The Majesty and Mystery of Kol Nidre

Learn how a traditional Jewish prayer melody inspired everyone - from classical composers to filmmakers to psychedelic rock bands.

A girl plays the notes to Kol Nidre, The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Kol Nidre is a centuries-old Jewish prayer melody that carries with it a heavy emotional weight, accumulated over the ages. Encompassed in this bundle of emotions are the memories of the troubles, pogroms and disasters experienced by the Jewish people in the diaspora. The Kole Nidre melody has always enjoyed a special status, but few have attempted to decipher the spell hidden in this cluster of notes which can be heard emerging out of Jewish prayer houses on the eve of Yom Kippur at the turn of the day, as twilight falls and the gates of heaven open.


Kol Nidre

All vows


Ve’esarei, Ush’vuei, Vacharamei, Vekonamei, Vekinusei, Vechinuyei. D’indarna, Ud’ishtabana, Ud’acharimna, Ud’assarna Al nafshatana 

prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, vows that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves –


Miyom Kippurim zeh, ad Yom Kippurim haba aleinu letovah 

from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good –


Bechulhon Icharatna vehon, Kulhon yehon sharan 
regarding them all, we regret them henceforth.


Sh’vikin sh’vitin, betelin umevutalin, lo sheririn v’lo kayamin 

They will all be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing.


Nidrana lo nidrei, V’essarana lo essarei

Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; 


Ush’vuatana lo shevuot.

and our oaths shall not be valid oaths. 


The combination of the setting, the emotional backdrop, and the powerful melody creates a unique psychological atmosphere among those gathered to hear the prayer on Yom Kippur. Much of this has to do with the ability of music to reach into the soul, even if the listener cannot understand the words. A few notes are often enough to trigger intense feelings and bring back old memories.

There is, in fact, not just one Kol Nidre melody, but a collection of musical themes which came together and settled in a permanent order at some point during the 15th or 16th centuries. Its incarnations and various musical interpretations throughout the generations constitute a unique phenomenon in Jewish liturgical music.

Kol Nidre’s exact origins are the subject of debate. Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the famous scholar of Jewish music, made the case that much of the melody has its roots in German medieval folk music.   Johanna Spector, a 20th century scholar, rejected this idea arguing that it was clearly of Jewish origin.

Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1838-1882). Photo: Ya’ackov Ben-Dov, Widener Library, Cambridge.

The notes to Kol Nidre first appeared in print in Berlin in 1765 thanks to a local cantor by the name of Ahron Beer. About a hundred years later, Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), one of the leading figures in the modernization of Ashkenazi liturgical music, composed the standard modern version of the melody published in 1871, which he arranged for a cantor and an organ. This version spread to Jewish communities around the world and eventually became the common standard.

Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894)


The notes to Louis Lewandowski’s version of Kol Nidre, taken from “Todah W’Simrah”, Louis Lewandowski, E. Bote & G. Bock, 1876 – available at the National Library

Towards the end of the 19th century, a peak period in instrumental concert music composition, pieces inspired by Kol Nidre began to appear for large instrumental ensembles. Some were composed by non-Jews. Kol Nidre’s status as a “Jewish melody”, with a reputation for evoking sadness, contemplation, regret and introspection, served to inspire a wide range of composers who usually chose instruments known for being able to trigger these emotions, like the cello and the violin which, quite literally, play on the heartstrings.

The most famous of these pieces was composed by Max Bruch (1838-1920), the German composer who often used folk music as his inspiration. Bruch befriended Abraham Lichtenstein (1806-1880), a cantor at the same Berlin synagogue where Lewandowski served as choir director. Lichtenstein played Bruch several Jewish tunes, including Kol Nidre and the work known as “Hebrew Melodies” by Isaac Nathan (1791-1864) which was set to lyrics by Lord Byron. The tune of “Oh! Weep for Those,” from this collection of Byron’s poems, is based on motifs taken from Kol Nidre. Bruch combined these two melodies into one of his most famous compositions: Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1888) for cello and orchestra.

Max Bruch (1838-1920). Photo from “What We Hear in Music”, Anne S. Faulkner, Victor Talking Machine Co., 1913


This manuscript, handwritten by Max Bruch in 1880, contains scores for his version of Kol Nidre, as well as a dedication to his friend Alice Rensburg. From the National Library Collections.

Kol Nidre in Popular Culture: Music and Film

The year 1927 saw the release of a film that marked the shift from the silent era to “talking pictures” or “talkies”. Though this movie was not yet a fully-fledged “talkie” as it did not feature audible dialogue throughout its whole length, it was still considered a major milestone of its time since it included pre-recorded musical segments featuring the actors themselves singing on screen thanks to cutting edge technology which enabled the synchronization of picture and sound. This film was “The Jazz Singer”, starring Al Jolson, the actor and comedian who is often considered the first major Jewish star of the American entertainment industry (born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania to a family of cantors in 1886, they immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century).

A promotional poster for “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

“The Jazz Singer”, long considered one of the best American films of all time, represented a breakthrough in more ways than one. In addition to the technological advancements, the movie cast a spotlight on subjects that, until then, had received little exposure in film or that had only been dealt with in a superficial and stereotypical fashion. One of these was the use of blackface, an entertainment genre in which white actors and dancers would paint their faces black. Blackface was primarily used to portray the black man as a humorous and grotesque caricature, and is today seen as a form of racism. In “The Jazz Singer”, the use of black makeup to cover up the face also serves as allegory to the hero’s escape from his father’s home and his hiding away from a deep hidden truth.

The film, based on a story by Samson Raphaelson, is centered on the figure of Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson. Jakie is the son of an experienced cantor, and their immigrant family, with their home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is somewhat reminiscent of Jolson’s real life background.

The eve of Yom Kippur arrives and Jakie’s father prepares to recite the Kol Nidre prayer, but Jakie has other things on his mind; he’s off at the club entertaining the crowd there with his singing. His father, in a rage, drags Jakie back home and forces him to prepare for synagogue, where Jakie is expected to stand beside the old cantor during the prayer and learn the ancient craft. The young man refuses. The father then declares (or perhaps even vows) that if his son chooses to enter the world of show business, he will be disowned and all family ties will be cut off. Young Jakie then runs away from home at twilight on the eve of Yom Kippur, as his mother sobs in the background and his father sings Kol Nidre at synagogue. All three begin the fast with empty stomachs

Jakie wanders cross America and as he matures he begins to gain a following thanks to his musical talent. Jakie Rabinowitz becomes Jack Robin – the famous jazz singer. One day he receives an offer to act in a Broadway play, the opportunity he has been waiting his whole life for. He packs up his belongings and heads back to New York. Jakie tries to contact his parents to invite them to the big event, but as it turns out, opening night is scheduled for Yom Kippur.

At the same time, Jakie’s father falls ill. The synagogue is left without a cantor on the eve of the holy day. Jakie’s mother begs him to take his father’s place, but he refuses. This is when the blackface scene takes place. The segment works as an analogy to Jakie’s internal state during these moments, as his dilemmas and regrets eat away at him.

Al Jolson in blackface, from “The Jazz Singer” 1927

Eventually, as the hour of Kole Nidre approaches, Jakie learns that his father is at death’s door. He hurries to his parents’ house to say his goodbyes and decides to take his father’s place on the synagogue bema (platform) as cantor, to recite Kol Nidre. Jakie sings the prayer in his own voice, as the ghost of his father, who has just passed away, hovers above him.

Few films of the time managed to incorporate so many levels of meaning. Beyond the psychological connotations and complex issues revolving around father-son relationships that the movie raises, and in addition to the racial issue brought in the by the use of blackface, as well as the use of music to represent an internal struggle, the decision of the filmmakers to invest their new technological resources in a movie which focuses on Kol Nidre is understandable when one considers the emotional, psychological and historic significance of this prayer and the hour during which it is recited. The viewers witness the awesome pressures which come to bear on the hero, who must grapple with questions of religion, identity and race, as the son of a cantor, a Jew, an immigrant, an actor and a singer. Here, Kol Nidre serves as a musical symbol of a critical question of identity, a “to be or not to be”: a cantor on the eve of Yom Kippur or a shining star on Broadway – Jakie Rabinowitz or Jack Robin.

The melody of Kol Nidre, and particularly the famous opening segment, is used throughout the film as a leitmotif, a short musical theme representing Jakie’s Jewish roots. This cluster of notes is heard in every scene taking place in his parents’ home, whenever Jakie is reminded of his father, and whenever he his troubled by his internal dilemmas. The prayer melody features heavily in both the opening and closing segments of the film.

A remake of “The Jazz Singer” was released in 1980, starring Neil Diamond in the role of the son and Laurence Olivier as the father. In this version, the plot takes place in the late 1970s, with the hero drawn towards a career as a soft-rock singer. Like the original, this film also makes use of blackface, and ends with an emotional version of Kol Nidre.

A number of famous pop singers have recorded versions of Kol Nidre. Perry Como (1912-2001), who came from an Italian-American background and was one of the biggest stars of the 1940s and 1950s, recorded Kol Nidre for his 1953 album “I Believe”, a collection of religious songs and hymns of different faiths.

A similar album, “Good Night, Dear Lord”, was released in 1958 by Johnny Mathis (born in 1935), another successful American singer of the period, who also included a passionate version of Kol Nidre. In an interview he told of being captivated by Jewish music when, in his youth, he visited a synagogue with his friends. He chose to sing the piece because of how it made him feel – “Kol Nidre gave me a chance to let it all out, and hold back nothing.”

The Electric Prunes were an American psychedelic rock band, part of the Los Angeles music scene of the late 1960s. For their 1968 album “Release of an Oath”, the band recorded a song based on the opening theme of Kol Nidre, which serves as the first track on the record. The album, whose title also alludes to the prayer, deals with different aspects of regret and atonement and includes a number of Jewish and Christian liturgies.

The emotional and psychological dimensions of the Kol Nidre melody are at the heart of the significance and meaning it carries in a manner that is almost detached from the dry legal statement presented in the text. This fact has allowed this Jewish prayer to break free of the binds of language, and transcend the boundaries of culture, inspiring classical composers, filmmakers and rock musicians from Berlin to the California coast, all of whom recognized the eternal nature of its melody, with its key to the complexities of the soul.


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Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?

Who Spilled Honey on the 18th Century Manuscript?

You really should listen to your mother when she tells you not to read at the dinner table...

Take a look at this manuscript entitled, “The Collection of Hoshaanot, Songs and Prayers, Annulments of Vows, Tashlichs and Other Things,” and written by Shlomo Latis in Italy in 1790. The name describes the book well; a collection of various prayers and descriptions of Jewish ceremonies that were compiled into one manuscript.

In addition to the beautiful calligraphy, the 18th-century manuscript features some unusual and mysterious stains. The stains themselves are odd as they are only present in the first section of the book, the portion that focuses on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Typically, when we come across an old manuscript we assume that stains found on the pages are simply the result of ordinary wear and tear, with time itself leaving its inevitable mark. But this was not the case here, for two main reasons: the first being that the stains only appeared in the first section of the book and second, because of the content of the text featured on the stained pages.

The year is 1790 – the year the manuscript was completed, or perhaps, a short time after. The book is opened to the prayers for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. A Jewish- Italian family sits around the table to celebrate the holiday. Each member of the family is dressed in their holiday best, the table is beautifully set and the head of the family is reading the prayers aloud from the manuscript.

Who spilled honey on the manuscript?

They reach the portion of the services which includes the Simanim (symbolism) and the “Yehi Ratzon” (May it Be Your Will) prayers which are recited on Rosh Hashanah along with the consumption of different foods that symbolically represent the prayers of a sweet and positive New Year.  The foods are eaten one by one following the recitations of the Yehi Ratzon prayer in accordance with tradition; the fish head so that we may be considered a head and not a tail, the apple in honey so that we may have a sweet year, the pomegranate so that our good deeds may multiply. The list is long and the blessings are plentiful.

As the diners recite the prayers and eat the related foods, the honey is passed from person to person, as are the pomegranates, the beets, the carrots, the fish heads and the rest of the symbolic foods. The food, as is typical of food, falls off the serving dishes and the forks, staining anything around it – from the tablecloth to the manuscript.

At the end of the ceremony, the person at the head of the table closes the book and sets it aside. The manuscript has finished its job for this portion of the holiday and the stains are left to set until next year when the book will once again be brought to the table. This explains why the stains only appear in the first portion of the book.

Albeit, without a proper lab test we cannot confirm with absolute certainty that this scenario is what actually happened. But still, our deduction based on the set of circumstances surrounding the stains seem plausible. The book, along with the stains, is now preserved for future generations to study in the National Library of Israel Collection.

So, we beseech you – this Rosh Hashanah, be careful with the food during the meal. After all, there was a reason your mother always told you not to read at the dinner table.

Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?

What is the Freudian complex behind the origins of this mysterious instrument? What is the shofar's connection to the High Holy Days? And does it have anything to do with music?

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

There is nothing like the cry of the shofar. The startling burst of sound will instantly grab the attention of any who hear it, and few will remain indifferent.

The shofar is the main musical instrument used during the Jewish High Holy Days, while also appearing in a number of key moments in the history of the Jewish people as well as in the lives of ordinary Jews – to this day it is customary to blow the shofar during funerals of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, among Yemenite Jews, for example.

The shofar first appears in scripture in the story of Jethro (Yitro), in the fifth Torah portion (“parasha”) of the book of Exodus, which tells of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the sound of the shofar was heard:

Chapter 19, Verse 16: “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.Verse 17: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.”

Verse 18: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”

Verse 19: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice…”

And again, after the giving of the Ten Commandments –

Chapter 20, Verse 18: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off…”

But what is the connection of the shofar to the High Holy Days? What is the connection between the shofar and Jewish “music” and is the shofar even to be considered a musical instrument?

Williamsburg Art Co., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The psychoanalyst and anthropologist Theodor Reik wrote an entire book titled “The Shofar,” in 1919, and in it claimed that the sound of the shofar was no less than the voice of God.

Is it possible that the only thing which makes the shofar special is that which is missing from it? Meaning: Is the shofar’s advantage and uniqueness as a vocal religious utensil derived from the fact that it is not a musical instrument at all, but rather nothing more than a primitive noise-making tool? Is its significance merely the result of the traditional religious tendency to glorify all that is ancient?

Theodor Reik, a Vienna-born Jewish student of Freud, was certain this was not the case, and he set out to explain, in a bold and original study, the secret holy magic of one the most central symbols in Judaism.

Reik felt, quite logically, that the traditional Jewish explanations of the significance of blowing the shofar during the festivals of the Hebrew month of Tishrei were unsatisfactory. Tradition, beginning with the Talmud, links the blowing of the shofar to the Binding of Isaac since the shofar is made of a ram’s horn and it was a ram that took the place of the beloved son on the altar at the last minute, thus certifying Abraham’s passing of the cruel test he was given, as well as certifying the special covenant between him and God. But is the memory of the covenant the only thing that passes through the hearts and minds of those who hear the sound of the shofar? Does it not have an awe-inspiring effect? Does the sound not call one back to a primeval point of deep religious emotion? It should not be forgotten that in biblical times the sound of the shofar was used to signal danger, to declare war, to accompany the anointment of a king and to celebrate redemption – so could it really only be an aid used to jog one’s personal and national memory?

Reik says no. To trace the sources of the shofar he turns to the book of Exodus, chapter 19, where he interprets certain verses differently. Verse 19, for example, reads: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.”

Did God and Moses have a conversation, accompanied by the shofar in the background? Reik claims that is exactly what happened. He also shows that the biblical father of music, Yuval (Genesis 4, 21), is connected to the subject (his name can also mean “ram” in Hebrew), and points out that music itself was always used for religious or liturgical purposes in ancient times with its origins in attempts to imitate totemic animals. Thus, the shofar is actually the voice of God. What then does this say about the significance of the ancient ritual?

Reik delves into detailed psychoanalytical explanations that incorporate Freud’s theory of “Totem and Taboo,” which had been published in a book of the same name (1917), released only seven years before Reik’s study. Freud saw Totemism as a primitive form of religion (experienced by humanity in its early stages), in which a certain animal is chosen by a community to be its “Totem,” the embodiment of the community’s essence and power. The animal acts as a substitute for an ancestor who has become semi-deified over the years, an “alpha-male” who forcefully claimed ownership over the women of the community (including the mothers, whom the sons, according to Freud, lusted after). This “alpha-male” was then murdered by the other males, whom, once  overcome with guilt over the slaying of their father-figure, chose an animal as their new object of submission and obedience. In the later stages of religious development, Freud believed the animal was replaced by a human-like figure, who eventually ascended to the heavens to become the Father-God. For Freud religion was nothing more than an illusion triggered by niggling feelings of oedipal guilt.

The totemic animal of the ancient Hebrews, which Reik believes was either a ram or a bull (since the sound of the shofar resembles the mooing of a bull or cow), and the emergence of the shofar-blowing custom during the period of Jewish ritual sacrifice, indicates a subconscious need to remember the murder of the primordial ancestor and to ask for forgiveness.

Jewish Museum, N.Y., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

But even without all of the Freudian baggage which can at times appear unbearable, Reik’s study raises some fascinating points: Is the voice of God in the Hebrew Bible really the shofar? If this is the case, it sheds new light on well-known biblical events. It must be remembered that in the ancient period, the religious object embodied the full essence of its subject, and not just its representation. Meaning, the sound of the shofar did not just symbolize the voice of God – it was the voice of God. Only in later stages of religious development did a gap open up between artifacts and their meanings, with objects becoming symbols. As a result, it is clear to us that the very voice of God is what knocked down the walls of Jericho, and not the symbolism of the blowing of the shofar, as we might be led to believe by an anachronistic reading of the text.

Just as the object was charged with symbolic significance, so was the ritual charged with mythological significance. In other words, it was given a storied and historical interpretation such that today, when we hear the sound of the shofar, we know only that we are supposed to remember the story of the Binding of Isaac and the covenant with God bequeathed to us by our ancestor Abraham. Any other feelings brought forth by the cry of the shofar come from a different, hidden, place, withholding a truth our conscious minds may not have access to.

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

In her book “The Music Libel Against the Jews,” Ruth Hacohen discusses the Christian view which interpreted the sounds of the synagogue as noise. The sounds of prayers unaccompanied by musical instruments and lacking a conventional western melody were perceived as disharmonious cacophony from a musical point of view. Even the “instrument” known as the shofar which was used during prayers would emit unrecognizable foreign sounds that were heard as noise. As a result, Christian anti-Semites attributed nefarious magical powers to the Jews which they believed were used to cause harm to others.

The shofar heard in the synagogues during the High Holy Days brings about a union of the inner and outer voices of those who listen to it. To those who gather in prayer, the sound of the shofar is music to their ears, while to foreigners it is nothing but noise. To this day, in Jewish culture, the shofar remains unrivalled, sitting high above all other musical instruments.

A soldier wearing a talit and blowing a shofar. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel



How does one become a Baal Tokea – a master of shofar blowing? What should Rosh Hashana tekias sound like? Gila Flam interviews Calman Feinberg, a Baal Tokea for over 39 years who says he is the only person who can do it right!


Click here to listen to our collection of shofar recordings!

Maria the Jewess: The First Century Maker of Gold

"One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth," so goes the axiom of a sage of Alchemy, Mary the Jewess, quoted throughout the writings of the magical-science and as mysterious as the alchemical process itself.

Mary the Jewess - Michael Maier's Symbola aurea mensae, Frankfurt, 1617

Alchemists from the mythic Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton sought to transmute lead into gold. It was believed that through the transformation of the material, they could attain wisdom beyond the limitations of man and create great works that would transmute themselves closer towards divinity through the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of life.

None of that could be done without an ancient alchemist named Maria.

Recorded in the annals of ancient Alchemists, such as Zosimus of Panopolis, is Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess or Maria the Hebrew, who lived in ancient Egypt around the first century CE.

She is credited with inventing an alchemical apparatus’ that copied the process of distillation in nature, what the alchemists believed provided the bedrock for the creation of gold in nature. This apparatus would become a staple in modern chemistry labs.

You probably know it as Mary’s bath, the Bain-Marie, which you can find in your kitchen.

We do not know much about Maria herself but she is thought to have started an academy in the city of Alexandria, where she taught alchemy. Like nearly every alchemist ever, Maria worked tirelessly to create or transform gold from base metals from the Earth.

One the key stages in the alchemical process of transmuting base metals into gold is the distillation,  a process which Maria is said to have perfected. It is described in the Emerald Tablet (the key writing of alchemy) as: “It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528

Maria the Jewess is also known for coining other alchemical sayings beyond her axiom.

“Just as a man is composed of four elements, likewise is copper; and just as a man results from the association of liquids, of solids, and of the spirit, so does copper.”

As well as:

“Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.”

Union of Opposites – Rosarium philosophorum sive pretiosissimum donum Dei, 1550

As the scientific revolution progressed from alchemy to chemistry, glassware and copper tubes continued to be used in the process of distillation, for purposes that had nothing to do with gold. You may have had whiskey made through this process, and one hopes you have double boiled chocolate with it at some point.

Bain-Marie as Used by Alchemists From Manget Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, 1702