The following dvar Torah is in memory of the author’s sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra, and the refuah shlaimah of Yosef Shmuel ben Miriam.
The exact origins of Kol Nidrei are lost in the sands of time. One of the earliest sources regarding our present practice is found in a responsum of Rav Natronai Gaon. It is quoted in the commentary of Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, known as the “Rosh,” to Talmud Bavli, Yoma, 8:28:
But we do not follow this practice, to nullify vows neither in the two yeshivot [Sura and Pumbedita] nor in any place [of which I am personally aware]; neither on Rosh Hashanah nor on Yom Kippur. We have, however, heard that in other lands they say ‘Kol Nidrei.’ We, however, have never seen it nor heard of it from our rabbis may they be blessed.
In contrast, nearly 100 years later, Rav Saadiah Gaon developed a fixed Hebrew text for Kol Nidrei that in many ways mirrors our own Aramaic text:
There are those that act in the following manner: The leader of the congregation stands up on Yom Hakippurim and says: “All vows, excommunications, prohibitions, oaths, and practices that we have sworn to perform, and we have issued as excommunications, and that we have prohibited and we have sworn and we have taken upon ourselves, from the past Yom Kippur until today that has come upon us, we hereby repudiate them and we come before our Heavenly Father [and state:] if we have uttered a vow it is no longer a vow, if we have proscribed something upon ourselves it is no longer a proscription, if we have excommunicated someone they are no longer in excommunication, if we have sworn an oath it is no longer an oath, if we have followed a certain practice it is no longer binding. Moreover the vow, prohibition, excommunication, and oath are all nullified from their moment of inception. There exists no vow, no prohibition, no excommunication, no oath, and no practice. Instead, there is pardon (mechilah), and forgiveness (selichah) and expiation (kapparah)…”
Thus, for approximately the last 1,100 years, Kol Nidrei has been an essential part of our Yom Kippur liturgy. It is said with great solemnity and dignity. For many, it has become the defining moment of Yom Kippur.
At first blush, it is difficult to understand exactly how and why Kol Nidrei has captured the hearts and minds of our people. It is a formal juridical statement whose content consists of the nullification of vows. This hardly seems to be the kind of subject matter that would captivate our imagination and bring us to heartfelt feelings of teshuvah. Kol Nidrei has an almost mesmerizing effect upon us. The question is why.
My rebbi, Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l, discussed this question in one of his public lectures summarized in Dr. Arnold Lustiger’s book Derashot Harav: Selected Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The Rav noted that when Hashem revealed the manner and degree of punishment that he would bring upon klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe responded with heartfelt prayer and supplication: “Moses prayed (‘vayichal’) before the L-rd, his G-d, and said: ‘Why, O L-rd, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?’” (Sefer Shemot 32:11)
Talmud Bavli, Berachot 32a states that the word “vayichal” is a novel way to refer to prayer, since the Tanach (Hebrew Canon of Scripture) usually employs very different terminology when referring to tefilah (prayer). The Gemara suggests that the Torah used this word because of its similarity to another word that is directly connected to the annulment of vows, namely, “yachal” (“profane,” Sefer Bamidbar 30:3). Given this similarity, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that this prayer was “an attempt by Moses to annul G-d’s vow to destroy the Jewish people.” In consonance with this notion, Rava suggested in our above-cited Gemara that:
[Moshe stood and prayed] until he nullified His vow. It is written here [Sefer Shemot 32:11] “vayichal” and it is written there [Bamidbar 30:3] “lo yachal d’varo.” We have a well known rule: “One [even Hashem] cannot annul his own vow, but others can annul it for him’ [in this case Moshe for Hashem].”
As Rabbi Soloveitchik further noted, the Zohar, based upon this Talmudic passage, suggested that Kol Nidrei is designed “in part to release G-d from this vow” to thoroughly punish the Jewish people. In addition, “on Erev Yom Kippur, Jews are constituted as a beis din (court of law) to ‘absolve’ G-d, which is indeed what He desires.”
Therefore, when Moshe employed the word “vayichal,” he was “asking G-d to view the Jewish people in the same way that a court looks at someone who wishes to nullify a vow.” In other words, the vow was taken in error from its very inception.
Kol Nidrei teaches us that even Hashem’s vow to punish us to near extinction could be, and was, annulled when Moshe interceded on behalf of our better and truer selves. With G-d’s help, may this year be the one wherein we encounter our authentic inner souls and worship Hashem with our entire being. If we can do this, the potential of Kol Nidrei to transform our lives will finally be fully realized. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom and g’mar chatimah tovah!
Rabbi David Etengoff is the Director of Educational Technology at Magen David Yeshivah in Brooklyn and a resident of Cedarhurst. His previous parsha columns can be found at http://reparashathashavuah.weebly.com. Sign up for his weekly parsha email at firstname.lastname@example.org.