The Meaning of Kol Nidre

Today is Yom Kippur, the last of the ten Days of Awe. The Days of Awe begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the day on which judgments are inscribed in to the Book of Life. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and the Day of Judgment, the last chance to repent for the sins of the prior year before the Book of Life is sealed and your judgment is finalized.

In Jewish law there's something called a Neder, which is a vow any Jew can swear, promising to do anything, that thereby becomes a divine law. This is important because it allows you to take a voluntary act of dedication and consecrate it into a commanded act. (In Judaism, fulfilling obligations gives you more points than doing superfluous stuff.)

In practice this can be disastrous. There's a carefully worked out legal framework to make sure the received commandments are not onerous, but you can say anything and make it a Neder. This is dramatized in the Book of Judges, with the story of Jephthah:

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

As anyone who actually pays attention to the Bible already knows, the stories in it are not supposed to be stories of perfectly righteous people doing exemplarily good things. Jephthah widely believed to have done wrong here. He murdered his daughter. Murder is forbidden.

Technically, Jephthah's vow should have already been invalid because it violated an existing commandment. But this might not have been obvious to Jephthah. After all, it's hard to know whether you have a genuine valid objection to doing something inconvenient, or a clever rationalization.

There are also cases where the vow is not obviously invalid. It might not command something that is forbidden like murder, but merely something permitted but ruinously expensive, or harmful, or impossible.

So a legal innovation was introduced: the Kol Nidre, a prayer that asks God to cancel all unfulfilled vows ("Kol Nidre" means "All Vows"), even the valid ones, so that no one need be tempted to do wrong just because they vowed to, or forced to sin by violating a self-imposed commandment because it turned out to be impossible to obey.

Nor is this some kind of codicil or afterthought hidden in the middle of the service somewhere. It is literally the first prayer in the first service of Yom Kippur. It is the most famous prayer said on Yom Kippur; it has a central place in the first talkie ever:

There are many beautiful prayers said during the Days of Awe, but Kol Nidre is the most beautiful. There are several prayers cantors pride themselves on during the Days of Awe, but Kol Nidre is the most prominent, and everyone does it a little differently. I had to look for a long time among many beautiful versions to find one that resembled what I heard growing up:

I think that one good heuristic for right behavior is that if you find that you are demanding more of people than the Jewish God demands for Himself, you are probably making a mistake somewhere. So since I have no intention of being more exacting than the God of the Hebrew Bible, I am declaring my own personal Kol Nidre.

If you made a promise to me, and you are not going to be able to keep it, I don't want you to keep feeling guilty about it. I just want you to tell me you won't do it. And then you will be released from your promise. You will be free, without sin or obligation to me.

I encourage you to name it here publicly in the comments, so that everyone can see that you are released from it, and to encourage others to do likewise. But if you want to tell me privately, that's fine too.

If you like this idea and want to do it yourself, I encourage you to copy as much of this as you like - no need to do the work a second time, though if you use my words, it would be nice to credit me.

One thought on “The Meaning of Kol Nidre

  1. Jeff A.

    I very much appreciated Kol Nidre. This year, I went to my first services for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. I like the idea of such a thing being adopted by EAs more broadly (not just commitments made to Ben or other specific individuals) given how some have caused harm to themselves by overcommitting themselves to their cause(s).


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