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By Chazan Jacky Chernett, September 2008

There is nothing as powerful as a beloved melody. Its strain moves the heart and brings us to tears. What is more soulful than the beautiful, haunting Kol Nidré! The ancient, familiar strains seem to herald a shared anticipation of the soul-searching over the day to come. But throughout the ages, the text has been somewhat of a problem. The statement that vows taken from last year to this, or this year to the next (depending on the version) are to be cancelled is something none of us will honestly condone. Over the ages, famous rabbis endeavoured to wipe out this opening statement of the Evening Service for Yom Kippur. But it always found its way back as congregations would not countenance Yom Kippur without it - and the will of the people won out.


There are many explanations for the origins of the statement. The oath, for the Jew, was and is a very serious matter. Some scholars say the difficult statement was based on superstition and magic while others explain it in the circumstances that Jews were forcibly converted to other religions and any oath they took was made against their will, under duress. Recommended reading: Kol Nidrei: Its Origin, Development and Significance, by Stuart Weinberg Gershon, published by Jason Aronson, 1994.


Whatever the situation, Kol Nidré is with us and my guess is that the melody keeps it alive. It is made up of a series of musical phrases or motifs, performance of them not necessarily being in the same order. These motifs come under the category of “Misinai Tunes” and we find reference to some of them during the rest of the High Holyday services. Keep your ears open!


The nusach or davening chants for the High Holydays prayers are directly related to the cantillation of the Torah for those days. It is a plaintive melody that links in with the mood of the stories of the Birth of Ishmael and of the Binding of Isaac which are read on the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah.

This melody is so poignant that it provides the character of the blessings read by people called to the reading of the Torah at this special time. This custom became rather lost in Anglo-Jewry in some synagogues and we at Kol Nefesh are pleased to revive it.


Listen to the special blessings for the High Holydays. 




You will hear two blessings separated by a pause. The first is the blessing sung before the Torah reading, and the second after the reading.

This special melody for the blessings is only used on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The normal Shabbat/Festival melody is used on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.


Although there is a dedicated cantillation melody for the High Holydays, the Haftarah (reading from Prophets) is chanted to the normal Haftarah melody for the rest of the year, and the Torah for the afternoon of Yom Kippur is also chanted to the normal weekly Torah melody.


The tunes over the period are not all tearful. The moods fluctuate from petition and supplication to praise and gratitude and are all reflected in the music. Our spiritual cleansing culminates in the magnificent shofar blast at the last words of Ne’ilah, the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Thus the fast comes to an end and we go forward in a spirit of hope for the coming year.



Blessings on the Yamim Nora'im -
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