Kaddish – Music as Prayer

September 22, 2009


Jewish Cemetary in Krakow

Jewish Cemetary in Krakow


My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

The first time I heard the Kaddish, it struck me very deeply. I did not understand the language; I did not know what it was about. All I know is that it was the most beautiful melody I had ever heard. That opening phrase with its flattened second note of the scale was absolutely hypnotic. The language I did not know: strange and earthy. When it built to its climax, I was swept with it.

Ritualistic and from the depths of the soul, the Kaddish has been part of my life since I was a child. A scratchy old record from the music section of the Bloemfontein Municipal library became a powerful conduit of things fo which it is hard to find terminology. Only years later would I learn that the actual words were a prayer, and what they meant. Having grown up in the dry formulaic asceticism of the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed Church, there was a definitely an element of “Orientalism” in my initial passion for this music. I responded to the unashamedly emotional expression of spirituality. As so often with Jewish music, not understanding the language or the context does not prohibit one from having a very strong emotional connection it. I would also be surprised to learn that the composer himself was not of the faith from which this prayer was drawn. And yet, the power of the music was strong enough to transcend these boundaries.

“For me, whenever I hear the end of the Ravel Kaddish—which uses a very clear motif from the High Holidays—an image always flashes in my mind of sitting next to my grandfather at High Holy Day services; I can almost taste the pickled herring my grandmother and I used to share at the end of our Yom Kippur fast. That’s the power of music—it can evoke associations above and beyond our understanding of the theological or liturgical significance of a particular service or holiday”. Cantor Andrew Bernard


Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel


Maurice Ravel’s “Jewish” works:

I first got to know the Kaddish in a setting by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937).  Written in 1914, just before he enlisted for service in World War I, his Kaddish forms the first of two songs of the Deux mélodies hébraïques. Ravel uses the Aramaic text from the Jewish prayer book for the Kaddish, and the second song, L’Énigme éternelle is based on a traditional Yiddish verse. They were first performed in June 1914 by Alvina Alvi – who had commissioned them – with Ravel at the piano. In 1919 and 1920 Ravel orchestrated the two songs. Ravel had earlier set a Yiddish text “Mejerke, main Suhn” under the title Chanson hébraïque as the fourth of the  Chants populaires (1910). Ravel’s mother was Basque, and Ravel is thought to have developed a certain affinity with Spain from her. His father was a Swiss clock-maker.

While many critics claim Ravel was influenced by composer Claude Debussy, Ravel himself claimed he was much more influenced by Mozart and Couperin, whose compositions are much more structured and classical in form. Ravel and Debussy were, however, clearly the defining composers of the impressionist movement. Ravel was also highly influenced by music from around the world, including American jazz, Asian music, and traditional folk songs from across Europe. Ravel had left the Roman Catholic Church and was a self-declared atheist, although he was also a spiritualist like many sceptics of his generation. He disliked the overtly religious themes of other composers, and instead preferred to look to classical mythology for inspiration. While Ravel’s music has tonal centres that never dissolve into atonality, his melodies are often modal. It is easy to see how the traditional modal melody of the Kaddish would have appealed to him. Ravel also was trict in his musical arrangements of folk material to leave the melodies unaltered.

Writer and critic Michel de Calvocoressi  (1877-1944) met Ravel in 1898, and after an initial period of mutual suspicion, they became lifelong friends. It was Calvocoressi who provided Ravel with the folk texts to the Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. (1904-1906), and some suspect, the texts to the Deux mélodies hébraïques. Born in Greece, but educated in France, Calvocoressi was a skilled linguist and wrote in several languages, publishing books on Liszt, Moussorgsky and Schumann. Ravel dedicated the Alborada del Gracioso from the suite Mirroirs to him.

Significance and meanings of the Kaddish

The oldest version of the Kaddish is found in the Siddur of Rab Amram Gaon, c. 900.


"Kaddish" by Rex Sexton

"Kaddish" by Rex Sexton


Kaddish (קדיש Aramaic: “holy”) refers to an important and central prayer in the Jewish prayer service. The central theme of the Kaddish is the magnification and sanctification of God’s name. In the liturgy, several variations of the Kaddish are used functionally as separators between various sections of the service. The term “Kaddish” is often used to refer specifically to “The Mourners’ Kaddish,” said as part of the mourning rituals in Judaism in all prayer services as well as at funerals and memorials. When mention is made of “saying Kaddish”, this unambiguously denotes the rituals of mourning.

The opening words of this prayer are inspired by Ezekiel 38:23, a vision of God becoming great in the eyes of all the nations. The central line of the kaddish in Jewish tradition is the congregation’s response “May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity”, a public declaration of God’s greatness and eternality. This response is a paraphrase of part of Daniel 2:20.  The Mourners’, Rabbis’ and Complete Kaddish end with a supplication for peace, which is in Hebrew, and comes from the Bible. Along with the Shema and Amidah, the Kaddish is one of the most important and central prayers in the Jewish liturgy. Written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic the Kaddish is about a half-page long text, primarily magnifying and glorifying God, as well as expressing a wish for a speedy coming of the Messianic era. It is recited primarily in the synagogue service after principal sections of the liturgy or at the beginning of such sections.


Kaddish Candle

Kaddish Candle


“There are four main types of the synagogue Kaddish [there is also a fifth type recited at the cemetery], each containing a slightly different version of the text. In most occasions the service leader sings the Kaddish, with some congregational responses. The two main exceptions are the Kaddish recited by people in mourning or observing a death’s anniversary (Kaddish Yatom), and the Kaddish recited after a study session (Kaddish Derabannan). On these occasions the Kaddish is normally not sung but rather spoken out loud by the mourners or those who finished a study session” ( Boaz Tarsi, “Observations on Practices of Nusach in America,” Asian music, Volume xxxiii-2, 2002).


Marc Chagall "Green Violinist" (1913)

Marc Chagall "Violinist" (1913)


Ravel’s Kaddish:  Sacred or Secular?

Despite the mournful tone of the melody, Ravel’s is a setting of the Chatzi Kaddish, rather than the full Mourner’s Kaddish, making it’s placing in a service in the synagogue more problematic than at first expected. The Chatzi Kaddish is a shorter version of the prayer that is used to demarcate sections of the liturgy. Unlike many other pieces of liturgical music written for synagogue use in the twentieth Century, Ravel’s setting is designed purely as a solo performance piece. No section of the work lends itself to choral or congregational participation. Given its setting of a liturgical text, many Orthodox Jews would consider this Kaddish a prayer, with its only rightful place in a service, and would see no need for it to be performed outside of that context. Given the exquisiteness of the work, its delicate accompaniment and the way it allows great artistic expressive freedom for the soloist, many would argue that it has a rightful place in the concert repertoire.

I encountered this work on an LP of Ravel’s orchestral works and have seen it in recital only once in my life. As a non-Jew I would have no other means of contact with this work. It is therefore ironic that I am trying to find an appropriate space within the Jewish High Holidays to perform this.

Kaddish Original Text

Yithgaddal weyithkaddash scheméh rabba
be’olmà diverà ‘khire’ outhé
veyamli’kl mal’khouté’khön,
ouvezome’khôu ouve’hayyé de’khol beth yisraël
ba’agalâ ouvizman qariw weimrou, Amen.

Yithbara’kh Weyischtaba’h weyith paêr
weyithroman weyithnassé weyithhaddar
weyith’allé weyithhallal
scheméh dequoudschâ beri’kh hou,
l’êla ule’êla min kol bri’khatha weschi’ratha
touschbehata wene’hamathâ daamirân ah!
Be’ olma ah! Ah! Ah! We imrou. Amen.

Kaddish: Free English translation by Boaz Tarsi

Magnified and sanctified be the name of God throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom during the days of our life
and the life of all speedily and soon and let us say Amen.

(Here normally comes a congregational response, which is missing from Ravel’s setting).

Exalted and glorified, lauded and praised,
Acclaimed and honored be the name of the Holy One
Blessed be He, praised beyond all blessings and hymns,
beyond all tributes that mortals can express and let us say Amen.


Spring in the Jewish Cemetary

Spring in the Jewish Cemetary


Kaddish: Some recorded materials

Transliteration and pronounciation of the Aramaic, which proves that everybody speaks with an accent.



Baritone José Van Dam gives a powerful performance which would please those in search of an “authentic” male voice version. In this clip the pianist is not acknowledged, but it is likely to be French pianist and Van Dam’s long-term collaborator  Jean-Philippe Collard. Belgian born, Van Dam was superb in French repertoire.

Soprano Montserrat Caballe sings a very finely crafted but perhaps overwrought Kaddish, although hampered by bad sound recording. She uses the sheetmusic through-out the entire recital. The pianissimi that were her stock in trade, takes one’s breath away.

A 1962 recording of Victoria de los Angeles presents the Kaddish in a rarely heard French version. Her singing always had a vulnerable human quality, which comes through in this recording.

Yehudi Menuhin performing a violin transcription of Ravel’s version. The power of the melody communicates the esesence of the text even in the absence of the language of words.

A Violin and Organ version by Alexander Skwortsow and  Bert Mooiman reveal that sensitive performers can reinvent a piece of music

Ravel’s Kaddish is sung here in an orchestral version at the Nazi camp Auschwitz Birkenau. It is intended as a Mourner’s Kaddish, while technically it is a Chatzi Kaddish. To me this is of less importance, as the music speaks the text that might be “missing”. Daniel de Vicente – Tenor, Quadrivium Ensemble and Dan Rapoport – Conductor

Huw Morgan plays a trumpet transcription accompanied by pianist Nicholas Oliver in concert setting, ive from the BBC Young Musician Wigmore Hall Series 2006. It is played so beautifully and movingly that it could happily be transposed into a synagogue.

A modern soprano recording: Barbara Hendricks with John Eliot Gardiner in 1988.

Chanson hébraïque (“Mejerke, main Suhn” ) the fourth of the  Chants populaires (1910) is sung here by Victoria de Los angeles accompanied by pianist Miguel Zanetti at the Teatro Real de Madrid (1980).


Jewish Memorial Berlin

Jewish Memorial Berlin


Other aspects of the Kaddish:



Francis W. McBeth’s Kaddish for Band has received much attention from young bands and orchestras world wide.

An “artwork” of sorts is the “Mourner’s Kaddish“, using the context of the Kaddish as a means of coming to terms with the Holocaust. Joe Engel, a Holocaust surviver. It is very moving viewing.

The Holocaust is close to the surface in the Jewish pshyche. Ofra Haza created this Holocaust Kaddish for the 1990 Montreaux Jazz festival

An interesting meditation reflects on psychological impacts of the Kaddish .

Peter Pringle composed this Theremin Kaddish for Clara and performs it on the Theremin, an electronic instrument with surprisingly vocal quallities.

Non-Jewish composers creating “Jewish Music”

While orchestral and operatic music works by Jewish composers would in general be considered secular, many Jewish (as well as non-Jewish) composers have incorporated Jewish themes and motives into their music. Sometimes this is done covertly, such as the klezmer band music that many critics and observers believe lies in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and this type of Jewish reference was most common during the 19th century when openly displaying one’s Jewishness would most likely hamper a Jew’s chances at assimilation. During the 20th century, however, many Jewish composers wrote music with direct Jewish references and themes, e.g. David Amram (Symphony – “Songs of the Soul”), Leonard Bernstein (Kaddish Symphony, Chichester Psalms), Ernest Bloch (Schelomo), Arnold Schoenberg (see below), Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Violin Concerto no. 2) Kurt Weill (The Eternal Road) and Hugo Weisgall (Psalm of the Instant Dove).


Jewish Cemetary in Krakow

Jewish Cemetary in Krakow


However, even during the 20th century some Jewish composers often quoted Jewish music within non-Jewish contexts; for example, Gershwin used liturgical melodies and Hebrew songs for a few numbers in Porgy and Bess, and many also believe that the opening clarinet glissando in his Rhapsody in Blue is a reference to klezmer. Finally, many non-Jewish (mostly, but not all, Russian) composers have composed classical music with clear Jewish themes and inspiration, such as Max Bruch (Kol Nidre), Sergei Prokofiev (Overture on Hebrew Themes), Dmitri Shostakovich (Second Piano Trio, From the Jewish Folk Poetry and Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar”) and Igor Stravinsky (Abraham and Isaac – used the Hebrew Masoretic text of a passage of Genesis, and was dedicated to the Jews and the State of Israel).

Manyoperatic works by non-Jewish composers show a direct connection with and sympathy for the Jewish people and history, like Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah (incidentally, Saint-Saëns’ composition teacher was Halevy) and Verdi’s Nabucco.

From the “All-Knowing-God-Of-Wiki” comes the following list of Kaddish used in various artforms:

Kaddish in the Arts (from WIKIPEDIA KADDISH)

The Kaddish has been a particularly common theme and reference point for Jewish writers, especially since the Haskalah.

  • “Kaddish” is the title of an episode of the television show The X-Files (season 4, episode 15), in which a Golem is avenging a murder.
  • “Kaddish” is the title of an episode of the television show Homicide: Life on the Street (season 5, episode 17), in which detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), who is Jewish, investigates the rape and murder of his childhood sweetheart.
  • The Mourner’s Kaddish can be heard being recited by Collins and Roger during the song “La Vie Boheme” in the musical Rent.
  • In the television series Drawn Together, Toot recites the Mourner’s Kaddish in the episode “A Very Special Drawn Together Afterschool Special,” after saying that her son was (metaphorically) dead.
  • In Rocky III, Rocky Balboa recites the Mourners’ Kaddish for Mickey.
  • In Philip Roth‘s novel The Human Stain, the narrator states that the Mourners’ Kaddish signifies that “a Jew is dead. Another Jew is dead. As though death were not a consequence of life but a consequence of having been a Jew.”
  • In Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, one of the antagonists goes by the name of Kadaj, possibly a take on Kaddish, which keeps in line with the common use of religious symbolism throughout Final Fantasy VII (Jenova is another example of this.)
  • In Tony Kushner‘s play Angels in America (and the subsequent TV miniseries), the characters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg say the Kaddish over Roy Cohn‘s dead body.
  • In the television show Everwood, Ephram Brown recites the Mourner’s Kaddish at his mother’s unveiling.
  • The Kaddish can be heard in the opening credits of Schindler’s List.
  • In Yentl, at her father’s burial, the rabbi asks who will say Kaddish (Kaddish is traditionally said by a son). Yentl replies that she will and, to the horror of those assembled, grabs the siddur and starts saying Kaddish.
  • Kaddisch is the first of Ravel‘s two songs Deux mélodies hébraïques.
  • The fictional character Dan Turpin was killed by Darkseid in Superman: The Animated Series, and at his funeral, there was a Rabbi saying Kaddish. After the episode, there was a message that the episode was dedicated to Jack Kirby, a Jewish comic book artist, who influenced the entire comic book community.
  • In Torch Song Trilogy, the main character Arnold Beckoff says the Mourner’s Kaddish for his murdered lover, Alan, much to the horror of his mother.
  • Kaddish For Uncle Manny[6]” from the 4th season of Northern Exposure (first aired 5-3-93) relates to Joel’s (Rob Morrow) seeking out of ten Jews in remote Alaska to join him for Kaddish in memory of his recently departed Uncle Manny in New York City. Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) takes to Alaska’s airwaves and offers a cash stipend for Jews in KBHR’s listening area to trek to Cicely in order to form a minyan, or the prerequisite ten adult males, to accompany his recital of the prayer. As strangers appear from nowhere, Joel realizes that his mitzvah to say Kaddish for his uncle is best accomplished through the presence of his new Cicely family, who although Gentile, are most near and dear to him as compared with ten ‘mercenary’ Jews who are unknown to him. The episode ends with Joel leading the townspeople through the service.
  • Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz‘s “Kaddish for an Unborn Child
  • Zadie Smith’s novel “The Autograph Man” revolves around Alex-Li Tandem, a dealer in autograph memorabilia whose father’s Yahrzeit is approaching. The epilogue of the novel features a scene in which Alex-Li recites Kaddish with a minyan.
  • In Frederick Forsyth‘s novel The Odessa File, a Jew who commits suicide in 1960s Germany requests in his diary/suicide note that someone say Kaddish for him in Israel. At the end of the Novel, a Mossad agent involved in the plot, who comes into possession of the diary, fulfils the dead man’s wish


Jewish Cemetery in Prague

Jewish Cemetery in Prague



Avinu torah8hu

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My first encounter with the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu was in the now famous version sung by Barbra Streissand on her album “Higher Ground”. Form the warm opening strains on the cello I knew I was in for something special. When she started singing in a hushed, reverent voice I was captivated. As the song rose to its climax, I had very intense emotional responses. I had no idea what the song was about. But it was clear that it was from the depths of the soul and meant to rise to the highest of the high.

Avinu Malkeinu, (Hebrew: אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ‎), translating to Our Father, Our King, is a prayer that is recited during Jewish services from Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and on certain public fast days at other times of year. Each line of the prayer begins with the words Avinu Malkeinu, followed by varying phrases for the remainder of the verse. It often has a slow, chanting, repetitive aspect to the melody to represent the pious pleading within the prayer.

Now, many years later, I have “performed” this work in various contexts, occasionally as a concert piece, and more recently, in its place in the synagogue service, as it was intended. I know two versions of  Avinu Malkeinu. A shorter traditional version is for congregational and public use and known by Jewish people around the globe.

Max Janowski

Max Janowski

A more ambitious work is the version by Max Janowski (1912-1991). Berlin-born Janowski was a composer of Jewish liturgical music, a choir director, conductor and a voice teacher, who even taught piano in Japan before emigrating to the United States in 1937 where he served in the United States Navy during World War II. His singing students included the famous Baritone Sherrill Milnes. (New York Times)

Again, as with so much Jewish music, many arrangements of this work exists. Today even Rock and Club remixes – controversial as they are – can be found. While clearly written for cantor or soloist – in the original key would indicate a tenor or soprano – there are large choral sections, which are mainly repeats of the main part of the melody, especially recognisable on the opening phrase of Avinu Malkeinu. Marsha Edelman, writing on synagogue music in the modern era, alludes to a tension that developed between cantorial schools and congregants. In short, some cantorial schools (such as the Cantors Institute created in 1952) raised the art of the cantor to an enormously sophisticated level, but unfortunately left less opportunity for the congregation to sing as well. The time after World War II was one of tremendous adjustment and change for Jews throughout the diaspora. Composers such as Janowski and Max Wohlberg (1907-1996) included “singable refrains” into works that were written for cantor and/or chorus. Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu does just that, allowing the congregants to join in the singing of parts of the prayer. While Orthodox Judaism prohibits accompaniment, Janowski’s is clearly for use with orchestral or organ accompaniment.

The many roles of the Hazzan (Cantor)

Over the centuries and across the diaspora, cantors took on a variety of religious and communal roles in addition to leading prayer services, including shohet (ritual slaughterer), mohel (performer of circumcisions), teacher and government official.

Avinu Reading_TorahDr. Scott Sokol, Associate Professor of Jewish Music and Psychology writes: “Although the roles have changed somewhat in the present time, the template of the cantor as a religious and cultural functionary has largely remained. It is common for professional hazzanim to serve many functions in the modern synagogue-community, including teacher, pastor, chaplain, choir director, and cultural impresario. And to this day, some of our most talented mohalim [plural of mohel] are still cantors!” Returning to the musical landscape of the cantor and synagogue, the most significant change to the modern cantorate has probably been the move from a congregation of listeners to a congregation of participants. Participation was always a part of the Jewish worship service, but now active participation is the rule rather than the exception for an increasing number of communities. As a result, today’s cantor is responsible for teaching and leading the congregation in song and for crafting a worship experience that invites communal singing for more of the service.

Avinu Malkeinu – Hewbrew Text and English Translation:

Avinu malkeinu sh’ma kolenu. Avinu malkeinu chatanu l’faneychaOur Father our King, hear our voice. Father our King, we have sinned before Thee

Avinu malkeinu chamol aleynu, Ve’al olaleynu vetapeinu
Our Father our King, have compassion for us,
and also on our children

Avinu malkeinu Kaleh dever, vecherev vera’av mealeynu
Our Father our King, bring and end to pestilence,
war and famine around us

Avinu malkeinu kaleh chol tsar Umastin mealeynu
Our Father our King, bring an end to all trouble and oppression around us.

Avinu malkeinu, Avinu malkeinu, Kat’veinu besefer chayim tovim
Our Father our King, Our Father our King, i
nscribe us in the book of life

Avinu malkeinu chadesh aleynu, Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah
Our Father our King, renew upon us, renew upon us a good year

Sh’ma kolenu, Sh’ma kolenu , Sh’ma kolenu
Hear our voice, hear our voice, hear our voice

Avinu malkeinu, Avinu malkeinu, Chadesh aleynu shanah tovah
Our Father our King, Our Father our King, renew upon us a good year

Avinu malkeinu, Sh’ma kolenu, Sh’ma kolenu, Sh’ma kolenu
Our Father our King, hear our voice, hear our voice, hear our voice

Saving the Torah after Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans) 2005

Saving the Torah after Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans) 2005

A liturgical analysis of the Avinu Malkeinuby Michael Koplow can be found HERE.

For an arrangement of Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu, in a lower key for vocal soloist, organ and small chamber ensemble, click HERE.

Sheet Music of very userfriendly arrangement of Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu is available HERE.

Sheet music of the traditional version of Avinu Malkeinu can be found HERE.

Avinu Malkeinu (Janowski): Some recorded materials

Avinu StreissandThe famous version by Barbra Streissand, that brought this work to a wider public, as well as criticism that a liturgical work was sung by a woman on a commercial album. Be that as it may, it is a highly reverent version of the prayer, sung with great artistry and conviction and the orchestration is superb.

A humble but sincere version combines Hebrew and Arabic, much to the consternation of some.

Nora Dori created this version in a stage performance. Even removed from its liturgical context, the work has a powerful impact.

Russian singer Svetlana Portnyansky’s performance is accompanied by disturbing images of political conflict in Israel/Palestine.

The “Traditional” Avinu Malkeinu: Some recorded materials

A wonderfully charming discovery was this “Lyre Lesson”, which teaches the basic construction of the tune, identifying the mode as Ahavarava, with the notes E F G# A B C D E, which resembles the Phrygian mode (but with a raised third) or a Harmonic Minor, but using the Dominant note as a Tonic.

A traditional choral version with Benjamin Posnansky gives a fair impression of much that can be heard in schools and synagogues today.

An utterly unique and charming version by “Harold Vargas y Michel” performed on Flute and Recorder on the cliffs of the Jewish fortress Masada.

Rabbi Shai’s controversial Club/Dance mix is bound to raise some eyebrows.

Soprano Beverley Chiat

Soprano Beverley Chiat

The soloist in Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu at Temple Israel in Green Point, Cape Town, will be sung during this year’s High Holidays by one of South Africa’s top sopranos, Beverley Chiat


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“A crowd of people slowly streams into the synagogue. Inside the sanctuary, the lights are dimmed to reflect the sun setting outside. A hush falls over the congregation as the clergy, robed in white, open the ark to reveal the white-cloaked Torah scrolls. The rabbi gently hands each scroll to a member of the congregation. Everyone on the bimah turns to face the community. And the cantor begins to sing. The melody is at once familiar, soothing, and chilling. As the music gradually builds, the distance between the current moment and the same moment in years past slowly melts away. The scene is set. The memories of all of our Yom Kippur days swell inside us as we sing the Kol Nidre prayer.” Cantor Elizabeth Sacks

I am not Jewish myself, and neither is the singer of the Kol Nidrei, Cape Town Baritone Mr. Thesele Kemane,  who will act as cantor this week during the High Holidays at Temple Israel in Greenpoint, South Africa. Both of us have been very deeply moved by this piece of music. Kol Nidrei is an Aramaic declaration which opens the Jewish service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is sung by the cantor and its melody is recognised by Jewish people around the globe. Although this text is in fact not a prayer, the musical content of the piece charges the text with great emotional power. Kol Nidrei has had an eventful history, both in itself and in its influence on the legal status of the Jews. Introduced into the liturgy despite the opposition of some rabbinic authorities, attacked in the course of time by some rabbis, and in the nineteenth century expunged from the prayer-book by many communities of western Europe, it has survived as an essential part of the Day of Atonement. The purpose of the Kol Nidrei in the service is to alleviate the congregation’s anxiety about unfulfilled or possibly forgotten vows, so that they can enter into the prayers of the Day of Atonement with a clear conscience. It is not clear exactly where the current ritual and text of Kol Nidrei originated. The first references to Kol Nidrei as a collective declaration are found in the writings of the Babylonian geonim (8-10th century scholars); the geonim vigorously opposed the practice of chanting the declamation, which they claimed originated in unspecified “other lands.” Although Palestine is an obvious candidate, none of the surviving ancient Palestinian prayer texts include Kol Nidrei.

Cantor Sacks of the New York Central Synagogue makes very interesting points about the relationship Jewish people have with the music of their culture: “Jewish music is infused with memory. Just as a particular scent or visual cue arouses specific memories, the music of our tradition links us to our Jewish experiences. A favorite tune can remind us of the camaraderie of Jewish summer camp, or the awe of a first trip to Israel, or the familiar warmth of Shabbat services. However, in addition to inspiring powerful individual memories, Jewish music also furthers our collective memory – the memory of our history and traditions as the People of Israel. This concept of collective memory manifests itself most clearly in our liturgical music through a series of melodies known as the MiSinai tunes. MiSinai tunes, melodies thought to have come down from God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, unite Ashkenazi Jews of all denominations. We sing them consistently, year after year, and though the arrangements may change, the essence of the melody never dies. Mainly heard during High Holy Day and Festival services, examples include the High Holy Day Mi Chamocha, the Great Aleinu, and the opening paragraphs of the N’ilah Amidah. The tunes are exceedingly simple yet profound. They are moving because they have endured and they have endured because they are moving. For many people, it is not a complete holiday until they have heard these melodies. The MiSinai tunes are our collective musical memory. We have named them such because no one can remember a time without them.” (Cantor Sacks)

Kol_Nidrei autograph 1825Many different versions and arrangements of this piece exist. While Reform Judaism does allow women to sing the Liturgy, it is traditionally performed by a man. Temple Israel’s choir includes wonderful female singers such Beverly Chiat – a superb musician whose talents have been appreciated across the globe even more than they have in South Africa. Yet even she insisted that it would feel more “authentic” if this was sung by a man. One would think that a central part of the service, beloved and known by so many, could be found easily in printed form. But there are so many variants and arrangements of it that it is quite bewildering. The version I am currently using is an arrangement by Henry Russotto (Born Russia 1871; Died New York 1928) an arranger and publisher of a large number of liturgical settings, translations and arrangements. The present arrangement is for Male Voice Choir and Cantor. Which is ironic, since technically, Temple Israel have neither. The G minor setting appears to suit a baritone, but parts of the original embellishments go into the higher tenor range, which the choir takes up, in some cases splitting into 4 or 5 parts. Temple Israel uses the female choir to take these parts. So in effect, our Kol Nidrei is an arrangement of an arrangement of a chant that has been passed down orally though thousands of years. The music itself alternates between emotional states, occasionally heroic and ceremonial with march-like associations, and at other times painfully introspective and intensely personal. The rhythmic freedom within a tightly controlled structure reminds one of Puccini’s rubato and flexibility of the rhythm is key to a successful performance. Flexibility in the ornametaion is key to performing this work.

Kol Nidrei – Text and Translation

Text in Aramaic:

Kol Nidrei

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

Al nafshatana Miyom Kippurim zeh, ad Yom Kippurim haba aleinu letovah Bechulhon Icharatna vehon,

Kulhon yehon sharan Sh’vikin sh’vitin, betelin umevutalin, lo sheririn v’lo kayamin Nidrana lo nidrei,

V’essarana lo essarei Ush’vuatana lo shevuot.

Kol Nidrei text in English Translation

All vows

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

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

regarding them all, we regret them henceforth.

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

Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.


Here follows some versions of the Kol Nidrei in very different performances. Follow the links to Youtube.

Kantor Stephen Saxon and male choir, in a very similar arrangement to that by Henry Russotto –

An almost Jazzy version what appears to be a concert rather than a synagogue, by Mordechai ben David where the piano’s tremolos tries to create an orchestral colour in the absence of a choir.

I was surprised to find so many Popular Singers taking up this work. Perry Como and Johnny Mathis (in 1958)  do not spring to mind in connection with this very serious part of Jewish consciousness.

Al Jolson's "Tha Jazz Singer" 1927

Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" 1927

Perhaps too melodramatic but in their own way moving are two excerpts from the film “The Jazz Singer”. Firstly Jerry Lewis in the 1959 film  which in itself was a remake of the 1927 original by Al Jolson [né Asa Yoelson] (1886–1950), The story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the rabbi’s son who turned actor against the wishes of his father, became a sensation and remains a motion picture classic. Al Jolson starred in what was the first “talking” film. People came to associate the movie with Jolson’s own life, a myth that he encouraged and had even contributed to early in his career with songs like “Mammy.” This myth of the lonely man who had given up everything for the public was necessary for him – it was indeed reflected in his need for the audience’s love.

Neil Diamond starred in the 1980 remake of the film  in a powerful scene of reconciliation between father and son, which places the Chant in contemporary context. It is a pity that neither the film nor the released soundtrack has the chant in its complete form.Neil_Diamond_-_The_Jazz_Singer_(front)

A work perhaps better known in classical music circles is the Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, is a composition for cello and orchestra written by Max Bruch. Bruch completed the composition in Liverpool before it was first published in Berlin in 1881. It is styled as an Adagio on two Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra with Harp and consists of a series of variations on two main themes of Jewish origin. The first theme, which also lends the piece its title, comes from the Kol Nidre prayer which is recited during the evening service on Yom Kippur. In Bruch’s setting of the melody, the cello imitates the rhapsodical voice of the hazzan (cantor) who chants the liturgy in the synagogue.

The second subject of the piece is quoted from the middle section of Isaac Nathan’s arrangement of “O Weep for those that wept on Babel’s stream”, a lyric which was penned by Byron in a collection called Hebrew Melodies (which also included the famous poem “She Walks in Beauty”). Bruch was a Protestant and first became acquainted with the Kol Nidre melody when his teacher Ferdinand Hiller introduced him to the Lichtenstein family, the head of which served as the cantor-in-chief of Berlin. Cantor Abraham Jacob Lichtenstein was known to have cordial relations with many Christian musicians and supported Bruch’s interest in Jewish folk music.

Du Pre Kol NIdreiWhile some commentators have criticized the dearth of Jewish sentiment in Bruch’s concert-hall Kol Nidrei, it must be remembered that Bruch never presumed to write Jewish music. He only wished to incorporate Jewish inspirations into his own compositions. Nonetheless, it is a powerful work which has remained popular with musicians and public. It exists in different versions as well. Both piano and orchestral accompaniments were done by Bruch .

Janos Starker performs Bruch’s Kol Nidrei with Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

Jaqueline du Pre and Gerald Moore, the famous Lieder accompanist, perform the piano and cello version of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei .

Marc Chagall: "Le Juif a la Torah" c. 1959

Marc Chagall: "Le Juif a la Torah" c. 1959