Kol Nidre 5776
© S.H.Parker 2015

"Kol Nidre"

In the early 20th century, Franz Rosensweig had been persuaded by friends - including, as I recently learned, a family member - to accept baptism and convert to christianity. As I first heard the story, Rosensweig asked to be allowed to celebrate one last Yom ha'Kippurim.

I see him entering the small shul in Berlin that he attended. I picture him listening to and reciting Kol Nidre....

Rosensweig never made it to the baptismal font.... Such is the power of Kol Nidre.

"Kol Nidre"

Many think that Kol Nidre was composed and added to the liturgy in response to the persecutions of the "Middle (correctly called 'Dark') Ages" and to the forced conversions that lasted well into the so-called "Renaissance."

But a procedure for the annulment of vows is described in the Mishna (maseket Nedarim). In Nedarim 23b the legal format for annulling a vow is given. There are early Talmudists who forbade study of Nedarim in order to avoid getting into the entire issue of vows and annulment thereof. Thus, Kol Nidre, or something very like including the use of a beit din is well known from at least the third century.

The Tannaim, the Gaonim, the Rishonim and the Acharonim, in short the entire first millennium of Rabbinic authorities strenuously argued against recitation of Kol Nidre, much less its inclusion in the siddur and no one ever contemplated its use in the Yom ha'Kippurim ritual.

In the 19th century, Europeans Rabbis agreed to remove Kol Nidre from the siddur and not to recite it.

Yet, Kol Nidre remains with us.

"Kol Nidre"

Obviously Kol Nidre has a powerful appeal. Kol Nidre obviously serves some real need of ordinary Jews.

On the other hand, the Torah repeatedly admonitions about vowing. These admonitions start in the Aseret ha'dibrot, where it is made quite clear that all vows are in the name of God and therefore risk taking the Name in vain.

We read, just a few weeks ago (Ki Tetzei - Deut. 23:23):

וְכִי תֶחְדַּל, לִנְדֹּר--לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ חֵטְא.

If you (will) forbear to vow, it will not be a sin for you.

Certainly, no one in this room, not one of you, seriously believes that Kol Nidre actually annuls vows, promises or any other commitment. And, despite centuries of Rabbis trying to limit the scope of Kol Nidre, the fact - confirmed by the polemics of the Rabbis from the Gaonim onward - the fact is that the Kol Nidre formula covers any and all vows, promises, commitments to both God and to man. The Jewish Encyclopedia cites several prominent Goanim and Rishonim who acknowledged this, who note that many people did understand Kol Nidre just this way.

Not one of you would accept "I said 'Kol Nidre' so I am released from the promise I made to you." You would not accept this. You might not insist on fulfillment of the promise. But you would surely never accept my word again.

"Kol Nidre"

Perhaps the medieval Rabbis were correct in trying to limit the scope of Kol Nidre. They could, in this way, accommodate the people's felt need for dispensation (no matter how illusory) without creating a problem bayn adom l'chevroh (between a person and his fellow).

Setting aside, for a moment, the violence this does to our text, it flatly contradicts Torah (also from Ki Tetzei - Deut. 23:24):

מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ, תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ: כַּאֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נְדָבָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, בְּפִיךָ.

That which is gone out from your lips you will observe [protect] and you will do it; exactly what you vowed [freely] to Adonai your God, that which you promised with your mouth.

As frequently as the Rabbis "add to the word thereof," as often as they try to institutionalize a sociology foreign to the Torah and its basic philosophy, as often as they try to foist of their il-founded personal opinions and life styles as "halacha," to do such violence to sacred writ ... is just a bit too flagrant. 

Throughout Torah, the spoken word has a reality, a power, a living force independent of the human who spoke it.

Like a child born, it acquires its own life. It has it's own derech.

The spoken word is a living entity in its own right. All of Israelite religion, all of Jewish tradition stands on the foundation of the power of the spoken word....

"Kol Nidre"

So, if Kol Nidre serves a need, what is that need? What is it that we have defied millennia of Rabbis to hear?

"Adonai, habibi, I'm just a human; I am dust. Look, sometimes I get all ferklempt and I say things ... stupid things ... ignore me, would you? Please?"

People say stupid things, make stupid promises, especially when they're stressed or emotional.

In the early 1950's, a young man embarked on a new career. He made a promise to god: "God, if you make me successful in this new business within one year, I will build you a shrine."

The man was Danny Thomas, the shrine St. Jude's Children's Hospital....

Maybe not such a good example.

"Kol Nidre"

Some years earlier, a young man, with a pronounced fear of thunder, was out walking in a thunderstorm. (Dunno, don' ask....) It became a very, very severe thunderstorm.

The young man took shelter under a tree. (Again, don't ask....) He is reported as clinging to the tree for his very life.

He made a promise to god. "God, if you let me live through this storm, I will dedicate my life to your service." God let him live.

So the young man became a monk.

He should have known better than to be out walking in a thunderstorm and he should have known better than to have become a priest. For, in short order, he became disaffected with the church and started writing nasty letters. Then he started posting them all over town.

In the end, he abandoned the priesthood, did not apply for a release-from-vows, he just walked out. He also took a nun with him, married her and started popping out babies.

His name was Martin Luther. He turned into one of the most vicious, hate-filled people ever to live. He became one of the most virulent anti-Semites Europe ever produced. And that is saying something.

"Kol Nidre"

People say stupid things, they make stupid promises, especially when they're stressed or emotional.

"Kol Nidre"

Kol Nidre is not accepted by man or Adonai in remission of vows, Saadia Gaon asserted this. Again, as we read in Mattot (Num. 30:3):

A person who vows to Adonai or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he will not violate his word; according to whatever came out of his mouth, he will do.


אִישׁ כִּי-יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, אוֹ-הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל-נַפְשׁוֹ--לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ: כְּכָל-הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.

The spoken word is a living entity once it is "sent out from his mouth." It is sacred. It cannot be taken back.

There is a parable told about a Jew who slandered a town's rabbi. After a time, the man felt pangs of remorse for his actions and begged the rabbi for forgiveness.

"Of course I'll forgive you," the rabbi told him. "But before I do you must do one thing for me."

"Anything," the man promised.

"Go to the center of town with a pillow and rip open the pillow and spread the feathers into the wind. When you're done, come back to me."

The man, puzzled, did what the rabbi asked and split open a feather pillow in the center of town. When he finished, he returned to the rabbi for his forgiveness.

"One more thing," said the rabbi. "Now go and collect all the feathers."

"That's impossible!" said the man. "I can't possibly collect all the feathers."

Asked the rabbi, "And what about my reputation? How will you return that to me?"

Kol Nidre may have the longevity it has because it makes us feel better. But if we don't believe in the efficacy of the proclamation, what do we hear when we chant Kol Nidre?

Perhaps what appeals to us is its implicit reminder to stop and think before making a promise?

Perhaps we hear in it the echoes our ni'viim, who didn't want us promising at all...?

Perhaps the real message we hear as we chant Kol Nidre is that the spoken word is sacred, like the feathers, once spoken, released, they are a life-force of their own ... "just don't say stupid stuff, nachon?"

G'mar tov.