Why Kol Nidre keeps calling

Although you are not sure why, you don’t want to be late for Kol Nidre. As the sun is going down, there you are in the car, even running a yellow light or two, hurrying toward the shul, temple, rented room or wherever it is you go to begin Yom Kippur.

It’s not as if you’re that religious, but somewhere in your head, where yontif memories are filtered into expectations, and doubt rubs up against belief, the majestic music and solemn words — of which you know only a few — are calling: Kol Nidre, ve-esarei, va-haramei, v’konamei.

As you look for parking, you wonder where these feelings are coming from. Is it that Kol Nidre is a powerful prayer or blessing? It’s neither. Kol Nidre, which means “all vows,” is a legal formula for the annulment of “vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges and promises,” made not to another, but to yourself and God.

The murky origins of Kol Nidre do not provide much of an explanation for why it has had such a lasting grip on us. Although in Spain it might have relieved some Marrano Jews of guilt from the vows they took upon being forced to convert, many researchers believe the legal formula already was in existence long before that, sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries. The tradition of saying Kol Nidre also is supported by a Talmudic statement that calls for a similar practice to nullify every vow.

Whatever its origins, according to “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” by Isaac Klein, the purpose of Kol Nidre has been “to provide release from vows in matters relating to ritual, custom and personal conduct, from inadvertent vows; and from vows one might have made to himself and then forgotten. It does not refer to vows and promises to other people.”

Yet, throughout the formula’s history, that has not been the universal understanding. During the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, some Christian courts and monarchs held that it meant a Jew could annul any promise. Some mid-19th century Reform rabbis, recognizing the confusion it could cause, even tried to do away with the legal formula.

Written in Aramaic, the language in which most Jews were conversant at that time, the idea was that everybody should understand it. Connecting us over the centuries to that age is the Jewish perspective that words are important, and that at times a promise made to ourselves or God was not made thoughtfully, realistically, with enough knowledge or the right intent, and we need a way to start anew. Kol Nidre presents that rare opportunity to reset, and perhaps it is this opportunity that draws us to hear it year after year.

Adding to its place in our lives, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, there is an opportunity to resolve issues between you and other people, but during Kol Nidre, there is an opening to resolve issues of the self and your relationship with God.

Helping to add drama to the recitation of this legal formula is the setting. Standing before the heavenly court of life and death brought to mind by the Yom Kippur liturgy, the recitation of Kol Nidre is the time to deliberate on our vows. The tradition is to repeat the formula three times, and thank heaven for that because even if we are late arriving, we still can hear the words: May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled.

Traditionally, the first time, one says the words softly, as one who hesitates to enter the ruler’s palace to make a request; the second, a little louder; and the third even louder, as one who is used to being in the ruler’s court.

Embellishing the courtly setting is the Torah pageantry. Before Kol Nidre is said, all of the congregation’s Torah scrolls are taken from the ark, and as an honor, presented to individuals to hold. In an unambiguous display, the staging lets us know under whose authority the court has been convened, and for good reason.

The Torah contains several verses concerning vows, and teaches that “you must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 23:24). In so doing, it helps to explain the need and urgency for a legal formula that covers instances when we have messed up.

But for what year? Originally, the text read that the period the formula covered was from the “past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.” However, according to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer,” Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), the grandson of the famous French Torah commentator Rashi, argued “’of what value is the cancellation of all vows to him who takes them and immediately declares them null and void?’”

He revised Kol Nidre to read “from this Yom Kippur to the next,” the text that most machzorim use today, although some Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations use both, covering past and future. Others feel the revised text sufficient since it is ambiguous enough to cover the past and coming years.

For many Jews, the rush to hear Kol Nidre is not so much about the words as it is the music. Setting the table for a spiritual experience, and answering our emotional needs, if ever there were a song to begin a fast by, this would be it. Several variations are in use today, but most are derived from what is called a “Mi-Sinai” (from Sinai) melody — that is, according to Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, a tune “treated as if they came from Moses himself” — that emerged in Rhineland communities of Germany and France sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Even if your singing voice is not one with the angels, or you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you still can remember how some of Kol Nidre goes. Especially where it drops down low, then rises majestically, the music seems to imbue us with a sense of identity and a way to acknowledge our frailties.

The rush to shul has been worth it. Standing in the presence of Torah scrolls, family and friends, dressed in your best, maybe even in white, with the words and music washing over, we have arrived at that rare point in time when we can feel regret, and nullify some of our poor judgment.

Whether the formula gives us cover for the coming year or a chance to disavow past vows, we stand at a rare and powerful moment. Kol Nidre can lift us over missteps of the past year and help us to think, not twice but three times, before stepping into the new.

Biblical Davening

It must have been quite a scene, and quite a neighborhood. Boys as young as 3 waking up at 5 a.m. with their fathers and brothers and walking to their shuls for the morning prayers. Hundreds of men — grandfathers, fathers, teenagers, little boys — going to meet God when the sun came up.

This was 40 years ago in a Tel Aviv neighborhood called Tikvah (Hope). One 3-year-old was a boy named Yaacov (“Kobi”) Hamami, the youngest of seven brothers, all of whom joined him on the morning trek.

According to Kobi, a Yemenite Jew, this scene harks back not just to the 1960s but to the time of King Solomon, in little villages and towns all over Yemen. For more than 2,500 years, Yemenite fathers have taught their sons the Yemenite traditions they learned from their own fathers.

Now, in the land of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, Kobi Hamami, father of four, is doing what he can to continue the tradition, right here in Pico-Robertson.

Good luck finding his shul. It’s got no sign and no front door. You have to go through a back alley and a high chain-link fence. It’s like those underground nightclubs downtown that have no addresses, and probably no permits. You have to know someone who knows someone.

Well, I knew someone who knew someone, and on a recent Shabbat, I checked out Kobi’s Shabazi shul, which turned out to be inside a Chabad all-girls’ school.

Now, they didn’t have musical recordings during the time of King Solomon, so we have no way of knowing if this is how Kobi’s ancestors prayed.

But if gut instinct is worth anything, I think I’ve discovered a touch of biblical-era davening right here in the hood.

The Shema prayer alone is worth the trek. It’s not a melody. It’s a tribal chant. You feel like you’re walking through the desert, exhausted, and you’re pleading with God to give you strength. The chanting seems to get louder and louder. The kids are chanting, too. It’s anything but smooth and pretty. This davening is Turkish coffee, extra thick, no sugar.

Even the Hebrew sounds different: emet is pronounced amat, kadosh is gothosh, chalom is cholem, and so on. When they read from the Torah, they do a duet with an Aramaic translation.

Imagine this: foreign on top of foreign. Their Hebrew already sounds different, and it’s layered with an ancient Aramaic lingo that has its own melody. So when I tell you I felt a biblical frisson in the Shabazi shul, I’m not exaggerating.

But none of this blew me away as much as the footstool.

Go to any small shul anywhere in the world, look under the bimah, and you’ll probably find the same kind of things: tallit, prayer books, maybe a shofar or two. One thing you probably won’t find is a footstool.

But here, in the Shabazi shul, the footstool is a big deal. It’s where little boys climb up, so their little chins can reach up and they can read directly from the Torah. When I was there, Kobi’s 6-year-old son, Ari, was the first kid to get what they call the “sixth aliyah,” the special Torah readings they reserve for the kids.

This is what Kobi did with his father when he was 3 — and it’s what Kobi’s father did with his own father back in Yemen.

Yemenite fathers don’t wait for their sons to become bar mitzvahs to teach them to read from the Torah and to pray the Yemenite way. They can’t afford to. Their ways are too singular, too complex. Since it’s rare to find a Yemenite school, fathers need to supplement what their kids learn in mainstream Hebrew schools. Kobi’s father took him to pray at 5 a.m., and arranged for daily lessons after school. Today, Kobi invites all the kids of his tiny community to his house after the Shabbat service, so he can teach them the intricate rituals he hopes they will teach their own children.

In this community of maybe 20 or 30 families, there’s another father who’s been doing a lot of teaching and helping kids stand up on footstools. His name is Eliezer, and he’s a former Christian pastor. When his soul called him to the Jewish faith many years ago, he searched for the deepest expression of that faith he could find. This led him on a long journey through the shtetls of the holy land and finally to this little Yemenite enclave in the hood. His son Yishai is a beautiful blond kid who belts out Aramaic chants with the confidence of a Chasidic kid speaking Yiddish.

As I reflected later on my Yemenite moment in time, I couldn’t help but think of all the traditions that so many Jewish communities throughout the world are fighting to maintain. There are countless variations of Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions that have their own melodies, their own chants, their own ways. We all read the same words, but after that, we’re allowed to tweak. It’s as if God gave us the consonants, and then said: “Have fun with the vowels.”

While it’s nice to say that Jews are all one family, and we all read from the same book, it’s also true that the intense attachment to different traditions has helped fuel the passion that made the whole survive.

But lest you think that Kobi’s Shabazi shul is a little too different for your taste, you’ll be happy to know that it was born 9 months ago in a way that every Jew in the world will relate to.

It broke away from another Yemenite shul — which also had a footstool.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Tracks of the Missing Ten

On a rocky hillside in Mardan, Pakistan, in the 1990s, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici stared in awe at a hulking pillar covered with faded script. The stone was an ancient propaganda sign, one of many that had been placed throughout a Buddhist empire 2,300 years ago. But while the other stones appeared in Sanskrit, the archaic language on this tablet was Aramaic.

“In other words, the people then living here spoke in the everyday language of the Israelite tribes,” said Jacobovici, whose “Quest for the Lost Tribes” screens at the upcoming Pacific Jewish Film Festival.

The documentarian was even more startled when his Muslim guide, upon learning he was Jewish, tearfully embraced him and said, “You are my brother.”

“I thought, ‘Am I making a film or am I turning into the reporter from [the biblical] Armageddon?” he said.

“Quest” traces his six-month trek from Tunisia to China, as he sought present-day descendants of the 10 tribes exiled to Assyria 2,700 years ago. While scholars believe the captured Jews disappeared into the pagan melting pot, Emmy-winning Jacobovici (“The Struma”) began considering another possibility around 1991.

Ethiopian Jewry had just been airlifted to Israel, after chief rabbis ruled they were descendants of the tribe of Dan; an Orthodox rabbi claimed he had discovered Jews who wanted to make aliyah on the Burmese-Indian border. Jacobovici promptly recalled the biblical prophesy predicting the lost tribes would return to Israel at the end of time. Using locations cited in scripture, he began tracking down sects that practiced Israelite customs: In Kaifeng, he discovered men who kept menorahs; on the Burmese-Indian border, he encountered clans people who believe they’re progeny of the Israelite tribe, Menashe, and have a Star of David on their flag.

He also met scholars, such as the Israel Museum’s Rivka Gonen, who said his theory “is in the realm of religious belief, rather than … reality.”

Jacobovici disagreed, citing how scripture lists the location of one of the lost tribes as Havor by the river Gozan (he found Muslims practicing biblical law near a city called Peshawar, pronounced Pesh-Havor, by the river Gazni).

“I think it’s more than coincidence that these people are exactly where they’re supposed to be, according to the biblical map,” he said.

Jacobovici and his films will be honored at the festivalFeb. 15. For information, visit www.pjff.org.