Yom Kippur | The Mysteries of Kol Nidrei

by 24USATVSept. 18, 2023, 10:01 p.m. 16

Over the centuries, Kol Nidrei has inspired controversy, based on the claim that it might give Jews the idea that we could neglect our promises.

We ought to devote the entire month leading up to Rosh Hashanah in introspection, according to rabbinic tradition. We ought to devote that month to working at improving our deeds and practices. Then comes Rosh Hashanah, known as the Day of Judgment, when we see ourselves as accountable, the first of the 10 days of even more intensive repentance. At the close of the 10 days, we should come into Yom Kippur fully intending to remake our lives for the better.

Except that we realize we have tried to repent in previous years and achieved uneven results. Last year, we promised to improve our lives, to keep the commandments better, to act with more compassion, and how well have we done? Thinking about this, we could become discouraged. Maybe we have failed at our enthusiastic commitments.

So, we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, at which we declare that we want absolution from all the private commitments we made this past year, which we intended with all sincerity, but that we may have failed to fulfill. Bad enough that we have failed to improve; we do not want the additional guilt of spoiling last year’s commitments.

Or maybe we declare that, going into Yom Kippur, we do not want to be held accountable for the commitments we are about to make. We make these commitments because we hope to succeed, but if we fail, we do not want the additional guilt for spoiling our promises.

Kol Nidrei, the text we use for that declaration, mostly uses the past tense, focusing on the promises that we have already failed. In the center of the declaration, though, most congregations use the phrase, “from this Yom Kippur to the next Yom Kippur,” an emendation recommended by Rabbi Meir ben Shemuel (who lived in France in the 1100s). The literally confused tenses express one coherent idea: We want absolution from both past and future failures.

Kol Nidrei, as recited in most congregations, includes phrases in Aramaic and in Hebrew. The late Professor Gene Schramm (who taught semitics and linguistics at the University of Michigan) cited Kol Nidrei as an example of the rule that poetic texts typically employ mixed languages as a device to heighten solemnity. Kol Nidrei also gains solemnity from the heart-rending tune used in all Ashkenazic and many other congregations.

Kol Nidrei may have gained additional poignancy after recurring incidents of forced conversions, such as those in medieval and renaissance Spain, when Jews who had sworn allegiance to other faiths managed to return to the synagogue. How powerful it must have felt to proclaim that they could renounce their previous oaths, that there even existed an old formal ritual for renouncing the painful oaths. Kol Nidrei had been in the prayer book long earlier. Rav Amram Gaon mentions Kol Nidrei in the prayer book in ninth-century Iraq.

Though he mentions those who recite Kol Nidrei in his prayer book, Rav Amram opposed doing it: “… it is a silly custom, and it is forbidden to do it.”

The Mishnah defines a process for annulling vows, at which a panel of sages evaluates the circumstances of the vow. It does not have a formula for a simple renunciation of all past vows. There does exist a Talmudic precedent for announcing that one does not intend to make vows for the next year (Nedarim 23b). Perhaps that serves as the source for reciting Kol Nidrei in the future tense.

Some have the custom of making this announcement on the morning before Rosh Hashanah. The emotional power of Kol Nidrei apparently does not depend on its technical effectiveness in legal terms.

Over the centuries, Kol Nidrei has inspired controversy, based on the claim that it might give Jews the idea that we could neglect our promises. The text of Kol Nidrei (which refers to promises and oaths that we have undertaken “on ourselves”) makes clear that the formula does not apply to promises that we make to other people or obligations accepted in court, but only to our private religious promises (Rabbi Yehiel of Paris pointed this out at a disputation in Paris in 1240).

Most congregations precede Kol Nidrei with a solemn pronouncement in the form of a legal decision: “In Heavenly Court, and in the earthly court, with the consent of the Omnipresent, and with the consent of the congregation, we permit prayer along with transgressors.”

Perhaps in the early Middle Ages Jewish leaders had enough autonomy to banish transgressors, to force them out of the organized community. Maybe now we welcome those banished individuals, the “transgressors,” back in to join us for the Yom Kippur prayers.

Perhaps the “transgressors” means those who turned their backs on the Jewish community or informed against the Jewish community. On Yom Kippur all of us need to join in prayers even with them. We also have fallen short of our ideals.

Like Kol Nidrei, the decision to permit us to pray with the transgressors begins Yom Kippur with the realization that we all have failed, and we all need forgiveness, and we all need to bend our efforts to do better.


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