Kol Nidre is the name of both the opening recitation on Yom Kippur and the name for the evening service that announces the beginning of the holiday. Yom Kippur is one of the most important Jewish holidays and is traditionally believed to be the day upon which God determines the fate of each person for the coming year. For many Jews, hearing Kol Nidre is a defining part of the Yom Kippur experience.
The Meaning of Kol Nidre
Kol Nidre means “All Vows” in Aramaic. When reciting Kol Nidre one asks God to annul any vows that were made either unintentionally or under duress. For instance: a promise made through careless use of words (“God, if I pass this exam I promise I’ll pray every morning.”) or because a person was forced to use God’s name as part of an oath. Historically speaking, a vow made under duress would include Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.
Kol Nidre only cancels vows made to God - not promises made to other people. This is an important distinction to make since, over the centuries, anti-Semites have periodically attempted to use Kol Nidre as an example of Jews being untrustworthy. During the mid-1800’s misconceptions about Kol Nidre became so problematic in Russia that an introductory paragraph was even added to prayer books specifically stating that Kol Nidre only applied to promises between an individual and God.
Although Kol Nidre is usually referred to as a prayer it is technically a legal formulation meant to release individuals from fulfilling certain promises. It must be recited at sunset because according to Jewish law legal matters may not be attended to during Shabbat or during festival holidays like Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is said three times in accordance with the customs of ancient Jewish courts, which would say “You are released” thrice when an individual was released from a legally binding vow.
Given Kol Nidre’s legal formulation there have been attempts to eliminate it from the standard Yom Kippur service. However, the melody that accompanies the recitation of Kol Nidre is so beautiful that is has become a significant part of the Yom Kippur experience. You can hear the melody on YouTube by clicking here.
Beyond tradition and melody, Kol Nidre serves as a reminder that we should be careful of the vows we make and strive to fulfill those that are made. As author Lesli Koppelman Ross writes, “During this declaration [Kol Nidre] we should think about what our word really means, not only to ourselves but to anyone who trusts us based on what we say” (Ross, 196).
The Origins of Kol Nidre
According to the teachings of Judaism, a vow is a sacred promise that must be upheld. Numbers 30:3 and Deuteronomy 23:22-23 both discuss the importance of fulfilling an oath once it has been made. Numbers 30:3 discusses the instances in which a vow made by a woman is binding upon her, essentially concluding that it is always binding unless her male guardian forbids her from upholding the oath. Similarly, Deuteronomy 23:22-23 states: “Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth.”
Nevertheless, the Talmud does provide a solution for those cases when you find yourself unable to fulfill a promise to God. In those cases, you are required to declare your inability to uphold the oath at the beginning of the New Year. During the Middle Ages the custom of declaring that you might not be able to uphold a vow became associated with Yom Kippur because so many people would attend synagogue at this time.
References: "Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook" by Lesli Koppelman Ross. Jason Aronson, Inc.: Northvale, 1994.