May 27, 2022 |

Kol Nidrei

Like most people, I am a coward when it comes to one of the most difficult, albeit essential, elements of the Yom Kippur holiday. I teach my students every year that God will not even give a hearing in the Yom Kippur courtroom to sins between a person and another person until the offender has first asked forgiveness from the victim. And there is nothing more difficult than seeking out a person who hates you - and who you may hate - or who has been deeply hurt by you, and asking their forgiveness. The two of you avoid each other like you have swine flu, but now you have to seek them out to humble yourself and beg for their absolution. As guilty as you are of wronging them, they may be guilty of the same crime towards you. But it is YOUR account and your forgiveness that you are seeking. I have performed this unwelcome task, but more often than I care to admit, I have flinched from it.

I heard a story once about two brothers who had a falling out over money. Unfortunate things were said and they spent many years incommunicado. Eventually, one of them matured to a point in life where he desired to reconcile with his long-lost brother. He had divorced and living away from all of his family, had begun attending classes at a local synagogue, and remembered how much love and fun there had been between them so long ago. But he procrastinated for several years, unsure of how to reach out, of how to bring it up. Finally, one Rosh Hashana, he resolved that he would go see his brother that week and ask for mechila (forgiveness) before Yom Kippur. But when he checked his answering machine after the holiday, there was a message that his brother had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was profoundly shocked, but also embarrassed that he was first horrified at his missed opportunity and only then at his brother's demise. According to Jewish custom, one can convene a minyan (prayer quorum) at the grave of the deceased and ask for God to extend forgiveness. In a panic, the new mourner, after the funeral, gathered ten men around the newly-filled grave and poured out his tears and his heart to God and his lost brother. He begged for forgiveness for fighting, for waiting, for missing his chance. But there was no answer from the cemetery ground.

The moral of this story could easily be: Don't wait! Go do it! Carpe diem! That is true and well and right. But that is not the only message I hear in this story. I feel the pain of the would-be apologizer. He did everything right; atoned for an old sin by identifying it, regretting it and resolving to set it right. God - and the circumstances of his destiny - militated against him. Sometimes, we are in control of what we do in this world and sometimes we are not. Whether it is because we have made mistakes - like alienating a loved one over something stupid and trivial- or because we have missed opportunities - like waiting a little too long - we are not always able to do what we intended to, to keep our promises, to act on our convictions. Everyone has intentions and commitments that they plan to keep and everyone has intentions and commitments - to God, themselves and others-- that they have not kept. Our best efforts will not always help us succeed. Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf , in an apt analogy[1], compares us to a rider who has lost control of his horse. Though we are the rider (our intentions) and the horse (our actions), we sometimes steer the horse where we want to go and sometimes - no matter how much we yell, pull on the reins and kick our heels - we do not. Our goods intentions are like beautiful fruit that we bought to eat and are now left rotting on the counter. These unfinished items should trouble us as we enter into Yom Kippur. Which brings us to Kol Nidrei.

By far, the most well-known and well-attended synagogue service of the Jewish year is Kol Nidrei. It has been immortalized in music, film and popular culture. Interestingly, one of the reasons given in ancient sources for doing Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur is because that was when the largest numbers of Jews came to shul. (It's unclear, then, if Kol Nidrei is the chicken or the egg.)

The Kol Nidrei ("all my vows") service, which is recited shortly before Yom Kippur actually begins, reads like a courtroom procedure in which the congregation's vows are nullified. Any promises, vows, oaths, obligations, commitments et. al. that were made this past year are to be null and void. This way, presumably, in one fell sweep, we can all go into Yom Kippur with a clean slate, at least as far as unkept promises. Sins are a different story.

But is it really possible to so easily and simply sweep all Jewish promises off the table? If it were so, then the canard levied by Nicolas Donin (1240) at the Paris Disputation would be true, that this was hard proof that all Jews are untrustworthy scoundrels. After all, once a year, we renege on all our promises!The truth, however, is that Kol Nidrei is not a magic white-out pen. If it can cancel vows at all, it has a severely limited scope. It cannot cancel unpaid debts, or governmental obligations, or leases, or time-specific promises, or contracts etc etc. In fact, it may be that the ONLY debts it can cancel are specific religious obligations that one has vowed for one's self or family. Many authorities actually argue that Kol Nidrei erases no debts at all. Rather, it is a prayer only.[2]

Why, then, do we begin Yom Kippur with the Kol Nidrei prayer?[3]

I think it may have something to do with getting ourselves in the proper frame of mind for Yom Kippur. Here we are, the largest gathering of the congregation all year, but what should we feel? How shall we proceed? So, we begin with a communal confession, a recognition that all of us are human and that we are all saddled with unpaid debts and unkept commitments here on the brink of Yom Kippur. When the chazzan stands up to make the dramatic pronouncement: "With the sanction of God and the sanction of the congregation, we permit ourselves to pray with the sinners[4]", the sinners are all of us. We all wish we could make our vows go away or that we were adequate to all our commitments. But we are not.

Kol Nidrei, then, is wish-fulfillment. It is fantasy. The reality is so much more complicated, for we are on the horns of a dilemma. We have both bitten off more than we can chew, but we cannot spit it out. All we can do is throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. This is what we need Yom Kippur for.

But when we stand before the King, we will do so with two caveats. One, we will believe/imagine that we can start again, that we will only make commitments we can keep this year, that we will make realistic goals and keep our eye son the prize. Perhaps God will help us with the rest. Two, we will begin again united as a people, together in our common compassion and consideration that we have all fallen short of our expectations sometime. Once we understand this, how can we not forgive each other? The forgiveness we crave for what we meant to do and never did is extended in a spirit of brotherhood and camaraderie to all our fellow Jews and redounds back upon us. Everyone is asking for and granting forgiveness at once.

United, forgiving and forgiven, obsequious before God as the sun sets...this is the way to go into Yom Kippur and come out cleansed and whole. May we be sealed for the good this year! Gmar chatima tova.


[1] I have changed the analogy slightly. Rabbi Apisdorf imagined the horse as our bodies and the riders as our souls. Even when we know the right way to go, we can't always convince the horse to go that way. In this regard, there is a disconnect between moral knowledge and moral action. (a term I have borrowed from Dr. David Pelcovitz.)

[2] Nimmukei Yosef, Nedarim 7b; Shibolei Haleket 317. A number of early authorities were very opposed to Kol Nidrei, but that's all water under the bridge by now.

[3] In the Mishna, it actually seems that we should nullify our vows on Rosh Hashana. The custom is in fact to convene lay courts to do this the day before Rosh Hashana (called hatarat nedarim). Others argue that Yom Kippur is also sometimes called "Rosh Hashana", but this would make the High Holy Days rather confusing for most people. Do you mean the Rosh Hashana Rosh Hashana or the Yom Kippur Rosh Hashana? Huh!?

[4] Usually said to refer to those who have been absent or kicked out of the community and now want to rejoin.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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