Ritual vs. Content

Another year, another Kol Nidre: Each year our hazan seems to get slightly more pompous and ornate (and slow) as he chants the Kol Nidre on erev Yom Kippur.  This year he really made a meal of it: I timed him at 12.5 minutes to get through the three repetitions.  Considering that this is one modest paragraph of Hebrew, and that everyone is standing, and that the beit knesset is jam packed, hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable, this seems excessive.

As with many congregations, we get a huge turnout on erev Yom Kippur.  All the once-a-year Jews, many of whom have little or no Jewish education or knowledge, feel obliged to show up for the ultra-serious kick-off to the Day of Atonement. They associate this particular service with the chanting of the Kol Nidre, which is basically the prayer equivalent of legal boilerplate at the front of a software manual.  Do they have any comprehension of what is being chanted?  The mournful tune and the solemn proceedings seem to be all they need.

As someone who pays attention to words and their meanings, I’m always irked by the excessive emphasis placed on the chanting of the Kol Nidre.  It would be like having some grand diva sing a page from the phone book—beautiful to listen to, but devoid of spiritual content.  Ironically, there are many deeply meaningful passages in the prayers themselves (that is, all the “real” stuff that follows the Kol Nidre), but that is mostly lost on our annual drop-ins.

The other classic erev Yom Kippur phenomenon is that rabbis try to write the ultimate sermon to touch all these people who don’t participate for the rest of the year.  (I’m happy to say that our rabbi is a fabulous speaker and manages to hit a home run every time.)

Despite that, there is a sweetness to the Israeli practice of observing Yom Kippur.  Even the most secular honor the holiday by refraining from driving, turning city streets into playgrounds for kids on bikes, skates, and skateboards.  Everyone is out strolling, stopping and chatting with friends and aquaintances.  Many of them wear the traditional white.

Last night, after the fast was broken, I hear hammering up and down the street, as people start to put up their sukkot in preparation for erev Sukkot (this Friday).  Since I have one of those nifty pre-fab sukkot, and since I have no yard, I’ll assemble it in a friend’s yard over the next few days. Sukkot is a really fun holiday and always feels like such a relief after the heavy seriousness of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Check your clocks: We’ve already turned back our clocks.  Israel is always ahead of everyone else, so twice a year we are out of sync with the world when it comes to going on and off Daylight Savings Time.  This always leads to muddles; I’ve missed out on international conference calls because of this!

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2 responses to “Ritual vs. Content

  1. On Erev Yom Kippur our neighborhood was a block party of kids, tweens and teens on bikes until all hours, followed by our extremely new and clueless American IDC student neighbors, who were playing the electric guitar at 04:00 and 15:15.

    Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!

  2. The chants nay not be important, but together with smells and tastes, they are what we remember from our childhood. When we miss someone/something, we try to remember the way it looked/felt/tasted/sound. It has to do with our senses. Important as might be, texts don’t fall into this category.

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