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Kol Nidrei—All Oaths (Revoked )
On Erev Yom Kippur we hear Kol Nidrei chanted. It is from this prayer that the Kol Nidre service gets its name. It is intoned with a solemn melody and the intensity of the moment echoes in the soul. This famous prayer is actually an Aramaic legal formula that annuls all unresolved vows that were made during the year. It is a protection against rash or coerced oaths that cannot or should not be fulfilled.
Several explanations for the prayer exist. The most compelling reminds us of when the Visigoths forced Jews to convert to Christianity during the persecutions of the Byzantine Empire (700-850). Again, during the later Spanish Inquisition (1391-1492) we were also violently forced to convert. As a result of these atrocities, the Kol Nidre prayer was added to bring forgiveness to those Jews who had been compelled to make oaths that violated Jewish Law.
Horrifyingly, this resulted in more anti-Semitic attacks. Instead of showing compassion for Jews in their attempt to make peace with God and man, more hatred was manufactured. The Kol Nidrei prayer brought more accusations against Jews. We were accused of using the prayer to cheat non-Jews. The claims indicted us of intentionally violating agreements on the skirts of this prayer. The prayer was their “evidence that the oath of a Jew is worthless.”
It seems that throughout history our enemies have looked for excuses to despise us. We have been maligned, misunderstood, and treated as society’s “scapegoat.”
(Azazel) Our Scapegoat
First, a definition is required for this rather obscure Hebrew term.
Azazel, a demonic figure to whom the sin-laden scapegoat was sent on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8, 10, 26). The Hebrew word has been traditionally understood as a phrase meaning “the goat that escapes,” giving us the word “scapegoat.” But in light of modern research, both this interpretation and those that understand it as a place name are incorrect. The word is a proper name and means something like “angry god.” Yet, though Azazel is a demon, he does not play an active role in the rite as corresponding figures do in similar rituals of the ancient Near East.
Leviticus 16 informs us that two goats were chosen by Aaron. After casting lots, one goat was presented to the Lord and sacrificed as a sin-offering. The other goat, Azazel, was released into the wilderness as an atonement. In essence, our sins were placed on another. As referenced earlier,
For early Judaism, the atonement base was broadened to include the sacrifice of martyrs whose achievements were calculated and deemed meritorious for others.”
Martyrology & Human Sacrifice?
Modern Jews tend to reject the idea of sacrifice. Human sacrifice is particularly offensive. Nevertheless, there is a view toward the death of Jewish martyrs as serving in an atoning manner for the rest of our people. This has been shown in a previous text where Eleazar was reported to have said,
Be merciful unto thy people, and let our punishment be a satisfaction in their behalf. Make my blood their purification, and take my soul to ransom their souls (4th Maccabees. 3:17).
One section of the Yom Kippur liturgy presents another illustration. Consider the words of Jewish scholar Michael Strassfeld:
Martyrology.. . .describes how many famous talmudic sages were cruelly martyred by the Romans during the reign of Hadrian. (While the text tells their fate as though they were all killed at the same time, in fact the killings took place over a period of time.) It is speculated that this section is recited on Yom Kippur to ask God to have mercy on Israel because of the ultimate sacrifice in God’s honor made by these sages. One midrash states that God allowed the sages to be killed as a punishment for the sin of Joseph’s ten brothers. . . . Recently, some congregations and prayer books have revised the martyrology by adding to it material related to the Holocaust.
The flaw in these arguments do not relate to the concept of sacrifice--even human sacrifice. If a goat or bull could be effective in taking away sins, why not a Jewish martyr? Some Jews still have hope in the blood of the martyrs. The argument that I would raise opposing this view is not related to the concept of the sacrifice. Rather, it relates to the condition of the sacrifice.
Human sacrifice is certainly not a pleasant consideration. Though distasteful, it has been shown that it is not, altogether, foreign to a Jewish frame of reference. The issue lies within the acceptability of the sacrifice. If there was a blemish on the subject, then the sacrifice was rejected. The atonement would not have been effective. The subject was carefully inspected by qualified priests prior to ritual slaughter.