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Question: I was recently discussing the sorry state of religion in Eretz Yisrael with some friends, noting that unfortunately a majority of the population consists of non-observant Jews. I expressed my view that this fact explains why Moshiach has not yet come. I avidly read your column and am anxious to learn your view of this matter.

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Answer: When your query arrived, I was in midst of preparing the Yom Tov d’rashot (holiday sermons) that I delivered in my congregation, Kahal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn. In these sermons, I sought to address numerous practices surrounding our holiday prayers. One matter concerned Kol Nidrei and its placement at the very beginning of the Yom Kippur prayer service.

Kol Nidrei, as its name implies, is a public annulment of any vow one might have made in the course of the year. Before we begin, however, we say, “Al Da’at Ha’Makom ve’al da’at ha’kahal u’biyeshiva shel maala u’biyeshiva shel mata anu matirin l’hitpallel im ha’avrayanim – With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation, in the convocation of the court above and in the convocation of the court below, we sanction prayer with the transgressors.”

To which transgressors are we referring? There are numerous answers. One of them is cited by Rabbi Yosef Grossman (Otzar Erchei Hayahadut): that “transgressors” refers to the Marranos in Spain. Since they openly transgressed by committing the sin of idolatry, they needed this yearly dispensation to allow them to join in communal prayer.

However, we no longer live in the age of the Marranos. To whom do we refer when we say this prefatory statement about transgressors today? Some say we are referring to anyone who violated communal edicts and was banished from the synagogue. Through this special preface, they are allowed to join in the communal prayer.

One might question, however, what need there is for them to join the service. The answer is based on the Gemara (Kerisut 6b), where R. Chana b. Bizna said the following in the name of R. Shimon Chasida: “Any fast that does not include the transgressors is not a fast, for behold the unpleasant odor of the chelbona [galbanum, the one foul-smelling spice that was included in the pleasant fragrant spices in the Temple frankincense]. Yet, the Torah (Exodus 30:7-8, 34-36) included it in the daily frankincense offering.”

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhansk (the Noam Elimelech) seems to amend the Gemara’s text as he states: “Any prayer [service] that does not include sinners is not considered a prayer.” This would explain the need to include transgressors in saying Kol Nidrei.

As I searched the souls seated before me in my congregation this past Yom Kippur, however, I could find no such transgressors. Did their absence invalidate our entire Yom Kippur prayer service? Did we fast in vain?

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.