Many of us have the custom to perform “Hatarat Nedarim”, the annulment of vows, prior to Rosh Hashana. In a simple ceremony whereby one reads a petition before three men, any vows made inadvertently over the previous year are annulled. It is somewhat surprising that despite this being a widespread practice, the Yom Kippur service opens with a similar ceremony. The sh’liach tzibbur recites the Kol Nidrei prayer three times, thus declaring all vows null and void. We therefore pose two questions. What is the halachic significance, if any, of the recitation of Kol Nidrei? Why is this deemed the appropriate prayer with which to commence the tefillot of Yom Kippur?
Kol Nidrei originates in the Geonic period and has been the subject of much controversy throughout the ages. The discussion ranged from a dispute as to the halachic status of Kol Nidrei, to practical considerations as to whether, when Jews were living amongst non-Jews, they should be seen to be annulling their vows. This latter concern caused some Rabbanim in the nineteenth century to remove Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur liturgy altogether!
As cited above, vows are generally annulled by a Bet Din of three males and require a petition by the person who wishes for his vows to be annulled. It has been suggested that the custom by which the sh’liach tzibbur is accompanied by two elders of the community during the recitation of Kol Nidrei stems from the need to create a Bet Din of three. However, most authorities agree that Kol Nidrei does not have a real halachic impact on any vows which may have been taken. There is an opinion found in the Rishonim that Kol Nidrei is more of a petition for forgiveness should we by accident fail to fulfill a vow, rather than a formal annulment. It would therefore seem appropriate to search for a different reason for the inclusion of Kol Nidrei at the outset of our Yom Kippur tefillot.
Rav Soloveitchik, in an essay about the arrival and approach of Yom Kippur (“Before Hashem You Shall be Purified”, P60-84), discusses various aspects of the Kol Nidrei prayer. His opening idea focuses on the dual language invoked in the tefilla. We refer to vows made from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur and from this year to the Yom Kippur in a year’s time. (There are different versions of this section of Kol Nidrei.) This reflects two aspects of the repentance process. On the one hand, we must have remorse for sins committed over the past year. On the other hand, we must make a commitment to endeavor not to repeat the sin during the course of the year to come. Although Kol Nidrei focuses on one specific aspect of our relationship with God, it serves as an example of how the teshuva process should function – regret for the past and a pledge for the future. This idea is underlined by the opinion of some authorities that Kol Nidrei refers only to those commitments undertaken in the realm of Ben Adam leMakom, between man and God.
Let us expand on this notion a little further. On the one hand, one may get the impression that Kol Nidrei is not a good example for those of us attempting to do teshuva. It is, after all, a “quick fix”. A few words said and suddenly all vows are annulled. Surely teshuva is not that simple. However, as we explained above, Kol Nidrei does not really have halachic significance but should rather be viewed as a prayer. We suggest that it can be better understood by referring to another central part of our tefillot on Yom Kippur.
The “Sh’losh Esrey Middot”, thirteen attributes of mercy, are recited countless times over the course of Yom Kippur. They are also the focus of our Selichot prayers. What is so important about the Sh’losh Esrey Middot?
We recall that they were first invoked by Moshe as he asked Hashem to forgive Am Yisrael for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe was not merely seeking forgiveness from Hashem. He wanted the sin deleted entirely. The same attributes of mercy (with minor changes) were employed once again by Moshe as he asked God to forgive the nation for the sin of the spies. In both cases Moshe’s request was granted, although in the event of the spies Am Yisrael did not merit to enter the land.
These original uses of the Sh’losh Esrey Middot are countered by the following comments in the Gemara, (Rosh Hashana 17b)
“God passed by him and called…” (Shemot 34,6).
- Yochanan said: Were this not an explicit verse, we could not have said such a thing. It tells us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself (in a talit) like the prayer leader (chazzan) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sins, let them perform this order and I shall forgive them.
“HaShem HaShem” – I am He before man sins; I am He after man sins and repents … Rav Yehuda said: A covenant is made over the thirteen attributes, that they are never ineffectual, as is written, “Behold I am making a covenant” (34:10).
This incredible statement of the Gemara almost turns around the course of events as described in the Torah. Rather than the impetus coming from Moshe, it appears that Hashem instructed Moshe as to what to say. “If you speak about My attributes of mercy,” says The Almighty to Moshe, “then I will reassure Am Yisrael of My covenant with them, a covenant which stands forever.”
We can now understand why we say the Sh’losh Esrey Middot over and over again. Hashem Himself told us to do so! When we repeat this formula in our tefillot we are imploring Hashem to act towards us with mercy; we are stating that although we have sinned we want to be assured of Hashem’s love for us.
Let us return now to Kol Nidrei. We refer to the annulling of vows as if they were our sins and state that in the same way as we declare our vows to be “beteilin umevutalin”, null and void, so we implore Hashem to relate to our misdemeanors and sins. This can be seen from the tefillot recited directly after Kol Nidrei. The sh’liach tzibbur quotes a passuk referring to forgiveness and then the entire congregation recites three times:
“Vayomer Hashem, salachti kidvarecha”, Hashem said I pardon as you have asked (Bamidbar 14:19).
This verse is found just after Moshe invokes the Sh’losh Esrey Middot following the sin of the spies. Based on the above understanding of Kol Nidrei we now comprehend its relevance here. In a similar way to the thirteen attributes of mercy, Kol Nidrei is a call to God to forgive us for our mistakes.
We have thus seen that Kol Nidrei can be understood in two almost opposite ways. On the one hand, it reminds us of the serious attitude required as we approach the process of teshuva. On the other, it serves as a call to God to act towards us with mercy.
We add a further aspect to our thoughts on Kol Nidrei. As we daven on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we often consider what new things we should undertake for the coming year. We consider the realms of our relationship with God in which we need to improve. We ponder about how we can better our attitudes towards our fellow man. In addition to this, we may find ourselves making commitments. We will learn a chapter of mishna every day. We will visit an ageing aunt every week. Whilst these are all positive things to take on, are we really going to keep up with everything we promise to ourselves? Perhaps, in anticipation of this, we open our tefillot with Kol Nidrei. In the spur of the moment, in the excitement of Yom Kippur, we may commit to deeds which we will not fulfill. This is not to say, that we should not try to change and improve ourselves. But, in a flash of realism, the Kol Nidrei tefilla instituted at the opening of Yom Kippur allows us a get out clause.
This may sound a little lame and just a form of excuse for our shortcomings, but it may also be designed to give us hope. After all, we often find that the commitments we made at the same time last year we did not fulfill. This can be very disconcerting. What is the point of even attempting to change if everything we tried last year failed? Kol Nidrei responds to this concern as if to say, “its OK”. We do not always have the ability or the stamina to see our thoughts through to the end but that does not mean that we should not try. Yes, we should make the effort. Even less than perfect is acceptable. After all Hashem loves us, doesn’t He?
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova