The truth about Judaism’s famous “prayer”

All These Vows

Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 264 pages

 

Remarkably, very few people understand the content, purpose, and history of what many
consider Judaism’s most important prayer, a recitation embroiled in
controversy, a legal document that the rabbis tried to expunge from the high
holiday Day of Atonement service, Kol Nidre. This book discusses and explains
Kol Nidre.

 

What is Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre means “All these vows.” It is not a prayer and is not addressed to God.
It is a legal document, like one that lawyers today might draw up to protect a
client from damages. It is composed very carefully in legal language, designed
to annul vows by using the powers of a human court. Covering all bases, the
recitation of Kol Nidre is effectuated by using the magical numbers seven and
three. Kol Nidre, this book points out, “arose in the premodern world where
superstition was still rampant.” The earliest mention of Kol Nidre is in the
mid-eighth century in Babylon where the rabbis were expressing their dislike of
it. (Kol Nidre was not developed in the fourteenth century to allow Spanish
Jews who were forced to promise to give up Judaism to nullify this vow, as many
presume.)

 

Since Judaism does not allow courts to adjudicate cases at night, Kol Nidre has to be
recited before sundown. To highlight that it is still day, men put on the
tallit before the service, for the tallit is worn during the day and not at
night.

 

Can Vows be annulled?

The Bible offers no method to annul vows. Once a person makes a promise, the person
must keep it, despite the consequences. This is seen in the story of Jephthah
in Judges 11, where Jephthah foolishly promises to give to God
“whatsoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in
peace” from war. He thought that an animal would greet him, but it was his
daughter, his only child, that came to him and he had to give her to God. The
only exception is that the Torah allowed a father or husband to cancel a woman’s
vow on the day he became aware of it because the Bible considered the woman’s
vow only effective if her father or husband agreed with it.

 

However, in post-biblical times, the rabbis allowed the nullification of vows, under
certain conditions, by a Jewish court of three. This court of three could be
composed of three laymen. Thus, Kol Nidre is recited before a minimum of three
men standing on the bema, the podium. Most synagogues have at least two
of the men hold scrolls of the Torah – the cantor, being busy singing, is
unable to also hold the Torah – to enhance the solemnity of the Kol Nidre
recitation.

 

The use of three and seven

The ancients, non-Jews and Jews, thought that there is a mystical or magical
quality to the numbers three and seven. Doing something three times makes the
possibility of the request being effectuated more likely. Thus many Jews wash
their hands three times in the morning to rid their bodies of demons that may
have affected them during the night. Thus, too, Kol Nidre, its introductory few
lines, and two prayers following Kol Nidre are recited three times. Seven is
also seen to have powers, as when Joshua marched seven times around the city of
Jericho to make it fall. Thus, the number seven is used in Kol Nidre.

 

The use of three and seven also end the service of Yom Kippur when “Blessed is the
name (meaning, existence) of His glorious kingdom for ever” is recited three
times, and “The Lord is God” seven times.

 

What does Kol Nidre say?

Legal documents attempt to cover every contingency. Therefore, Kol Nidre not only
requests the three-man court to nullify vows, but any kind of promise made in
any form. These include “prohibitions and oaths.” In fact, Kol Nidre mention
seven synonyms for vows, the last being a catchall “or any equivalent term,” to
end with seven. The recitation says that these should be “cancelled, nullified,
powerless,” using again a total of seven synonyms for annulment, including the
catchall “we regret them all.”

 

Kol Nidre ends with a three-fold declaration, which may be seen as the petitioner’s
request or the courts decision: “The vows are not vows, the prohibitions not
prohibitions, the oaths not oaths.”

 

Which oaths are we talking about, past or future
ones?

The middle of the recitation is different in different synagogues and the original version was
one of several reasons why the rabbis disliked Kol Nidre. Some people insist
that it should states that we are talking about past vows, and this was the
original version; others future vows, the language that was substituted in the
twelfth century; and others both, a kind of compromise. There are legal, moral,
social, philosophical and other problems with each version.

 

Kol Nidre Music 

Perhaps the main reason for the continued recitation of Kol Nidre today despite the
rabbinical opposition and the reason why so many Jews enjoy the service is the
stirring and beautiful music of Kol Nidre that haunts the congregant long after
its chanting. It creates a deep religious feeling that moves the Jewish heart.
The first written evidence of the melody is in 1765, although scholars think
that it was probably composed in sixteenth-century Germany.

 

Summary

Kol Nidre raises many problems. How can people rid themselves of promises? What
happens to the person to whom the promise is made, who relied on the promise?
Doesn’t this nullification create a feeling of not caring what one promises
because the oath can be cancelled? What did non-Jews think about this practice?
These matters are discussed, along with many other subjects, in this book.

 

Yet, despite its true meaning, problems, and opposition, Kol Nidre’s generally obscure words and
its moving music create a spiritual mystique and a ceremony with many messages.
It is the only service that inspires virtually every Jew to arrive in the
synagogue on time to hear it. It highlights the optimistic understanding that
we can and should change past errors. It reminds congregants to do so. The
absence of God in the recitation and the use of a human court emphasizes that people
should work with each other to improve themselves and society. It emphasizes
the importance of words and relationships. It teaches people not to make oaths.
It stresses that we can pray with sinners. Furthermore, the request to annul
future vows can be seen as a determination to refrain from repeating mistakes
in the future.

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