All the promise I deny
the labels I affix
the vanities I cherish
the image I project
the shell that shields me
from changing who I am
the vow that stops me
from being something more
the bonds that tie me
to last year’s former self
I now relinquish
from this Yom Kippur
Before darkness, as we approach Yom Kippur, we recite the “Kol Nidrei” prayer that lends its name to the entire opening service of Yom Kippur: “All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement, may it come to us for a blessing. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”
This prayer has, in fact, a very chequered history. It was widely believed that it originated during a period of unbearable persecution, during which Jews were forced to convert on pain of death (either to Christianity or Islam) and that Kol Nidre was intended to nullify that forced conversion. However, it was already in existence in the Geonic period (589–1038 CE). The Torah very clearly prohibits the indiscriminate making of vows, and because of the ethical difficulties arising from unfulfilled vows, the Halachah has a mechanism for absolution from them (either by a scholar or expert, or by a “court” of three Jewish laymen). Thus the ease with which vows could be made and annulled spurred the geonim (leaders of early medieval Babylonian Jewry) to diminish the power of dispensation. (The study of Nedarim, the Talmudic treatise on oaths was thus outlawed for a hundred years). So Kol Nidrei was regarded as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom. The Kol Nidrei declaration was discredited in both of the Babylonian academies. Even today, certain communities do not recite it.
Originally, the ceremony of the annulment of vows took place on Rosh Hashanah – the New Year, ten days before Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Nedarim 23b) says, “Who wished to cancel his vows of a whole year should arise on Rosh Hashanah and announce, ‘All vows that I will pledge in the coming year shall be annulled.'” (There is a ritual for this – the hatarat nedarim – annulment of vows) in which the person comes before a tribunal of three others and recites a Hebrew formula (nothing like the one in the Kol Nidrei prayer) and he asks for annulment of every vow or pledge that he swore and the trio responds by reciting a formula three times, reminding him that there exist pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and releasing him of his vows. He then declares the vows null and void.
So prior to the formulation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, there was this ritual for Rosh Hashanah. According to Asher ben Yechiel (early 14th century), Kol Nidrei was added to the liturgy of Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, because that service seemed more solemn and appropriate to the underlying themes on Yom Kippur of repentance and remorse, and also, perhaps, because Yom Kippur services (even then!) were better attended. In addition, the Kol Nidrei prayer includes an expression of penitence with which to open the Day of Atonement (as opposed to the legalistic formula employed in the hatarat nedarim), and the entire congregation is present.
Although the notion has been disproved that Kol Nidrei was composed by Spanish Anusim (Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity, yet who clandestinely practised their Judaism as far as they were able), they did recite this prayer, and this may account for its resonance and widespread adoption.
The original wording of the Kol Nidrei prayer actually said “…from the last Day of Atonement until this one” and Rashi’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century) made a significant change in the tense, from past to future ie “from this Day of Atonement until the next”. Thus the annulment does not concern past vows, rather future ones. He also added the words “we do repent of them all”, as annulment is conditional upon genuine repentance. The Talmudic discussion of annulment of vows relates to those to be made in the future. Furthermore, should a person die with his vows unfulfilled, having annulled them in advance would be preferable than dying with them unfulfilled and unatoned for.
Rabbenu Tam, Rabbi Meir ben Samuel’s son tried to render the grammatical tenses more accurately, but for unclear reasons, did not succeed, so two versions still exist, and because it is traditional to recite Kol Nidrei three times, some communities, (especially in Israel) recite both versions (usually referring to the previous Yom Kippur the first and second times and the next Yom Kippur in the third).
The Kol Nidrei prayer is prefaced by the words “With the sanction of the Omnipresent, and with the sanction of the congregation, by authority of the Heavenly Court, and by authority of the earthly court, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed,” and the Zohar offers a very different slant to that suggested above. It submits that if we, in the earthly domain, can unbind ourselves from vows we made using the Kol Nidrei mechanism, perhaps God, in the Heavenly Court might be persuaded to annul vows He has made concerning punishments He might otherwise inflict upon the people for their sins. The Orot Sephardic machzor (festival prayer book) says: “According to the holy Zohar, Kol Nidrei is recited on Yom Kippur because, at times, the Heavenly judgment is handed down as an ‘avowed decree’ for which there can normally be no annulment. By reciting the Kol Nidrei annulment of vows at this time, we are asking of God that He favor us by annuling any negative decrees of judgment that await us, even though we are undeserving of such annulment.”
The Kol Nidrei prayer was used by non-Jews as proof for their accusation that an oath taken by a Jew may not be honored. There was even a special oath formulated for Jews (“Oath More Judaico”) and many judges refused to allow them to take a supplementary oath, due to the untrustworthiness they believed was reflected in this prayer. In 1240, in the Disputation of Paris, Yechiel of Paris defended Kol Nidrei against these charges. However, Rabbinic sources unanimously confirm that the only vows released by this prayer relate to obligations a person undertakes towards himself or regarding his own religious obligations. The formula is constrained to those vows between man and God alone; and not to those vows made between one man and another. No form of vow or oath that concerns someone else (Jew or non-Jew), a court of law, or the community is implied in the Kol Nidrei prayer. The Jewish Encyclopedia states, “According to Jewish doctrine, the sole purpose of this prayer is to give protection from divine punishment in case of violation of the vow.”
Regarding the annulment of vows (described in B’midbar 30), in his additional notes on vows and vowing in Judaism, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz wrote:”… Not all vows or oaths could be absolved. A vow or oath that was made to another person, even be that person a child or a heathen, could not be annulled except in the presence of that person and with his consent; while an oath which a man had taken in a court of justice could not be absolved by any other authority in the world.”
None-the-less, concerned about possible anti-Semitic ramifications, the prayer was omitted from the liturgy by the pioneers of the Reform movement, but was restored by popular demand (its haunting melody is considered by most to be an inextricable element of the entire Yom Kippur service). However, it was not only among the Reform communities that the prayer was omitted. The eminent pioneer of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, omitted it during Yom Kippur services at least twice, but then restored it.
In his Shabbat Shuvah (5777) derashah, The Power of Custom and the Limits of the Law: The Case of Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sinclair surveyed the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer, from its beginnings, when it was outlawed by the Geonim, until its almost universal recital today. He noted that if we look at the confessions that we recite together throughout the Yom Kippur services, the vast majority of sins that appear on the lists are speech-related. He pointed out the tendency to speak unthinkingly, unkindly or coarsely, rather in the manner of a rashly made vow. So he sees a value in starting the whole service, relating to the Kol Nidrei prayer as a way to contemplate the adoption of thoughtful, appropriate speech.
In his book Or P’nei HaMelech (In the Light of the Countenance of the King) Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsalz) notes that we attach to ourselves all sorts of labels, nicknames, associations, definitions. He says a person might define himself as an intellectual or a Chasid or not a Chasid or someone not easily roused to emotion. We splint ourselves, he says, into all sorts of limitations: there’s a certain thing we convince ourselves that we cannot do; there are certain things about which we are not willing to think or talk; and there are certain issues that we convince ourselves do not relate to us at all. And then, when we shut ourselves up in our shell, nothing can influence us. So he paraphrases “All those associations, affiliations and definitions that I have fixed on myself and perhaps will fix on myself, they should all be annulled and revoked. I release myself from all of these, from the past and in the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next, may it come to us for a blessing.”