The holiest day of the Jewish year is grounded in melody.
The somber, even melancholy notes of the Kol Nidrei — typically played by viola or cello — signal a call to introspection, which is the central element of Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement.
Jews all over the world will hear the same notes, played the same way, triggering the same emotions and thoughts as they have for centuries. This music is part of their childhood, their coming of age, their adulthood, their senior years.
This year, the Kol Nidrei Night is Friday, Sept. 13, during which worshippers will launch a 24-hour fast in preparation for Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown.
Kol Nidrei means “All Vows,” says Joel Rosenberg, a violist and music director of the American West Symphony and Paradigm Chamber Orchestra, who will play Max Bruch’s arrangement of the prayer at Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City’s largest synagogue.
“On this day, we ask God to release us from all vows that we promised to keep, but did not,” Rosenberg explains. “The Kol Nidrei melody is chanted three times by cantor, chorus and congregation. This is the opening of the service.”
The words of the prayers were written in Aramaic, Rosenberg says, because Hebrew was the literary language and spoken by very few.
During the service, “we take stock of who we are and who we want to be, what we’ve been right about and wrong about,” says Kol Ami Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman. “The mysterious and haunting melody sets us in the right mood to realize the gravity of what we have done.”
The words — being in a language no one knows — make the music all the more potent, the rabbi says. “They understand the melody and the mood that it sets.”
Because the Kol Nidrei piece is used only at this time of year and as preparation for Yom Kippur, it has become a vital part of the holiday, says Jacqueline Osherow, an English professor at the University of Utah, who does some chanting at Kol Ami.
“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that melody,” Osherow says, “and didn’t associate this melody with Yom Kippur. If they did a different melody, it would not seem like Yom Kippur.”
For Rosenberg, playing the Kol Nidrei is more than a performance — it is a profound expression of his “deep Jewish roots” dating back centuries.
And the musician believes that Jewish people everywhere, whether they are performing or sitting in the sanctuary, “will feel the same profound connection.”
Kol Nidrei chant in English
By the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed.
All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make to God between this Yom Kippur and the next we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget them, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them.
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To see and hear Joel Rosenberg perform the Kol Nidrei melody, go to www.sltrib.com.