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On the History and the Meaning of Kol Nidre

Every year at least a few perplexed people come up to me and ask, “wait a minute, what is going on in the Kol Nidre prayer? How can anything we promise be meaningful if we are retroactively releasing ourselves from all vows we will make in the coming year?”

So I promised I would address this question this year before we chant. The good news is, your confusion is well founded; the debate over the legitimacy of the Kol Nidre has been going on for well over a thousand years. The bad news is, I cannot do the question justice in just a few minutes; it really deserves a full lecture, and tonight is not the moment for that. A brief summary will have to suffice.

Since God said “let there be light”, words in the Jewish tradition are considered to have real power, and are understood to be binding. A vow is a commitment, and cannot be ignored. You are only as good as your word. When the 3rd commandment declares “do not swear falsely in God’s name”, we are both affirming the sanctity of our word, and acknowledging that we had better make promises judiciously, for we are imperfect beings.

And yet, we all make rash promises. A custom developed among the Jews of Babylonia in the Talmudic period in late antiquity to recite a formula that would release us from all the vows, Kol Nidre, that we had made during the previous year, so that we could come before God for forgiveness and a clean slate. Jewish law made clear that we could not simply annul vows we had made to other people; we could only annul vows we had made between ourselves and God that we had failed to fulfill. Gym memberships, for example. But the practice of annulling vows could be misconstrued to include all vows, and most rabbinic authorities therefore opposed the practice of Kol Nidre. For example, Amram Gaon, the leader of the Babylonian Jewish community in the 9th century, refers to Kol Nidre as minhag shetut, a foolish custom!

Because of this resistance, many Jewish communities did not embrace the practice of reciting Kol Nidre, and to this day some far-flung Jewish communities still do not recite it. But despite steadfast rabbinic opposition through the centuries, Kol Nidre took root. In the 12th century in France, for complex Jewish legal reasons that I will not try to explain right now, (but Wikipedia has a great article!), the Kol Nidre’s language was altered to refer to vows that we would make in the coming year, rather than vows we made in the past year. The Ashkenazi world adopted this revised wording, but the Sephardi world never did. Today, especially in Israel where Sephardim and Ashkenazim now mingle, some congregations chant both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi versions.

In the 19th century, the newly formed Reform movement decided, with much rabbinic precedent, to eliminate Kol Nidre from the Yom Kippur service. It served no legitimate legal function, and even more so, it had long served as fodder for anti-Semites, who claimed that Kol Nidre proved that Jews would always go back on their word. But Kol Nidre would not die. Reform Jews demanded that it be reinstated, and so it was.

Which is my point: our attachment to Kol Nidre is not rational. Its meaning to us is embedded in its cadences and melody, not in its literal meaning. When we hear the opening sob of a melody that dates back hundreds of years, we are drawn into this holy time. Kol Nidre is an incantation, touching our souls more than our minds, invoking this most sacred of days. We stand before a magnificent gate, and the ancient strains of Kol Nidre are the key that unlocks that gate for us. It is the Gate of our Heritage. It is the Gate of Repentance. It is the Gate of Forgiveness. The doors swing open wide, and, humbled and awestruck, together we enter the gates of Yom Kippur.

Listen.