Exploring Kol Nidrei

“Kol Nidrei” “on one foot”:

”Kol Nidrei” is a prayer said at the beginning of evening Yom Kippur services. It asks G-d to forgive us for promises we make in the coming year which we might not be able to keep.

The Magic of Kol Nidrei, by Bruce Siegel

I look at the people milling around the sanctuary and know that finally, I understand the magic of Kol Nidrei. All these years, the answer was around me and I didn’t see it.

It is the people. The people who every year on Yom Kippur fill the synagogues of the world to hear a simple, sad melody sung in a language most of them hardly know. Still they come, often not knowing why. Not understanding what draws them. Knowing only that this is what Jews do. Religious Jews and Jews who don’t believe. Jews who come to synagogue every week, and Jews who come but once a year. Jews for whom the holidays are a joy, and Jews for whom the holidays are a mystery.

Context: This story, by a cantor, is about a boy whose grandfather tells him that there is magic when Kol Nidrei is sung. By the time the boy becomes a grandfather himself, he finally understands why. In the meantime, as a boy, father, and grandfather, he comes up with different reasons why the prayer is chanted 3 times.

Why do you make sure to hear Kol Nidrei (if you do)?

כָּל נִדְרֵי וֶאֱסָרֵי וַחֲרָמֵי וְקוֹנָמֵי וְכִנּוּיֵי. וְקִנוּסֵי וּשְׁבוּעֵי דִּנְדַֽרְנָא. וּדְאִשְׁתַּבַּֽעְנָא. וּדְאַחֲרִימְנָא. וּדְאָסַֽרְנָא עַל נַפְשָׁתָֽנָא. מִיּוֹם כִּפּוּרִים זֶה עַד יוֹם כִּפּוּרִים הַבָּא עָלֵֽינוּ לְטוֹבָה. כֻלְּהוֹן אִחֲרַֽטְנָא בְהוֹן. כֻּלְּהוֹן יְהוֹן שָׁרָן. שְׁבִיקִין, שְׁבִיתִין, בְּטֵלִין וּמְבֻטָּלִין, לָא שְׁרִירִין וְלָא קַיָּמִין: נִדְרָֽנָא לָא נִדְרֵי. וֶאֱסָרָֽנָא לָא אֱסָרֵי. וּשְׁבוּעָתָֽנָא לָא שְׁבוּעוֹת:

All vows, and all the things we have made forbidden to ourselves, and all our oaths, and all consecrated items we have pledged; all explicit promises and all abbreviated promises, that we have vowed, sworn, and dedicated: from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur — may it come at an auspicious time! — we regret having made them. May they be forgiven, eradicated and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer. Our vows shall no longer be vows, our resolutions shall no longer be resolutions, and our oaths shall no longer be oaths.

This is the Ashkenazic text of Kol Nidrei, the prayer we say at the beginning of Yom Kippur evening services. It was written in Aramaic because that was the vernacular of the time and it was important for everybody to be able to understand it. Contrary to what anti-Semites have said, this text only annuls vows made to G-d, not to other people nor to the government. Click here to hear it sung: https://drive.google.com/file/d/13WqCEqLrEfkIkpzz2Xkl8f7co8VLXlYX/view?usp=sharing

1. What questions does it raise for you?

2. If we want to go into the new year with a clean slate, how might this prayer help?

3. Some say that this prayer expresses our fear that we will not be able to keep our promises in the coming year because of events we can not foretell. Does that explanation work for you?

4. In the Aramaic there are 7 words for types of promises, and 7 words for ways of nullifying them. How might this be connected to the story of creation?

5. What promises did you make in the past year? Were you able to keep them? What, or who, do you need to be able to follow through on your promises in the coming year?

The History of Kol Nidrei

This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew

Kol Nidrei has an interesting if somewhat cloudy history. It seems to have been composed during the reign of Reccared I, a sixth-century Visigoth king of Spain who ordered the Jews to convert on pain of death. So Kol Nidrei was originally a cry of pain, an expression of grief at having had to commit apostasy. Spanish Jews chanted it when they gathered secretly to observe Yom Kippur. They did the same later under the Byzantine persecution of the ninth century, and again during the Papal and Spanish Inquisitions of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. But I use the word seems advisedly. We’re not really sure of any of this. The dates fit nicely, but there is no historical corroboration for this theory.

Context: This is from Rabbi Alan Lew’s 2003 book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. The book provides meaning for the time from Tisha B’Av through Sukkot.

Does it matter why the prayer was originally written?

Entering the High Holy Days, by Reuven Hammer

Excepting its origin, the history of Kol Nidrei is well-documented. We can date its first appearance to eighth-century Babylonia, where it was opposed vehemently by the Geonim: in 879 CE Amram Gaon cites a Hebrew text of Kol Nidrei, but disapproves of it, calling it a “foolish custom”. Saadia Gaon (882-942) accepted the text, and in 1000 CE Hai, another of the Geonim, approved a revised text, making it clear that it was to be understood as a plea for mercy rather than a legal annulment of vows. Gradually, the custom of reciting Kol Nidrei spread both to the Land of Israel and to Europe. There, too, it encountered opposition and was regarded as an invalid practice that made light of vows. The opposition was overcome when Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Samuel (the son-in-law of Rashi) implemented the Talmudic concept of permitting the cancellation of vows in advance and changed the tenses in the prayer to the future. This change was endorsed by the great authority Rabbenu Tam, but the required changes were never officially made in the generally accepted text. The traditional text of Kol Nidrei therefore speaks of annulling vows from now until next Yom Kippur but uses the past tense in speaking about them. The final changes were made in the thirteenth century by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who introduced the opening formula (“By authority of the Heavenly court”) and turned the verses at the end of the prayer into a congregational response.

Context: This is from Reuven Hammer’s 1998 book Entering the High Holy Days. Reuven Hammer is a scholar of Jewish liturgy, and this book walks through the history and themes of each part of the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The opening formula says “By authority of the Heavenly court and the court on earth, we permit prayer with those who have transgressed.” Why might this be an important addition?

Why Are the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Versions Different?

(ג) אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

(3) If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Numbers. It is from a whole chapter about vows, promises, and keeping your word.

According to this text, is there any way to get out of vows, oaths, and obligations?

וְהָרוֹצֶה שֶׁלֹּא יִתְקַיְּימוּ נְדָרָיו כׇּל הַשָּׁנָה יַעֲמוֹד בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה וְיֹאמַר כׇּל נֶדֶר שֶׁאֲנִי עָתִיד לִידּוֹר יְהֵא בָּטֵל וּבִלְבַד שֶׁיְּהֵא זָכוּר בִּשְׁעַת הַנֶּדֶר

And one who desires that his vows not be upheld for the entire year should stand up on Rosh HaShana and say: Any vow that I take in the future should be void. And this is statement is effective, provided that he remembers at the time of the vow that his intent at the beginning of the year was to render it void.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet (Tractate) Nedarim, which is about vows. It comments on a mishnah that says that if one wants to make a fake vow, so as to convince somebody to do something, you just have to say "Any vow which I take in the future is void."

Note that this certainly does not apply to court situations. There’s a Talmudic principle that “Dina d’Malchuta Dina” - the law of the land is the law.

According to this text, is there any way to get out of a vow, promise, or obligation that you have already made?

Change of Tense from Past to Future

An important alteration in the wording of the Kol Nidre was made by Rashi's son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century), who changed the original phrase "from the last Day of Atonement until this one" to "from this Day of Atonement until the next". Thus, the dispensation was not a posteriori and concerning unfulfilled obligations of the past year, but was a priori, making reference to vows one might not be able to fulfill or might forget to observe during the ensuing year. Meir ben Samuel likewise added the words "we do repent of them all", since real repentance is a condition of dispensation. The reasons for this change were that an "ex post facto" annulment of a vow was meaningless and, furthermore, that no one might grant to himself a dispensation, which might be given only by a board of three laymen or by a competent judge. Additionally, the Talmudic discussion of annulment of vows speaks of negating vows to be made in the future.[31] Finally, there was the distinct probability that a person would die with unfulfilled vows having been made since the previous Day of Atonement, so annulling these vows in advance might diminish the weight such unkept vows imposed on him at his death.

It was Rabbeinu Tam, however, who accounted for the alteration made by his father, as already stated, and who also tried to change the perfect tense of the verbs ("which we have vowed", "have sworn", etc.) to the imperfect. Whether the old text was already too deeply rooted, or whether Rabbeinu Tam did not correct these verbal forms consistently and grammatically, the old perfect forms are still retained at the beginning of the formula, but a future meaning is given to them.[32]

The alteration made by Meïr ben Samuel, which agreed with Isaac ibn Ghayyat's view, was accepted in the German, northern French, and Polish rituals and in those dependent on them, but not in the Spanish, Roman, and Provençal rituals.[33] The old version is, therefore, usually called the "Sephardic". The old and new versions are sometimes found side by side.[34] Because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some Sephardic communities and even some Ashkenazic communities (especially in Israel) make a point of reciting both versions (usually referring to the previous Yom Kippur in the first two iterations and the next Yom Kippur in the third).[35]


Context: This is from the Wikipedia article on Kol Nidrei.

Does this prayer work better for you in the past tense (the vows from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur), or the future tense (from this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur)?

Why Do We Wear a Tallit for Kol Nidrei?

Entering the High Holy Days, by Reuven Hammer

The transcendence of Kol Nidrei is marked not only by asking for and granting forgiveness, but by the wearing of the tallit (prayer shawl). Kol Nidrei is the only evening service during the year when the tallit is worn; it is otherwise worn only during the day. The Biblical verse concerning the tallit speaks of seeing fringes (Num. 15:39); this phrase is taken to mean that the fringes of the tallit are to be worn only when they can be seen, that is, during the day when it is still light. Why, then, do we wear the tallit for Kol Nidrei? Although it leads directly into the evening service, Kol Nidrei is always begun and the tallit donned while it is still daylight. This timing is most likely due to the fact that Kol Nidrei is viewed as an act of canceling vows, an act that according to Jewish law may not be performed on a sacred day, such as Yom Kippur. Therefore it must be recited before nightfall, i.e., prior to Yom Kippur (Nedarim 77a). Since the service begins during daytime, it is therefore proper for the hazzan, the leader of the service who represents the congregation, to wear a tallit. Gradually, it became customary for all those in the congregation who wear a tallit to do so for Kol Nidrei as well.

One might have expected that the tallit would be removed after Kol Nidrei before reciting the evening service. The fact that it is not makes it clear that the wearing of the tallit must not be seen only as a legalistic interpretation of a Biblical verse, but also as an opportunity to differentiate Yom Kippur further from other days and to mark Kol Nidrei as a time more sacred than any other. Rabbinic teaching indicates that, on Yom Kippur, human beings take on the attributes of celestial beings. Like them, we have no need for food, drink, or other material goods on this day. Entering Yom Kippur at the Kol Nidrei service, we take upon ourselves aspects of eternity and feel ourselves more than merely human. It is no mere coincidence that the dead are buried in a tallit and that on Yom Kippur it is customary to wear white, the color of the Jewish burial shroud. The tallit therefore represents a connection between Kol Nidrei and the ideas of eternity and separation from the world of the living.

Context: Again from Reuven Hammer’s Entering the High Holy Days.

Which layer of explanation / meaning about the tallit most resonates for you?

The Prologue

בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה. עַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל. אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים:
In a convocation of the heavenly court, and a convocation of the lower court, with the consent of the Almighty, and consent of this congregation, we hereby grant permission to pray with transgressors.

Context: This is the text that precedes the words of Kol Nidrei itself. The cantor and 2 members of the congregation holding Torah scrolls constitutes the Beit Din, or “court”, to give this permission.

What do you need in order to feel that you have permission to participate in a religious experience?

(א) סדר ליל יום הכפורים ובו ג סעיפים:
ליל יום הכפורים נוהגים שאומר שליח צבור בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה ע"ד המקום ועל דעת הקהל אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העבריינים ונוהגים שאומר כל נדרי וכו' ואח"כ אומר שהחיינו בלא כוס: הגה ואח"כ מתפללים ערבית ונוהגים לומר כל נדרי בעודו יום וממשיך בניגונים עד הלילה ואומרים אותו שלשה פעמים וכל פעם מגביה קולו יותר מבראשונה (מהרי"ל) וכן אומר הש"צ ג"פ ונסלח לכל עדת וגו' והקהל אומרים ג' פעמים ויאמר ה' סלחתי כדבריך (מנהגים) ואל ישנה אדם ממנהג העיר אפילו בניגונים או בפיוטים שאומרים שם (מהרי"ל):

(1) On the night of Yom Kippur it is customary that the Chazzan says, 'In the heavenly court and in the earthly court, with the permission of the Omnipresent and with the permission of the congregation, we permit to pray with sinners.'. And it is customary to say 'Kol Nidre' etc. And after that one says 'Shehecheyanu' without a cup. Rema: And after that they pray the evening service. And it is customary to say Kol Nidrei while it is still daytime, and to continue with singing until nightfall. One says it three times, and each time one raises one's voice more than previously. (Maharil). Similarly the Chazzan says ,'And the whole community will be forgiven.' And the community say three times, 'And the Lord said, 'I have forgiven like you said.''. One should not deviate from the local custom even concerning the tunes and piyutim that are said there.

Context: This is from the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Joseph Caro's attempt to organize the rules of Jewish living as of 1563. Because Rabbi Moses Isserles was also trying to do this, but Rabbi Caro beat him to publication. Therefore, Rabbi Isserles's work got folded in as the "Rema", the Ashkenazi gloss for cases where Rabbi Caro was only giving a Sephardic perspective. The reason it says that we say Shehechiyanu without a cup is that on all other holidays the Shehechiyanu blessing is done at the end of Kiddush, but there is no Kiddush for Yom Kippur.

There are many reasons given as to why Kol Nidrei is said 3 times. One of them, given by Rabbi Isaac Klein, is that "Chattarat Nedarim" , the Absolution of Vows formula, is said 3 times (Y.D. 228:3).

Kol Nidrei is usually said while it is still daylight, because vows can not be nullified once the nightfall of a holy day arrives (Nedarim 77a:2).

Why might it be important to give permission to pray with "sinners" on Yom Kippur?

א"ר חנא בר בזנא א"ר שמעון חסידא כל תענית שאין בה מפושעי ישראל אינה תענית שהרי חלבנה ריחה רע ומנאה הכתוב עם סממני קטרת אביי אמר מהכא (עמוס ט, ו) ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה:
Rav Ḥana bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Any fast that does not include the participation of some of the sinners of the Jewish people is not a fast, as the smell of galbanum is foul and yet the verse lists it with the ingredients of the incense. Abaye says that this is derived from here: “It is He Who builds His upper chambers in the heavens and has established His bundle on the earth” (Amos 9:6), i.e., when the people are united as a bundle, including their sinners, they are established upon the earth.

Context: This is from the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Keritot, which is about situations where one is punished with “karet” (being cut off from the community, possibly in the world-to-come). Generally, this is situations where one intentionally does something they know they shouldn’t do, like eating bread on Passover or worshipping idols. One of these no-nos is blending incense according to the way it was done in the Temple, but using it for a non-Temple-related purpose (it’s interesting to think about what a modern equivalent of that would be). One of the ingredients in the incense was galbanum, which smells foul on its own. The rabbis concluded that its inclusion is to teach us that even unsavory characters are required to be included in a community-wide fast for the fast to be proper.

Yom Kippur prayers, such as “Ashamnu”, often confess our mistakes in the plural, that even if one of us didn’t do something, somebody else probably did, and we didn’t say anything. If Yom Kippur is about being a complete community, why would it be important to include the “sinners”?

The Observant Life, by Martin Cohen

One of the most fascinating parts of the Kol Nidrei service is the section at the beginning, before the actual Kol Nidrei prayer is chanted, when the congregation grants itself permission to worship with sinners. Some have explained this strange declaration with reference to people who were forced to take blasphemous vows: as these “sinners” sought absolution from their sinful oaths on Yom Kippur, the community expressed its understanding of their plight and affirmed their right to prayer together with other members of the community. Today these lines resonate with additional meaning. The synagogue is called a “sacred community” — a k’hillah k’doshah. As a result, people sometimes do not understand why congregations are not more particular about whom they allow to join. Why should someone who has been convicted of embezzlement, or who is known to have been unfaithful to his or her spouse, be accepted into a community that claims to be striving for holiness? Indeed, why do people who do not follow the laws of kashrut strictly or who do not strictly embrace the laws of Shabbat have a place in the sanctuary, and why should such people be given honors and even called to the Torah? The answer can be found in the humble declaration that it is permitted, indeed expected to pray with “sinners”. Perfection is not a prerequisite of joining a holy community. We are all imperfect, and the synagogue, therefore, is at best a collection of people who are “works in progress.” What unites the faithful is not what they have accomplished, but what they are striving to accomplish. We join together on Yom Kippur in recognition of the fact that we we want to be better, that we need to be better, and that we understand that, in accepting imperfections in others, we can hope that they will in turn accept and forgive our own imperfections.

Context: The Observant Life is a 2012 book which lays out the Conservative Movement’s guidance on how to live a Jewish life. More than just rules, it also seeks to explain the reasons behind aspects of Judaism as well as the ways each aspect can add meaning to a life.

Should somebody who is known to have embezzled be allowed to join a synagogue? What if they are known to not keep kosher?

With appreciation to: Rabbi Alex Kress, Jonathan Rabinowitz, Neil Tow, Leonard Cohen, Josh W, Rabbi Tracee Rosen, Sefaria Education, Rabbi Adrienne Rubin, Loren Berman, Rabbi Ilana Zeitman, Rabbi Ilana Baden,

Appendix A: Ways People Tried to Squash Kol Nidrei

Why might it have been so powerful that people hung onto Kol Nidrei anyway?

Geonim (589-1038 academies in Sura and Pumbadita in Babylonia)

שר שלום גאון 853-843: אין כח בעולם להתיר שבועות ולהפר כלל, לא בא״י ולא בחו״ל (תשובות עמוד קיח)

Sar Shalom Gaon (Rosh Yeshiva 843-853). No power in the world can annul vows anywhere

יהודאי גאון (ראש ישיבה 757-761

ואין נוהגין לא בישיבה ולא בכל מקום להתיר נדרים לא בר״ה ולא ביו״כ, אלא שמענו שבשאר ארצות אומרים ׳כל נדרי ואסרי׳, אבל אנו לא ראינו ולא שמענו מרבותינו״.

Rav Yehuday Gaon (Rosh Yeshiva 757-761). We do not ascribe to the custom of annulling vows on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. However, we heard that in other countries they say “kol nidre” we did not hear about this from our teachers.

נטרנאי גאון (853-858) נדרים אינה נשנית בשתי ישיבות היום יותר ממאה שנה. ...ושכתוב ״כל נדרי ואסרי״ האומרים ביום הכיפורים בערב, אין עמנו מנהג לעשות כן, לא בשתי ישיבות ולא בבבל כולה. ואין אנו מפירין נדרים ולא נוהגין להפר... (תשובות רב נטרונאי גאון׳ סימן קפה)

Rav Netrunay Gaon (Rosh Yeshiva Surah 853-858) The tractate Nedarim (vows) has not been studied in the two Babylonian yeshivot for over 100 years. We do not ascribe to the custom of reciting Kol Nidre anywhere in Babylonia…

נחשון ב״ר צדוק גאון סורא בשנים (871-879): אין עמנו מנהג לעשות כן, לא בבבל כולה (חמדה גנוזה׳ סימן מד)

Rav Nachshon bar Tzadok Gaon (Sura 871-879). We do not say kol nidre in Babylonia.

עמרם גאון (861-872): שמנהג שטות הוא זה [כל נדרי] ואסור לעשות כן (סדר רב עמרם גאון, חלק א, עמ' מז)

Amram Gaon (861-872) Kol nidre is a foolish custom and it is forbidden to say it.

האי גאון (896-886) : אין אנו מתירין נדרים לא בראש השנה ולא ביום הכיפורים, ולא שמענו מרבותינו שהיו עושין זה כל עיקר. ואתם תחמירו כמותנו ואל תשנו ממנהג הישיבות (עי' הרא"ש יומא סוף פ"ח)

Rav Hay Gaon. (886-896). We do not annul vows on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur… you should be stringent on this and not say it as per the custom in the two yeshivot in Babylonia

יהודה בן אליהו הדסי "האבל" פילוסוף קראי 1150. מוסיפים עוד חרון על חרון אף ה׳ ועומד החזן של צבור סבור כגוי אשר צדקה עשה לפני אלוהיך : "לעיני כל העדה והעדה נצבים עמו :כגר אשר משפט אלהיו לא עזב ובקול, נעים ורם : מתחיל בנגון באזנימו: והם קושבי׳ ושומעים הלמיד ורב וערבי׳ בקולו וסוברים שנמחל׳ ומתכפרי׳ הם בזה מאל המכפר לעמך : "ככה מתחיל ואומד כל נדרים , וחרמי׳ (ספר אשכול ה)

Yehuda ben Eliyahu Hadasi (Karite philosopher 1150~) (mocking non-Karite Jews). They add more divine wrath on wrath by saying kol nidre and thinking that with this they are forgiven.

Rishonim 1038-1500

תיקון רבנו תם(1100-1171). "מיום כפורים זה עד יום כיפור הבא עלינו לטובה", כדי שיהא משמעותו להבא, לומר: "ואסרי די אסרנא ודי אחרמנא" כולו בקמ"ץ.

Rabenu Tam (1100-1171). Revised the text to make it about vows in the future.

חלק החידושים:

ספר הישר לרבינו תם

כל נדרי דאמרינן בלילי יום הכפורים הגיה אבא מרי זצ : ל" מיום כפורים זה עד יום כפורים הבא עלינו לטובה כולהון דאיחרטנא בהו הבא עלינו 20 וכן עיקר. והאומר "מיום כפורים שעבר עד יום כפורים לטובה כולהון איחרטנא בהון" אינו אלא טועה שאי אפשר להתיר את עצמו, ובלא חרטה דמעיקרא, ובלא יחיד מומחה או ג' הדיוטות. ועוד שהלכה כרב פפא דהוא בתראה דאמר בהשולח גט שצריך לפרט הנדר. והכי נהגינן. אלא "מיום כפורים זה עד יום כפורים הבא עלינו לטובה" עיקר, וסמך לדבר דאמרי' ' בד נדרים: הרוצה שלא יתקיימו נדריו של השנה כולה יעמוד בראש השנה ויאמר כל 21 נדרים שאני עתיד לנדור יהו בטלין ובלבד שיהא זכור בשעת הנדר.


R. Jacob b. Meir Tam, Sefer haYashar, ed. S. S. Schlesinger; Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1959, 70 §100.

My lord father corrected Kol Nidre, which we say on Yom Kippur night, (to read): “from this Yom Kippur to (next) Yom Kippur, coming (we pray) favorably upon us—all of them that we (shall have) regretted22 (shall be released),” and that is the true (version). He who says “from last Yom Kippur to (this) Yom Kippur coming (we pray) favorably upon us—all of them we have regretted” is committing an error, because it is not possible to release oneself (from a vow) or (to release someone other than oneself from a vow) without ab initio regret23 and either an expert (judge) or three ordinary ones, and also because the halakhah is in accordance with (the view of) R. Papa, the final authority, who said in “The Sender of a Bill of Divorce” (= chapter 4 of Giṭṭin) that one must specify the vow (that he wishes to release)—and that is (indeed) our practice. Thus, “from this Yom Kippur to (next) Yom Kippur, coming (we pray) favorably upon us” is the true (version), and support for this (comes from) what they say in “Four Vows” (= chapter 3 of Nedarim): “He who wants the vows that he makes during the entire (coming) year not to be valid should stand at the beginning of the year and say, ‘all vows that I may make shall be void,’ (and it shall be so)—provided that he remembers this at the time of the vow.”

הכלבו סימן ס"ח (~1400). ואנו כבר גלינו דעתנו ופרשנו, שאין לומר כל נדרי כלל, ומה מועלת ההתרה למי שמתנה לאחר נדרו שיהא בטל? וכבר שמענו מההיא שמתתא שאין למנהג הזה שום שורש, שאין מבטלים הנדרים בכך, ואין בו ממש

Kolbo (1490~ well regarded halachic text, unknown authorship, first printed in Naples 1490, second printing Constantinople). …. Kol nidre should not be recited at all…this custom has no basis…no substance

Kol Bo 68:12-13 (13th-14th century, author unknown)

There is a minhag (custom) carried out in certain places of reciting Kol Nidre. We see that the rabbis have said that there is no basis for this practice, and it is indeed a mistake. It is best for the leaders of those places to cancel it. Otherwise, people will come to think that their vows will be annulled by it and they will not take their vows or promises seriously. And thus, Rav Amram and other geonim (9th century sages) said not to recite it at all.

Saadiah Gaon (10th century) said Kol Nidre can only be recited for vows made mistakenly or under duress by a community, but the individual who makes vows throughout the year cannot annul them this way.

ר"ן רבי נסים בן ר' ראובן גירונד ברצלונא (1315-1376(. ונראה שמה שאומרים קצת קהילות "כל נדרי ואסרי" הם מתכוונים, לבטל נדרים שידרו לאחר מכן; אלא שלשונם משובש.. ואין ראוי לומר כן, כדי שלא יקלו ראשם בנדרים; …. (על הסוגיה נדרים כ"ג:)

Ran, Rabbi Nissim from Gironde, Barcelona (1315-1376). Apparently, the intention of those few communities who say kol nidre is for vows to come but the language got distorted, however it should not be said

ר' יחיאל מפאריס, מבעלי התוספות 1270. ויכוח לפני לודוויג התשיעי בין ר' יחיאל ובין המשומד ניקולאי דונין. המומר אמר: "כי אומרים לכל מי שנדר או נשבע שיכול חבירו להתיר לו נדרו, ובכל שנה ושנה אומרים ביום הכיפורים להפר את הנדרים והשבועות שהשביעום הגויים. ואין מקיימין נדר ושבועה לכל גוי…השיב ר' יחיאל: רק אותן שאינן אלא לעצמו ואין לאחרים חלק בהם. אבל הנדרים שבין הנדרים שבין אדם לחברו אין אדם יכול להפר". (ספר וויכוח רבינו יחיאל מפאריס עם משומד אחד - טהראן 1873, עמודים 6-7).

Public debate between Rabbi Yechiel the tosafist and an apostate before Ludwig the 9th. Apostate ridicules the Jews and calls them untrustworthy due to kol nidre as promises can be absolved. Rabbi Yechiel clarifies that its only about vows to oneself.

שו"ת הריב"ש סימן שצד ספרד 1326 - אלגיר 1408

טוב שלא לאמרו [כל נדרי] כלל… ובכל קטלוניא, אין אומרין אותו. ומדעתי: אחרי אשר קבלו ממך, אנשי מקומך: לתקן הלשון, שהיה מורגל אצלם, מעתה תוכל לבטלו לגמרי, אעפ"י שבתחלה אולי לא היו שומעין.

Ribash (Spain & Algeria 1326-1408). Best not to say kol nidreh…we do not say it in Catalonia, now that your congregants have accepted the need to correct the language of kol nidre, I believe that they will now listen to you if you tell them to completely omit it.

לבוש אורח חיים סימן תריט סעיף א

וא"כ רוב נוסח של כל נדרי אשר נדפס במחזורים אין בו ממש, ואין לו שום פירוש אלא הניגון בלבד, ואינם יודעים ואינם מבינים מה אומרים, ואם איישיר חילי אתקננה, וכמה פעמים רציתי לתקנו וללמדו לחזנים כהוגן, ולא היו יכולים לשנות בעת תפלתם מפני הרגל הניגון שבפיהם, על כן אומר אני הרוצה לדקדק יאמרנו לבדו בחשאי וכאשר תקנתיה, ולא יסמוך על הש"ץ לומר אחריו מלה במלה, כי ודאי נוסח של טעות הוא מה שאומרים ואינו תנאי לא לש"ץ ולא לקהל רק צפצוף דברים בעלמא כמו העופות שמצפצפין ואין בהם דיבור, נ"ל.

R. Mordecha Yaffe 16th c. Poland

Summary: The Kol Nidrei text that we have is absolutely meaningless, and its only value is musical. There is another, better way of annulling vows. Those who sing it in the synagogue are doing nothing, and it is like the tweeting of birds who can't say anything.

Modern Era (1800-1900)

אברהם גייגר (1810-1874), החליף "כל נדרי" עם "כל פשעי ופשעי הקהל הזה ופשעי כל עמך מחם והעבירם מנגד עיניך וטהר לבנו מיום כפורים זה עד יום כפורים הבא... (סדר תפילה "דבר יום ביומו" ברסלאו 1891).

Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) founder of Reform Judaism. Replaced Kol Nidrei with a prayer he wrote

"אוקאז" מיוחד של ממשלת הצאר שנת 1875. תשובת הרבנים, לממשלה: "…אנחנו מתירים נדרים ושבועות, שהאדם אוסר בהם איסור על נפשו… דברים שבינו לבין עצמו, אבל חס וחלילה לכל איש לחשוב, שאנחנו מתירים אלות ושבועות שנשבענו לממשלה ובמקומות המשפט

Official proclamation of the Czar (1875) asking Rabbis for clarification of kol nidre. They responded that it only pertains to vows that do not involve others…not applicable to promises to the government or courts

ערוך השולחן אורח חיים תריט, סעיף ג הודפס 1884-1908 הרב יחיאל מיכל הלוי אפשטין 1829-1908 נולד בוברויסק בבלארוס רב נובהרדוק . עומד שליח הציבור ואומר: "כל נדרי" בניגון שלוש פעמים. וכבר בארנו דאין זה מועיל לשום דבר. לא מיבעיא בנדר ושבועה שנשבע לאחרים, שהרי לא על דעתו נשבע, אלא על דעת המשביעו. וכל שכן בשבועות שנשבעים למלך המדינה, שאין ביכולתם להתיר כלל….

Aruch Hashulchan (printed 1884-1908), Harav Yechiel Michael Halevi Epstein, Navahrudak, Belarus. The chazan sings Kol Nidre three time. We have already clarified elsewhere that Kol Nidre is not effective for [annulling] anything...

Dr. Annette Boeckler, "The Magic of the Moment: Kol Nidre in Progressive Judaism," In All These Vows (2011)

For many Jews, Kol Nidre provides the sound of atonement that is the core experience of Yom Kippur and that could not otherwise be put adequately into words. Nevertheless, progressive Judaism, which began in nineteenth-century Germany, started overwhelmingly without Kol Nidre. As we shall see, the tune remained, but without the familiar words, which were reintroduced only with the American prayer book Gates of Repentance in 1978.

Classical Reform of the nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to justify Judaism to modern Jews and to the society in which they lived. It was deemed important to say only those prayers that could be recited honestly, without offending the enlightened, rational, scientific mind. The entire notion of annulling vows was anathema to modern ethical consciousness. In addition, the Ashkenazi version of Kol Nidre requests freedom from vows that might potentially be made in the year to come, not those already made in the year just ending - a ntion that makes little sense logically. It had come into being as a halalkhic response to the Talmudic objection against a wholesale annulment of vows in the past, but Reform Jews questioned the domination of halakha. So morally, logically, and theologically, the text of Kol Nidre seemed objectionable to Reform Jews, who sought, therefore, to eliminate it...

Classical Reform Judaism, however, did not succeed in this effort to abolish Kol Nidre. Faced with its obvious popularity, the rabbis sought means of including some form of it, while obviating the difficulties caused by the difficult text with which they had no sympathy.

Appendix B: “Our Vows are Not Vows”, 2020 Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Ilana Baden (Temple Chai, Long Grove, IL)

If you look closely at the title page of our prayer book for this evening, you will notice that this service has not one, but two names: Yom Kippur Evening, and Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre, of course, refers to the opening piece of liturgy of this service. This liturgy is regarded with such honor and respect that it sets the unique ambience of this particular night of worship.

Traditionally, the Kol Nidre prayer is recited immediately before sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur. It is customary to take the Torah Scrolls out of the ark and to hold them as the prayer is recited—for the prayer is actually not even a prayer. While we tend to associate the Kol Nidre moment with the hauntingly beautiful melody to which it is set, it is important for us to understand the significance and meaning of the text, as well.

Kol Nidre is actually a legal statement that is to be uttered in the presence of the Torah Scrolls, which serve as a witness to the proceedings. You might have noticed that the words of the Kol Nidre sound different than most of the other prayers we recite—this is because it is written in Aramaic, which was the every-day language at the time of its composition. Our sages wanted to ensure that every person who heard the Kol Nidre would be able to understand its meaning.

I have to be honest with you, I have always had conflicted feelings about starting Yom Kippur with this piece of liturgy. I love that we have our past presidents join us on the bimah to hold our Torah scrolls—it is so inspiring and comforting to be surrounded by those who have led and who continue to guide our congregation. And I always know that hearing Liz Hagen and Gregory Shifrin play the instrumental Kol Nidre music, and then hearing the Cantor chant the words will stir my soul and will help me attain the spirit and the grandeur of Yom Kippur, our most sacred and solemn day in the Jewish calendar. But when I look at the English translation of this liturgy, I am always a bit taken aback.

The literal translation of the Kol Nidre goes something like this:

כָּל נִדְרֵי וֶאֱסָרֵי וּשְׁבוּעֵי וַחֲרָמֵי וְקוֹנָמֵי וְכִנּוּיֵי...מִיּוֹם כִּפּוּרִים זֶה עַד יוֹם כִּפּוּרִים... בְּכֻלְּהוֹן אִחֲרַֽטְנָא בְהוֹן. כֻּלְּהוֹן יְהוֹן שָׁרָן. שְׁבִיקִין, שְׁבִיתִין, בְּטֵלִין וּמְבֻטָּלִין, לָא שְׁרִירִין וְלָא קַיָּמִין: נִדְרָֽנָא לָא נִדְרֵי. וֶאֱסָרָֽנָא לָא אֱסָרֵי. וּשְׁבוּעָתָֽנָא לָא שְׁבוּעוֹת:

All vows and promises and oaths and commitments that we made from the previous Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur… we renounce them. All of them are undone. Abandoned. Cancelled. Null and void. Not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows. Our promises are no longer promises. Our oaths are no longer oaths

How can it be that on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—the day on which we to be held accountable for our shortcomings—how can it be that on this day of all days, we have the audacity to say: “You know all those promises I made and swore I would keep. Yeah, never mind. They don’t count. Not my fault.”?

Now, we if we look at this prayer in historical context, we can appreciate the fact that it was most likely written in early medieval times when members of the Jewish community were persecuted and had to choose between converting and abandoning their faith, or being murdered. Years later, when things had calmed down considerably and it was relatively safe to be Jewish again, many of these people wanted to return to Judaism. It is thought that the Kol Nidre ritual was created to release these individuals from the oath they had taken to serve another god, so that the forced conversion would be nullified, and so that they could be welcomed back to the Jewish community without complication or penalty.

I find great meaning and comfort in this explanation of Kol Nidre’s origins. I really do. But I still have to ask, in an age and in a society in which we no longer have to worry about forced conversion, what role does this release of vows have in our modern worship? Well, my friends. The year 2020 has given me the answer. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the year 5780 has given me the answer.

If nothing else, this past year has taught us that nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is for certain. As good as our intentions are, ultimately, we are not in control. There are times that it is simply impossible to live up to our word.

As many of you know, I have the honor of being a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. For three years, the plan is to study in Jerusalem each summer and winter, and then to have Zoom-based learning throughout the rest of the year. I remember so clearly that sunny day in Israel this past January as I was saying goodbye to my cohort at our closing luncheon. My flight was later that night, and I had just a few hours left in Jerusalem. I had a long list of things I wanted to do, but I said to myself, “Relax. You’ve got time. You’ll be back in six months. Whatever you don’t accomplish today, you’ll pick up in June.” I felt so proud of myself for having this healthy attitude of patience and acceptance. Hmm…

I realize that my experience with this Israel travel is just one minor example of how drastically our plans have had to change these past few months.

For at first, we did not fully comprehend the scope of the effects of this pandemic. We initially tried to keep our original way of going about life, just with the caveat of having hand sanitizer with us at all times.

Then we realized that we had to put a pause on things so that we could “flatten the curve”. We postponed parties, get-togethers, and business meetings. Teachers quickly adapted the best they could to teach their students remotely for what we all thought would be for just a few weeks.

Then it got a bit more serious. We cancelled spring break vacations. We had to figure out how to have Seder without extended family and friends. We moved our early spring B’nei Mitzvah services to summer, thinking by then we will surely be back in the building.

And then it got very real. We buried our loved ones in groups of ten or less, and we had to learn how to grieve without the hugs we would normally receive while sitting shiva. Weddings and B’nei Mitzvah celebrations were either re-imagined and postponed by a year or more. Rather than bringing school supplies to the classroom, parents rearranged the landscape of their homes so that they could supervise their children’s on-line learning, or even become their children’s home-school teachers. And, yes, High Holy Days moved to Zoom.

My friends, we had planned; we had prepared; we had promised. We thought we knew what life was like. That is, until March 2020 hit us. Indeed, as Kol Nidre reminds us, sometimes we are not able to live up to what we had expected to be able to do. If nothing else, this year has taught us that we all need to be able to adjust our expectations—that we all have to be willing, and able, to alter our script. For indeed, our vows cannot be vows during a pandemic. Our oaths cannot be oaths in such a time of uncertainty.

Nonetheless, we do our best. We remain true to the spirit behind those plans that had to be altered or canceled. We find ways to capture the essence and the feelings behind what we had planned, and we create new ways for expressing them. For life, while very different than anything ever experienced before, does go on. The High Holy Days happen. School is in session. Babies are born. Life events occur. And so, we release ourselves from the pressure to be perfect. We forgive each other for stumbling as we acquire new skills that we never thought we would need to have—but that have become so essential to us in today’s world. We look forward to the time when we are able to resume our more normative routines, all the while acknowledging that things will surely be different when we are on the other side of this pandemic in ways that we cannot possibly even begin to imagine at this point in time.

If nothing else, our Jewish tradition teaches us that even in the darkest times, we remember that we are to be Or Lagoyim. A light to the nations. We do this by keeping alive the spark of hope and commitment to better days.

When the Ancient Holy Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in the year 70, our sages relocated to a different city to keep our religion alive through study and prayer. Nonetheless, they never abandoned Jerusalem in their hearts. They always spoke about, wrote about, and prayed about the return to Yerushalayim. They believed that eventually, Judaism would return to this holy city.

When our ancestors were exiled from Israel and found themselves in a myriad of foreign nations, they never abandoned their spiritual home in their hearts. They placed beautiful pieces of artwork on their eastern walls so that they would always keep Israel in their consciousness, and so that they would remind themselves, as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, a Spanish poet who lived during the Middle Ages, wrote, “My heart is in the east, and I’m at the end of the west”. They believed that eventually, the Jewish community would be able to go home again.

When members of our people were faced with the impossible choice of death or conversion to a different faith, our sages wrote the Kol Nidre so that they could keep from abandoning their true heritage in their heart, and so that they could believe that they could eventually return to Judaism when it was safe to do so.

And when we find ourselves in this extraordinary situation in which we are told that the only way we can protect ourselves and others is to avoid each other in the physical world, we take full advantage of the virtual world so that we do not abandon each other. For we believe that we WILL be together again in person—and we know that we need to do all that we can to safeguard our relationships, community, and ideals in the meantime.

As we observe this Kol Nidre service tonight, and as we enter into this new year of 5781, I pray that we will all resolve to be resolved. I pray that we will be mindful of our words, our vows, our promises, and our oaths. And I also pray that we each remember that the world we are living in these days is truly topsy-turvy.

While we do our best to live up to our intentions, we recognize that there might be some that we will have to modify or even abandon. And as we strive to strike the delicate balance between steadfastness and flexibility—idealism and reality—we take heart that we are in this together—and that we are all doing our best.

Appendix C: Other

The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), was getting ready to leave the faith altogether in 1913. Before he took that fateful step, he attended services at a small synagogue in Berlin. After hearing Kol Nidre, and the rest of the Yom Kippur prayers, he had a mystical experience that renewed his identity and set him on a course to renew and strengthen and deepen his faith and the faith of others through his writing and teaching.

(ח) הֶתֵּר נְדָרִים פּוֹרְחִין בָּאֲוִיר, וְאֵין לָהֶם עַל מַה שֶּׁיִּסְמֹכוּ.

The halakhot of the dissolution of vows, when one requests from a Sage to dissolve them, fly in the air and have nothing to support them, as these halakhot are not mentioned explicitly in the Torah.

Context: This is Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei - Op. 47”. It was published in Berlin in 1881. There’s also a version by Joseph Bloch (“Kol Nidrei - Op. 37”), published in Budapest in 1900.