What makes this night different?
Many things, this year. All over the Jewish world, people will be celebrating a very different Passover under the shadow of the current plague. Homes will be imperfectly cleaned, hametz will be sold rather than burned, families will not be reclining round the same table. Seders will be significantly smaller, less Torah will be spoken, fewer songs sung.
Yet this Passover, like any other, will be ushered in with the declaration of Kol Hamira. The prayer, recited the night before Passover, and then again the following morning, is an official annulment of any hametz we might have overlooked in our cleaning: “All hametz and leaven that is in my possession which I have not seen or burned, let it be annulled and deemed like the dust of the earth.”
More of a legal formula than actual liturgy, Kol Hamira bears a striking resemblance to a prayer we say six months earlier, on the eve of the other spiritual high point of the Jewish calendar: Kol Nidre. Both are based on talmudic decrees (Nedarim 23b, Pesahim 6b), but were probably composed later, in the Geonic period; both were written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time, to ensure that the declarant understood what he or she was saying (to this day, many Passover mahzorim add that those who do not understand Aramaic should recite Kol Hamira in whatever language they know); both are worded in dry legalistic jargon; and, like many official declarations in the ancient world, both are recited thrice.
Even more remarkable are the textual parallels between the two formulas: Kol Nidre – Kol Hamira, “All vows and binds” – “All hametz and leaven”; “that I vow or swear, ban or bar from myself” – “that is in my possession which I have not seen or burned”; “let them be released, forgotten, halted, null and void” – “let it be annulled and deemed like the dust of the earth.”
What are we to make of this patent similarity between Kol Hamira and Kol Nidre? And why is it that these two legal declarations – which have all the religious pathos of a sales contract – serve as overtures to the two holiest moments of the year?
MARKING THE spring and autumn equinox of the Jewish calendar, Passover and Yom Kippur bring with them a promise of renewal, of purification, of wiping the slate clean and starting afresh. Judaism recognized that in the hustle and bustle of daily life, dirt piles up, things get clogged, we wear and tear. And so the Jewish calendar mandates that once a year we stop to perform annual maintenance checks of our physical and spiritual selves: We clean our homes for Passover and cleanse our souls for Yom Kippur.
Both processes are long and arduous. Yom Kippur includes a 40-day run-up of prayer and repentance, peeling away the layers of the conscience, rubbing at old flaws, rummaging through the nooks and crannies of the psyche. Passover is prefaced by a 40-day (and if you’re anything like my mother, 80-day) marathon of scouring and scrubbing, washing and shining, throwing out the old and buying in the new. We spring-clean our houses and autumn-clean our souls.
But no matter how much we labor, how methodically we rub and scrub, inevitably we fall short. The tasks of Passover and Yom Kippur are not just long and hard; they are, essentially, impossible. We can no more perfectly clean our homes than we can completely purify our souls. And so, as we enter the two holiest points of the Jewish year, with the last of our strength, having done all we can, we stand and declare: “Kol nidre…Kol hamira…” All the promises I haven’t kept. All the hametz I haven’t burned. The flaws I still carry. The leaven I’ve missed. May they be null and void. Like the dust of the earth.
This year, as we sit down to our incomplete Seder tables, celebrate our imperfect Passovers, let us hold fast to the words of Kol Hamira. Let us take comfort in their profound humanism. God has seen our labor, and will overlook our lapses. He recognizes the impossibility of the task. He understands the difficulty of the present circumstances. And He knows we’ve done our best. ■
The writer is the editor-in-chief of Maggid Books (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) and a teacher of rabbinic literature at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.