One of the most important elements of the observance of Yom Kippur in many Jewish congregations is the “Kol Nidre.”
In order to best understand the Kol Nidre, one must first appreciate the significance of Yom Kippur itself.
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement” in Hebrew) takes place on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, which means it falls in September some years and October some years.
The basis for Yom Kippur is found in Leviticus 23:26-28, which states: “God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no work throughout that day for it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.'”
Yom Kippur is thus seen as the one day each year that God has set aside to forgive the sins of those who are repentant, have reconciled with those they have wronged, and humbly ask His forgiveness.
For the 24-25 hours between sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, and nightfall of Yom Kippur itself, the observant Jew is under tight restrictions. In addition to the usual prohibitions of the Sabbath against any form of “work” (interpreted very broadly), it is a period of complete fasting-no eating or even drinking. The Jewish person is expected to refrain from any indulgences or worldly concerns such as washing, sex, using cosmetics, and so on, and focus solely on atoning for his or her wrongdoing, and seeking forgiveness and a closer relationship with God.
Synagogue attendance is higher on Yom Kippur than any other day of the year, with many Jews choosing to spend the bulk of the holiday coming together to solemnly atone for their sins.
There are many prayers and rituals that have become customary in synagogues on Yom Kippur. One of the most notable-and in some ways controversial-of these is called the Kol Nidre, which are the first two words of the prayer that begins the evening service.
“Kol Nidre” in Aramaic means “All Vows.” Literally what the prayer states is that those praying are asking God to render the vows they make in the coming year non-binding on them.
Leaving aside the fact that like with most religious rituals, the bulk of the people are simply doing and saying what is traditional, and appreciating the emotion and solemnity and feeling of community of doing it in a group, why such an odd prayer? Why ask to be let out of your promises ahead of time?
There is actually a lot of history behind the Kol Nidre, and a lot of debate about it within Judaism.
In ancient times, there was concern that far too many people were making rash vows. It was commonplace in some circles that one would have to state something as a vow in order to be taken seriously. Scholars felt this was trivializing what should be a rare and solemn commitment.
Vows ought to be reserved for matters of great importance, and should only be entered into with thoughtfulness and sobriety, when the person is certain this is a commitment they wish to make and will keep. These cheaper, more lightly entered into vows were consistently putting people in a position where they would either have to commit the sin of breaking their vow, or keep the vow and do something unwise or harmful.
There then arose certain procedures whereby a person could be absolved of having made and broken a foolish vow by receiving dispensation by clergy or a special board of three laymen. Eventually this was codified in the Kol Nidre prayer of the Yom Kippur service so that it need not be handled on an individual basis. Later the wording of the Kol Nidre was subtly changed so that it made reference not to the vows of the preceding year, but to those of the upcoming year.
But all of this was far from universally accepted within Judaism. Many scholars objected to the idea of giving blanket absolution for breaking vows. The Kol Nidre has been accepted in some parts of the world, and not others. (For instance, the Jewish communities in Catalonia and Algeria never adopted it.) There have also been historical periods where it was widely accepted, and historical periods where it fell largely out of favor.
Indeed, the Kol Nidre has provided a convenient opening for anti-Semites. It has long been cited as a reason that Jews are not to be trusted, because they don’t really mean any promises they make. In some countries, for a time these concerns have even been codified into law, serving as justifications for putting significant restrictions on such matters as Jews providing testimony under oath in court.
The conventional defense against these charges is that the Kol Nidre should not be interpreted as applying to all vows, promises, contracts, etc., but only to personal ones that a person makes to God, or to him or herself with God as witness.
So a contractual obligation to deliver certain goods for a certain price, say, wouldn’t come under the Kol Nidre, because failing to fulfill one’s commitments there would directly harm another party who has a right to rely on one’s word. But if one were to make a “New Year’s resolution” type vow to quit smoking, this would be the sort of thing the Kol Nidre covers.
But still, isn’t there something objectionable about being able to wriggle out of even that kind of self-regarding vow in advance? Isn’t it still wrong to take that kind of vow and break it?
One can make a good case that it is. And many Jewish scholars would agree, which is why they object to the Kol Nidre.
But another way to look at it is as a form of humility, a way of admitting that one will do one’s best, but may well fall short, and a way of beseeching God not to judge too harshly in those cases.
Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs makes this point well in paraphrasing the prayer as follows: “See, O Lord, what miserable sinners we are. We make promises to live better lives each year and yet always fall far short of keeping them. Therefore, help us, O Lord, and pardon us for our shortcomings.”
Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “Kol Nidrei.” My Jewish Learning.
“Kol Nidre.” Jewish Encyclopedia.
“Yom Kippur.” Judaism 101.