The Prayer That is Not a Prayer

Perhaps the best known of all the High Holiday synagogue melodies is the haunting Kol Nidre that ushers in the Day of Atonement. Yet in reality this most significant passage of the Jewish High Holiday liturgy is not a prayer at all.

Kol Nidre marks the performance of a Jewish legal ceremony performed in the synagogue at the beginning of the Yom Kippur ritual. Although it marks the beginning of the "evening service," traditional practice demands that Kol Nidre must be recited before sunset, because a legal annulment of vows cannot take place after dark.1

Before the haunting melody is chanted, a religious court is formally convened: "with the permission of the heavenly court and the permission of the court beneath." Then the Kol Nidre itself is invoked:

All vows with which we bind ourselves, from this Yom Kippur until next, may they be annulled.2

Kol Nidre contains wisdom central to the ancient Jewish tradition that has been lost to the thinking of most of modem Jewry. Many of my Jewish people come to synagogue on the High Holidays with the thought that the ten Days of Awe between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement are the occasion for religious "New Year’s Resolutions." They think of the things they do not like about themselves and make a promise to be different. It is a mistake to think that such resolutions are the repentance that God requires. In fact, the words of the Kol Nidre ask forgiveness in advance—not only for the fact that we inevitably break such promises, but we also say that we are sorry for having made them at all. We recite, "All of our promises cause us grief."

The idea that those well-intentioned but ill-conceived promises of self-reformation somehow atone for our sins flies in the face of the teaching of Scripture, and of the noblest strains of the siddur (Jewish prayer book) as well.

The synagogue prayer Avinu Malkenu contains the words "Our Father, Our King, have pity on us because we have no righteous deeds." Those who utter them cast themselves upon the mercy of God. If our deeds are of no merit before the King of Kings, of how much less value are our empty promises? Our natural human tendency is to rely on our own resources, to think that we can solve our own problems—even in our relationship with God. But the Bible shows us the better way.

In the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, we read about the elaborate ritual Moses commanded for the Day of Atonement. From the complex observance we can distinguish three major themes:


Leviticus 16:21 tells us that the ritual involved the High Priest, who represented the people before God, confessing the sins of all Israel . Since confession was an integral part of the Yom Kippur ritual, and since all Israelites were commanded to participate (Leviticus 23:29), we may learn from this that all people are guilty and in need of confession.


The High Priest would offer two goats as the special offering of the most holy day. One goat, the scapegoat, would be driven away into the wilderness, symbolically removing the guilt of the people. The other goat would be slaughtered and offered up in fire. Then the High Priest would take some of the blood of that sacrifice and do something he never did on any other day of the year. He entered the Most Holy Place , the part of the Temple hidden by a double curtain, which was the dwelling place of the Glory of God. He entered with the blood of the sacrifice—the blood of the spotless substitute. In symbol it paid the penalty of the children of Israel who deserved to die, and God extended his pardon to them. He did not pardon them by ignoring the consequences of their sins, but acquitted them by visiting those consequences upon the appointed substitute.


The children of Israel were never commanded to fast, nor to wear long faces, nor to make New Year’s resolutions for this holiday. Rather, they were commanded to humble or afflict their souls—to confess their sins and repent of them—to witness the sacrifice of their substitute and to appropriate that sacrifice in their own hearts.

"For on that day shall the priest make atonement for you, to cleanse you… from all your sins…and ye shall afflict your souls…(Lev. 16:30,31); For whatsoever soul it is that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people" (Lev. 23:29).

There were to be no meritorious acts of self-abasement. The children of Israel were not asked to compensate for their sins by punishing themselves. They were commanded to humbly appropriate what God had done—to acknowledge that when God offered a substitute to atone for sin, such a sacrifice was what they needed. Rather than seeking forgiveness through their supposed merits, they were to renounce any concept of meritorious deeds in order to receive God’s mercy.

During the time of the holy Temple the Day of Atonement, though it was certainly a solemn day, it was also a day of joy. When the High Priest entered the chamber of God’s presence with the blood of the sacrifice there was a hush of anxiety. People feared that the Holy One might be displeased with his people. He might strike their representative dead in the Holy Place and not grant the people atonement. But when the High Priest emerged alive from the Most Holy Place the people let out a great shout, for the joy of knowing that the atonement for their sins had been accepted and they stood forgiven.

Before Yeshua went to die upon the cross he sat at a Passover table with his disciples. He explained to them that he was God’s lamb, or rather, that all the sacrificial lambs of the ancient rituals had been mere symbols of the reality which he fulfilled. His disciples were grieved when he spoke of his own death, but he told them, "And ye, therefore, have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:22). When Yeshua died, his disciples were filled with anxiety. They had heard Yeshua’s statements that he was about to suffer on their behalf, but they had not comprehended his meaning until three days later, when Yeshua, our great High Priest, emerged alive. Then his followers had occasion for a shout of joy. And in the strength of that joy they turned the world upside down. In Yeshua’s name they proclaimed the forgiveness of sins to people of all nations.

At this season if my people would only follow the lessons of the Hebrew Bible as they point us to Yeshua, they could have that joy as well—the joy that no one can take away. Hallelujah! Yeshua our High Priest has emerged alive. Our sin has been paid for; our guilt has been removed. Those who will not appropriate the Lord’s sacrifice will be cut off, but those who will humble themselves and accept God’s grace in the person and work of Messiah Yeshua will be accepted by him. Those of us who know this rejoice in his love and his mercy not only on the Day of Atonement, but every day of our lives.


  1. Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice , New York : Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979, pp. 212 ff.
  2. Hebrew text abbreviated from Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , ed. Jules Harlow , New York : the Rabbinical Assembly, 1972, p.352.


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