How “Kol Nidrei” Captures the Essence of Yom Kippur

September 28, 2017 | Wendy Amsellem
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Although by far the most well-known piece of the holy day’s prayers, Kol Nidrei was a late and controversial addition to the liturgy that, in strict halakhic terms, should be considered of secondary importance. Rather than addressing Yom Kippur’s central themes of repentance and atonement, it is a blanket annulment of vows and oaths. Yet, argues Wendy Amsellem, the importance ascribed to it in the popular imagination is well founded:

In both biblical and rabbinic literature, vows are a very serious matter. Numbers 30:3 cautions, “If a man vows a vow to God or swears an oath to forbid something to himself, he shall not violate his words, all that he says he must do.” . . . Thus if a person took a vow, for example, to refrain from eating chocolate, the Torah commands her to keep her vow, and so the prohibition against her eating chocolate takes on the severity of a biblical injunction. [Put differently], our words have the capacity to take on divine force. . . .

We can understand . . . the desire to speak significantly, to impose a steadfastness on our inherently mutable existence. We want to be more noble in our speech, more reliable in our actions. Yet [talmudic] anecdotes about those who take vows always seem to end with a desire to get out of them. . . . We are unable to meet our commitments; we don’t want the same things tomorrow that we want today.

Yet halakhah allows for vows to be annulled in most circumstances, usually by going to a rabbi or rabbinic court, expressing regret, and then receiving absolution. The Talmud discusses the details of such annulment at length, relating many cases of sages who sought annulments of their vows from their colleagues and teachers. Amsellem continues:

Although [there is a case where a talmudic rabbi] frees himself from a vow, [the great sage] Shmuel teaches that it is preferable to have others annul one’s vows. . . . This [teaching] introduces a communal element. Others can help out when a person realizes his limitations.

Humans want to be like God. They inevitably fail in their aspirations, but they can rely on others in their community to come to their rescue. This is the essential message of the High Holy Days.

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