, folklore and legends added to my appreciation, coming from a very secular home. They didn’t try to teach religion but its literature through the ages, which I found fascinating.

  5. Martha Carr says:

    You really brought me into your experience. Through the moments of your childhood I could feel what Yom Kippur meant to you and how your understanding developed. I love seeing through your eyes and seeing your cultural experience unfold before me too.

  6. Maurice Labi says:

    As a ten or eleven-year-old child in Israel, Yom Kippur was a day of racing on bikes in empty streets, chasing after girls (asking for forgiveness soon after), climbing up the stairs to our house, sweaty, exhausted and thirsty, drinking mouthfuls of water, biting into dripping watermelons and lying to my friends the next day that I’d fasted. It’s a miracle I’m still here.

    • rachel bar says:

      Yes, Maurice, your god is a very forgiving one:) Your experience sounds very familiar, minus the bike. To ride a bike on one of the main streets of Netanya on Yom Kippur was like taunting heaven.

  7. Linda Weitzler says:

    Love your thoughts, the responses and the tradition of Yom Kippur. It brings back memories of an easier time. Shana Tova and an easy fast.
    Linda W.

  8. backonmyown says:

    Fascinating history of your faith and family. Many of the high school students I taught over the years were Jewish. I was often impressed by their knowledge of the history of Judaism, even some of those who were not practicing the faith.

    If we all would take the time to understand each other we could eliminate war. Thanks for your contribution to my enlightenment.

  9. Kathryn Braithwaite says:

    A fascinating discussion.Relating to your last comment,I was raised in a Catholic home and school/It was rather like Northen Ireland where the Catholics were the enemies of the Protestants;
    I was fortunate to go away to University where I mixed with many people of all kinds.It was only then I realised I’d been raised to believe Protestants were not interested in God…they were just as they were to annoy Catholics,who, of course,had the only true religion.And Jews were merely people who failed to notice the Messiah.learned differently partly through a Jewish boyfriend.
    I lost much of my desire to practise my religion and yet I enjoyed the peace of meditation and the fine music..Much of the spirituality is a watered down version of Judaism…
    We didn’t have a special day for Atonement but we had the Sacrament of Confession which we had to partake in from the age of eight.I found it very frightening that my sins caused Jesus to die… so it was not so good… and also I noticed most people seemed not to practise the virtues we were taught about.
    Now,I’m older and I accept they may have done their best.But for many it was a routine, a security blanket….
    I maintain some of the practises but do not wish to be in a totalitarian institution…. that’s how I perceive it…
    Yet there is much of value……
    I find it astounding how Jewish people have kept their traditions going for so long,,I am in awe and rather envious!
    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts

    • rachel bar says:

      Thank you Kathryn for your interesting comment. I couldn’t agree more about people, “devout and religious” not following any of the virtues they are instructed to in their religion, and the security blanket comment. I learn so much from these comments and it’s nice to have you visit all the way from the UK!

  10. I really loved this Rachel. I am very interested in Judaism and have great respect for your day of atonement. I’m in love with a Jewish man, don’t talk about him in my blog, but he observes all the high holidays. Last year I fasted so I’d know what it was like for him.

    This is very beautifully written by the way and the parts about your father are more than a little touching. Rituals and tradition are what make us who we are.

    Wish I read it sooner.

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