If you had to choose, would it be better to attend Kol Nidre or Ne'ilah on Yom Kippur?

September 24, 2009

Question: I am 24, live at home and I’d rather go to work on Yom Kippur. But I have agreed to come to shul for a couple of hours in order not to upset my parents. Which part of the prayers would it be better to go to — Kol Nidre or the concluding service the following evening?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Without any doubt my advice would be to go to Kol Nidre. I say this for two reasons. First, the Yom Kippur prayer services — of which there are five — are designed in such a way as to enable the worshipper to embark on an intense spiritual journey. The point of departure is the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur eve. This is followed by shachrit in the morning, musaph in early afternoon, minchah in late afternoon and Ne’ilah just before the sun goes down. The concluding service, as its name suggests, is the apex of the Yom Kippur spiritual journey.

According to Jewish mysticism, each of these services corresponds to one of the five levels of the soul starting at the outermost level and gradually reaching the soul’s quintessence. In other words Yom Kippur, as experienced through the various services, is a personal journey towards spiritual self-discovery. For this reason it would be rather pointless for you to attend Ne’ilah without having taken part in the journey leading to that stage. There are no shortcuts to a spiritual climax. You have got to begin at the starting point, Kol Nidre.

Secondly, attendance at Kol Nidre leaves open the possibility of a repeat synagogue visit the next day. Making a firm decision, before Yom Kippur even begins, to avoid the synagogue until the very last service is to close off all your options prematurely. You say you would rather go to work on Yom Kippur but you owe it to yourself to keep your options open.

Yom Kippur is a personal journey towards spiritual self-discovery

By choosing to attend the first of the Yom Kippur services you may surprise yourself and find that you want to continue your spiritual journey the following day. At the very least you will have begun this holy day in good faith. One should never put off the performance of a mitzvah.

On a practical note many synagogues — including my own — now hold explanatory services during the High Holy Days. These services, aimed at an intelligent and critical audience who lack formal Jewish education, are designed to open up the meaning and relevance of our ancient prayers. I strongly recommend that you attend a synagogue with such services on offer. Hopefully you might be swept along with the spiritual momentum of the day carrying you forward all the way to the great finale of Ne’ilah.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Rather than complain about your reluctant attendance, I congratulate you on your desire to please your parents — that is very Jewish too.

As for which service: Kol Nidre opens with that famous melody, linking us to the prayers and hopes of past generations; it resonates with all that has made us who we are today.

However, I would definitely opt for Ne’ilah: there is that astonishing atmosphere as you enter, becoming part of the final gasp of prayers that has gone on exhaustively since the night before. People are hungry and tired and maybe a little grumpy, but there is also a rising tide of optimism, knowing that it is nearly over, that they have seen through another Yom Kippur, and that they may emerge a little better because of it.

This builds up in a crescendo of prayers, a last repetition of familiar chants such as the Avinu Malkenu, and then climaxes with the Shema and that long final shofar blast. Whether you have been there an hour or all day, you come out feeling you have been part of something special.

Use the time for clear thinking about your personal goals or relationships

Try to get something out of your time there: if you are not engaged in the service, depart from the pages everyone else is reading and look at the study passages or commentaries in the book. Forget the praying; try some learning and you might find that more interesting.

Alternatively, use the time for clear thinking about your personal goals (and how to achieve them) or the hurdles you face (and how to overcome them) or the relationships you have (and which ones need improving) or what changes you could make in your life generally so that the coming year is not merely a re-run of the previous one.

Another option is not to go to your parents’ place -— which clearly does not attract you -— but attend a shul from a different denomination or go to a service specifically for 20s-30s. Synagogues vary enormously, so shop around and you may get more out of your visit.

Incidentally, you do not say whether you will be fasting. You may be at work, but you can still acknowledge the day as special by fasting— being Jewish with your body even if your mind is busy with work. It might also help make you feel more at one with others when you join them for Ne’ilah.

Last updated: 11:22am, September 25 2009