Kol Nidre begins with a dramatic declaration, “by consent of the court on high, and by consent of the court below, we permit prayer with transgressors.” This formula is attested already in the circle of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg (Germany, 13C) as reported by his student Samson b. Tzadok (Tashbetz Katan 131), and then in the Tur (OH 619). Most scholarly attention focuses on the final word, “avaryanim,” (transgressors, or perhaps Iberians—conversos?) but I want to know who are the justices of the court on high? How were they nominated and confirmed?
The expression, “court on high” (ישיבה של מעלה) occurs throughout rabbinic literature. In Bavli Bava Metzia 85a we learn that whoever teaches their friend’s child Torah merits to be seated on the court on high. On the next page we hear that when Rabbah bar Nahmani died, he was caught pronouncing the words, “pure, pure” (טהור טהור). A heavenly voice was heard saying, “fortunate are you that your body was pure and your soul departed in purity.” Then a note fell from the heavens right into Pumbedita saying, “Rabbah bar Nahmani is invited to join the court on high.”
From these and other rabbinic sources it seems that the court on high, or heavenly court, is a place where the greatest sages serve after death. Why then do we invoke their authority on Kol Nidre? Releasing people from vows is one of the most complex and controversial areas of Jewish law, requiring a Beit Din of three senior scholars to review each case. But on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish people asks for release, so mortal judges will not suffice. Thus the invocation of the heavenly tribunal.
Do you find the shofar service confusing? Good, because it is supposed to be that way! Many rabbinic traditions about shofar, such as blowing it daily for a month prior, but then stopping the day before Rosh HaShanah, and then blowing it at different points of the service are supposed “to confuse Satan.” Poor Satan—Jews around the world in all the time zones are blasting away on their horns at different times—what’s an ornery angel to do?
Shofar confusion runs deeper and more serious than this charming folktale. The Torah refers several times to the blowing of the shofar in the seventh month, using different words, tekiah and teruah among them. What do these terms mean? Numbers 29:1 refers to Rosh HaShanah as יום תרועה, “a day of shofar blasts,” which is translated into Aramaic as “a day of wailing” (יבבא). This leads to the idea that the teruah is a sound which reflects and instills sorrow and brokenness. Still, is it a sobbing sound or more like wailing? How about both?
In Bavli Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a there is a long discussion about these notes, especially teruah. The sages can’t quite decide how it is supposed to sound, so they give us three versions, familiar to synagogue goers as shevarim (three notes, each 1/3 the duration of a tekiah), teruah (9 staccato notes, again adding up to one tekiah) and then a combination of the two. Why would one bout of sobbing suffice when you can expand it to three? So much of Judaism is captured here!
On that same page the rabbis interpret Leviticus 25:9, with its two references to “passing” the teruah through the land to mean that the broken notes must always be preceded and followed by a simple extended note of tekiah. Those “straight” notes are unbroken, indicating a posture of confidence and joy. For all our tears, we begin with strength and end there too.
A student touched me deeply today when I opened our Zoom meeting and found them weeping. “Why are you crying?” I asked. They said, “How can I stand before my community and lead them in prayer when such terrible things are happening? How can I pray for blessing when things are so wrong?”
How indeed? What gives us the strength and the hope to ask God to bless the world when we are ravaged by pandemic, scorched by massive wildfires in the West, brought low by economic collapse and demoralized by a political system and politicians who shock us with selfish and irresponsible conduct? How can we summon the confidence to ask for blessing when we are isolated and concerned, dreading whether worse is yet to come? In such a moment, tears are the most rational response.
Bavli Brakhot 32b says that since the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer are closed, citing Lamentations 3:8 (And when I cry and plead, [God] shuts out my prayer), yet claims that the gates of tears always remain open. Still, as you may know, the mourner’s kaddish is missing the “titkabeil” paragraph (“Accept the prayers and requests of all Israel…”) because it seems unreasonable, cruel even, to tell mourners to expect the granting of their desires while tears flow down their cheeks. And in a sense we are all mourning, whether for relatives and friends who have died, or for many other losses that we have experienced in recent months. How indeed can we pray?
About fifteen years ago Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that Conservative Judaism be rebranded as Covenantal Judaism. I felt this to be an attractive solution to our brand challenge. Wolpe spoke of the covenant on numerous levels—a theological covenant between Jews and God, a national covenant between Jews and each other, and an ethical covenant between Jews, other peoples, and our very planet. This was an aspirational framing, a bridge between ancient and emerging Judaism. “Conservative,” in contrast, felt like an attempt to cling to a possession before it slipped away. It also had political overtones that were unrelated to the original intentions and unpopular with many if not most members of the movement. This has not exactly changed. Neither has our brand name, at least in America, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.
However, covenant is one of the core frameworks for understanding the Torah. Both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy the relationship between God and Israel is described as a treaty that is mutually binding and beneficial. This framework is on display throughout the portion of Ki Tavo, including its fearful list of curses that will follow failure to abide by the agreement.
Let’s focus on a brief passage of four verses, and even closer on just two words at their center. Deuteronomy 16: 16-19 is a pithy encapsulation of the entire Torah. “On this very day,” Moses tells Israel, “the Lord commands you” to obey all the these statutes and laws with all your heart and all your soul. The sages took this literally—that forty years since Sinai Moses finally revealed the fullness of Torah to the people–and deduced that no student can assume that they have understood their teacher until they have studied with them for forty years! But I prefer Rashi’s take (based on Bavli Brakhot 63b)—the words of Torah should always remain fresh in your eyes, as if they were given today.