Last week Jews all over the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the festival ushering in the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashanah has additional significance in it’s role of marking the beginning of the Ten High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar, a period of celebration that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
First Things contributor R.R. Reno reflects on the grace hidden within the most solemn day of the year:
Jews mark days from sunset to sunset, and thus Yom Kippur begins in the evening. Known as Kol Nidre (“all vows”), the initial service opens with a solemn call for a court, both in heaven and on earth, to come into session. A petition is then put forward, one that has long perplexed me. The petition asks the court for release from all future vows, promises, and pledges.
It is conceptually odd. In what sense can one make a promise in the future if one has petitioned in advance for that promise not to be taken as a promise? The Jewish tradition interprets the petition of Kol Nidre to refer exclusively to vows made to God; nonetheless, the problem remains. What sense does it make for me to ask God in advance not to hold me to my vows? Why not just refrain from making the vows in the first place?…
It is as if the cantor and congregation were saying, “O Lord, I am a precipitous, presumptuous, impetuous fool. Please see that my eager spiritual efforts in the year to come are as likely to be motivated by vanity as obedience, self-interest as devotion.” As far as this Gentile can tell, the spiritual meaning of the Kol Nidre petition accords with the petition I make before I approach the altar to receive communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Read more about the Kol Nidre.