Thursday, October 09, 2008

The burden of words

In two hours, Yom Kippur ends. Yom Kippur, יוֹם כִּפּוּר‎, the Day of Atonement, is the most somber and prominent among Jewish holidays. It is about atonement and repentance. religious law decrees that Jews observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer. It comes on the tenth day after Rosh-Hashanah, the intervening days being the 10 days of awe, when God's book is open, the entries (signifying the fate of each believer) written but not stamped in finality yet. It is a time for trying to reverse the ill-faith and false promises between persons by expressing remorse and asking forgiveness. Yom Kippur marks the climax and the conclusion of this cycle.

One of the most important prayers of Yom Kippur is Kol Nidrei. Written and sung in Aramaic,

"The Kol Nidre prayer speaks of vows spoken and not fulfilled, of future vows that are intended to be kept but will, in all likelihood, be broken. It is an acknowledgement that, even as our words are in keeping with our intentions, circumstances and life forces collide in such a way that we are not always able to live up to our highest ideals."

Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, when the congregation gathers in the synagogue and the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark, the cantor chants the prayer, which starts with a soft sigh, and gradually gathers in intensity to a robust fortissimo:

All personal vows we are likely to make,
all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take
between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur,
we publicly renounce.
Let them all be relinquished and abandoned,
null and void, neither firm nor established.
Let our personal vows,
pledges and oaths be considered
neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.

The congregation responds three times:

"May all the people of Israel be forgiven,
including all the strangers who live in their midst,
for all the people are in fault."

Here is "Kol Nidrei" by Max Bruch, played by cellist Jacqueline Du Pre


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