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Kol Nidrei and the Repentance of Yom Kippur

Rav David Brofsky
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Among the festivals, Yom Kippur is a bit of an enigma. The Torah's constant emphasis upon "affliction" (inui nefesh) on that day, as well as its identity as a "Shabbat Shabbaton," deserve attention. In the context of Yom Kippur, the Torah clearly states the theme of atonement, which is not the case regarding Rosh Hashana (see


For on this day shall ATONEMENT be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord (Vayikra 16:30).


Furthermore, the avodat Yom Kippur, the service of the day, clearly entails confession and atonement, as the Torah states:


And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and CONFESS over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness (Vayikra 16:31).


What is the nature of this repentance and atonement, and does it differ at all from the general commandment of teshuva?


            While elaboration on the general mitzva of teshuva is beyond the scope of this lecture, we should note that the Rishonim grapple with the fundamental question of whether the Torah can demand that one repent for his sins, as well as with technical questions relating to the source and means of repentance.


            The Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1), who devotes an entire section to the laws of teshuva, writes:  


If a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command - whether willingly or inadvertently - when he repents and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be He, as it states (Bamidbar 5:6-7): "If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man... they must confess the sin that they committed." This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.


The Rambam's emphasis upon the "viddui" (confession) generated much discussion among the commentators. While some (Minchat Chinukh 364) insist that the Rambam denies that one must repent, but rather holds that the Torah provides the proper means for one who wishes to return in the form of viddui, others (R. Soloveitchik as cited by Pinchas Peli in On Repentance, pp. 70-76) explain that while the viddui is the "means" to repentance (the ma'aseh), the fulfillment (the kiyum) is achieved through honest and soulful penitence, as the Rambam himself explains (introduction to Hilkhot Teshuva): "There is one positive commandment - that the sinner should repent from his sin before God, and confess…"  


            Yom Kippur, as well as the days preceding it, is an auspicious time for repentance, as the Rambam (2:6) writes:


Even though repentance and calling out are desirable at all times, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately as it states (Yeshayahu 55:6): "Seek God when He is to be found..."


Furthermore, the Rambam (2:7) also records a unique obligation to repent on Yom Kippur:


Yom Kippur is the time for repentance for every individual and for the many [the nation], and it marks the final pardon and forgiveness for Israel. Therefore, all are obligated to perform repentance and confess on Yom Kippur. The mitzva of the Yom Kippur confession begins on the eve of the day, before one eats…


Interestingly, the Rambam cites this obligation in his general treatment of teshuva, Hilkhot Teshuva, and NOT in the more specific laws of Yom Kippur. Apparently, the obligation on Yom Kippur is more urgent, but it is not necessary qualitatively different than the general requirement.


            Incidentally, the Ramban insists that the mitzva of teshuva should be derived from a different source.


For you shall obey the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the Torah, FOR YOU SHALL RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD with all your heart and with all your soul. For THIS MITZVA which I am commanding you today – it is not removed from you, nor is it distant.  It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, "Who will ascend for us to heaven, and take it for us that we will hear it and fulfill it?"  It is not across the sea, [for you] to say, "Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea, and take it for us that we will hear it and fulfill it?"  For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to fulfill it. (Devarim 30:10-14)  


The Ramban (Devarim 30:11, s.v. ki) explains that "this mitzva" refers to the mitzva of teshuva.


Rabbeinu Yonah (Spain, 1180-1263), in his famous work on teshuva, Sha'arei Teshuva (14), disagrees. He writes:


There is a positive Biblical command for a person to arouse his spirit to repent on Yom Kippur, as it says (Vayikra 16:30), "You shall be purified from all your sins before the Lord."


Apparently, R. Yona believes that on Yom Kippur, not only is there a unique imperative to repent, but its character differs from the general year-long commandment to repent. On Yom Kippur, we not only "return," we are "purified."


            R. Soloveitchik, in the context of a broader discussion in which he distinguishes between "kappara" (acquittal) and "tahara" (purification), explains:


Indeed, true teshuva not only achieves kappara (acquittal and erasure of penalty), it should also bring about tahara (purification) from tum'a (spiritual pollution), liberating man from his hard-hearted ignorance and insensitivity. Such teshuva restores man's spiritual viability and rehabilitates him to his original state.


            I would like to suggest that the Kol Nidrei prayer, which ushers in Yom Kippur, may be rooted in this difference between repentance and purification.


Kol Nidrei


Each year, we begin Yom Kippur with the somewhat mysterious prayer of Kol Nidrei. Its haunting tune brings a rush of emotions and feelings, as it ushers in the Day of Atonement.


Kol Nidrei, however, is no more than an annulment of past vows and a declaration that future vows should be null and void. It is therefore somewhat curious that this legal procedure should open the holiest day of the year! The Torah emphasizes the obligation to keep one's word. For example, we learn (Bamidbar 30:3):


If a man vows a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to impose an obligation on himself, he shall not break his word; according to all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.


Similarly, the Torah says elsewhere (Devarim 23: 22–24):


When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you and [if you don't fulfill it] you will have incurred a sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not have incurred a sin. That which has come from your lips you shall observe and do, what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God which you spoke with your mouth.


Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 47b), in a more general sense, censures those who do not keep their word in business dealing.


They [the Sages] said: He who punished the generation of the flood and the generation of the dispersion, He will take vengeance of him who does not stand by his word.


If so, how is it possible that we publically and ceremoniously annul our vows?


Furthermore, the notion that Jews may not only annul their past vows but may also stipulate that future vows should not be binding was a source of great antagonism between Jews and non-Jews throughout the ages. Jewish apostates and enemies of the Jews have used Kol Nidrei to cast suspicion upon the honesty and trustworthiness of Jews and their oaths for hundreds of years.


R. Yechiel of Paris, for example, in his Disputation of Paris held at the court of Louis IX, where he debated the convert Nicholas Donin (1240), was forced to counter this claim. He responded:


We only annul the unintentional vows, in order that a person should not transgress with his vows or oaths… and only those [vows] which relate exclusively to himself, and not to others. However vows which involve other people may not be annulled.


In 1875, the Russian Czar issued a special "ukase," or proclamation of the Czar, which recognized the rabbinic interpretation of the prayer. The rabbis, responding to the government, wrote:


In the name of God, and according to the Torah, we annul vows and oaths in which a person prohibits upon himself… However, God forbid that anyone should think that we annul vows and oaths which we swear to the government and in courts, or vows and oaths which we take between other parties.


These rabbinic responses highlight the dilemma that Kol Nidrei raised.


Apparently, the criticism of Kol Nidrei was so great that not only did the Reform movement decide unanimously to abolish Kol Nidrei in the rabbinical conference held at Brunswick in 1844, but even R. Samson Raphael Hirsch omitted the recitation of Kol Nidrei in Oldenburg in 1839 (although he later retracted).


As recently as 1964, Elizabeth Dilling's The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today (48) repeats the claim that Kol Nidrei demonstrates the way Jews relate to their commitments.


 Our task in this shiur is not to trace the historical development of this prayer, but rather to present its halakhic significance and attempt to explain its centrality in the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy.


Source and Reasons


The earliest references to Kol Nidrei appear in the Ge'onic literature. R. Natronai Ga'on, who served as the head of the Sura academy in the middle of the ninth century, records that while he had heard that some were accustomed to recite Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, this was not practiced in the "two academies" and he had never seen such a practice (Teshuvot Ha-Ge'onim, Sha'arei Teshuva 143).  His student and successor, R. Amram Gaon, records the Kol Nidrei in his siddur, but comments, "But the holy academy sent word that this is a foolish custom and it is forbidden to practice it."


Apparently, Kol Nidrei became a widely accepted part of the Yom Kippur liturgy towards the turn of the millennium (although it goes unmentioned by the Rambam), despite constantly attracting all sorts of criticism.


The Ge'onim, as well as many Rishonim, expressed great difficulty with this custom. General unease about vows, uncertainty regarding the right to annul them, and a general fear of both the internal educational message and external perception of such an apparent loophole, led many to oppose its recitation. In addition, many raised halakhic objections: Hatarat nedarim (nullification of vows) requires a beit din of three judges (in the absence of an outstanding individual scholar), as well as regret and specification of the vows or oaths. If so, our question grows even stronger: Why do we recite Kol Nidrei on the eve of Yom Kippur?


Some Rishonim defend the traditional understanding of Kol Nidrei, that the congregation annuls their vows before the onset of Yom Kippur, as the language of Kol Nidrei, phrased in the past tense, supports. Therefore, R. Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levi (d. 1225), the Ra'avya (Yoma 528), for example, insists that Kol Nidrei does actually annul one's past vows, and the entire congregation "aligns their intentions with the shaliach tzibbur's, as if they said explicitly 'and we regret the vows we have made, and we request annulment,' and he releases them with the consent of the community, as an individual cannot absolve vows unless he is an expert (mumche)." In other words, with the consent of the community, the chazzan serves as an individual judge, empowered to annul vows and oaths.


Rabbenu Tam (1100–1171), however, disagrees, and raises many objections to the traditional understanding of Kol Nidrei (Rosh, Yoma 8:28). He insists that Kol Nidrei does not affect the past by annulling previous vows, but rather stipulates that any vow that one will take in the future should not be binding. Indeed, the Talmud (Nedarim 23b) teaches:


And he who desires that none of his vows made during the year shall be valid, let him stand at the beginning of the year and declare, "Every vow which I may make in the future shall be null."  [His vows are then invalid,] provided that he remembers this at the time of the vow. But if he remembers, has he not cancelled the declaration and confirmed the vow? ... Raba said: … Here the circumstances are, for example, that one stipulated at the beginning of the year, but does not know in reference to what. Now he vows. Hence, if he remembers [the stipulation] and he declares: "I vow in accordance with my original intention," his vow has no reality. But if he does not declare thus, he has cancelled his stipulation and confirmed his vow.


According to this gemara, one may declare each year that all vows that one makes during the year should not take effect, as long as one remembers this stipulation at the time of the vow.


            Rabbeinu Tam explains that Kol Nidrei fulfills this Talmudic recommendation. In fact, Rabbeinu Tam altered the text of Kol Nidrei. While the original text read:  "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we took from the last Day of Atonement until this one we publicly renounce," Rabbeinu Tam amended the text to read, "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce."


Other Rishonim still questioned the validity of Kol Nidrei, and some even write that one who relies upon Kol Nidrei and then violates one's vows transgresses the Biblical prohibition of violating one's word (bal yachel).


R. Tzedkia ben R. Avraham Ha-Rofe (thirteenth century), known for his work Shibbolei Ha-Leket, suggests that Kol Nidrei may simply serve as a reminder before the festival of Sukkot, during which time one traditionally fulfills one's vows, to keep all of one's commitments (317). He suggests that since "avon nedarim," the sin of not discharging one's vows, is so great, we petition God in Kol Nidrei for forgiveness, both for those vows which went unfulfilled, and even for those which were kept. In other words, Kol Nidrei doesn't annul vows, but rather begs God's forgiveness for not keeping them.


The Teshuva of Yom Kippur


We observed above that the repentance of Yom Kippur may differ from that of the rest of the year. I would like to bring a few examples, which may ultimately enable us to understand the practice of reciting Kol Nidrei.


The Talmud (Yoma 88b) cites two interesting disagreements regarding viddui.


First, the Rabbis debate whether one should include sins from previous years in the current year's viddui.


It was taught: Sins which a person confessed [i.e. recited viddui about] on this Yom Kippur, one should not include in his viddui on another Yom Kippur. If one repeated [the sin], then one must confess it again on another Yom Kippur. If he did not repeat them, and still confessed them, the verse (Mishlei 26:11) says regarding this person, "As a dog that returns to his vomit, so is a fool that repeats his folly."

R. Eliezer ben Ya'akov says: How much more so is he worthy of praise [if he repeats the viddui the next year], as it says (Tehillim 51:5), "For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me."


Ostensibly, the first opinion, which states that one should not confess prior sins on Yom Kippur, make perfect sense. Indeed, it would seem that to confess again might even be misinterpreted as a lack of faith in the power of repentance on the part of the sinner! Why, on Yom Kippur, should one repent for prior sins?


Furthermore, the Talmud cites another debate regarding the extent to which one must specify each sin when reciting the viddui.


And one must specify each sin, as it says (Shemot 32:31), "And Moshe returned unto the Lord, and said: 'Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold;'" these are the words of R. Yehuda ben Baba.

R. Akiva said: "Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven [literally, covered], whose sin is pardoned" (Tehillim 32:1).


Here, too, one may wonder why one should NOT confess all of one’s sins!


            R. Menachem Meiri (1249-1310), in his Chibbur Ha-Teshuva (1:10), sheds light on this debate. After discussing the various opinions regarding the final halakha, he concludes:


There are some of the Ge'onim who rule that if one wishes to repent for a specific sin and his teshuva relates at that moment to that specific transgression, then he should specify the sin. However, he who intends to repent in a more general manner and to confess all of his sins does not need to specify each transgression. Rather, they should be before him, inscribed in his heart and he should have in mind to include them in the general statement "chatati" (I have sinned). That was the intention of the viddui from the Geonic era, which was comprised of four words: “We have sinned, become guilty, caused perversion, caused wickedness.”


The Meiri distinguishes between a general overhaul of one's spiritual fabric, for which one should confess in a more general sense, and a more specific repentance, for which one should specify the sin.


            Interestingly, the Rambam, in his Hilkhot Teshuva (1:1), writes:


If one transgressed any commandment of the Torah, whether a positive or a negative one, whether deliberately or accidentally, then when one repents one must confess verbally to God… This means verbal confession, which is a positive commandment, and is performed by saying, "O Lord, I have sinned, transgressed and rebelled before You, and have done such-and-such, and I am ashamed by my actions and will never do it again." This is the main part of verbal confession, and expanding on it is praiseworthy…


The Rambam rules that one should specify the sin. However, regarding Yom Kippur, he writes (2:7–8):


The Day of Atonement is a time of repentance for all, whether individually or with the community, and completes the pardoning and forgiving of Israel. Therefore, one is obligated to confess and repent on the Day of Atonement… The confession which all Jews recite starts, "For we have sinned, etc." This is the core of confession. Any sins which one confessed on the Day of Atonement one confesses on the following Day of Atonement, even though has maintained his repentance, for it is written, "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me."


Here, the Rambam cites the more general viddui, which does not specify each and every individual sin. Furthermore, he also rules that one should repeat prior sins in each year's viddui. Why?


            The Rambam may believe that the teshuva of Yom Kippur differs from the regular day-to-day teshuva. During the course of the year, our teshuva focuses upon specific transgressions. On Yom Kippur, however, we direct our teshuva towards our entire personality. On Yom Kippur, in performing teshuva we don't just acquit or remove the need for punishment, but rather search out the cause for our sins. Yom Kippur offers a full spiritual "tune-up." For that, one must recount all of one's sins, in order to understand what led and continues to lead one to sin.


Kol Nidrei and the Teshuva of Yom Kippur


As mentioned above, the Rabbis express great ambivalence, and often unease, regarding vows in general. For example, the Talmud (Nedarim 9a) cites the following debate regarding nedarim.


For it was taught: “Better it is that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay” (Kohelet 5:4).  Better than both is not to vow at all; thus said R. Meir. R. Yehuda said: Better than both is to vow and repay. 


Elsewhere (Nedarim 60b), taking vows is equated with building illegal altars.


For it was taught: R. Natan said: Whosoever makes a vow is as though he had built an unlawful alter (bama), and who fulfills it, is as though he burnt incense thereon.


Furthermore, one who vows is considered, by some (Nedarim 77b), to be a sinner.


Raba said to R. Nachman: Behold, Master, a scholar came from the west [the Land of Israel] and related that the Rabbis gave a hearing to the son of R. Huna ben Avin and absolved him of his vow, and then said to him, "Go, and pray for mercy, for you have sinned." For R. Dimi, the brother of R. Safra, learned: He who vows, even though he fulfils it, is designated a sinner. R. Zeved said: What verse [teaches this]? "But if you shall forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in you" (Devarim 23:23); hence, if you have not forborne, there is sin.


Similarly, the Talmud (Ta'anit 11a) even criticizes those who spend their days fasting. 


Shmuel said: Whoever fasts is termed a sinner. He is of the same opinion as the following Tanna. For it has been taught:  Eleazar Ha-Kappar ben Rebbi says, What is Scripture referring to when it says [of the Nazirite], "And make atonement for him, for he sinned by reason of the soul" (Bamidbar 6)? Against which soul did he sin? [It must refer to the fact that] he denied himself wine. We can now make this inference from minor to major: If this man [Nazirite] who denied himself wine alone is termed a sinner, how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.  


What do the rabbis find so problematic with taking vows?


            The Rambam, at the end of his Hilkhot Nedarim (13:23-25), explains:


Whoever makes vows in order to discipline his moral disposition and to improve his conduct displays commendable zeal and is worthy of praise… All such vows are ways of serving God, and of them and their like the Sages have said, "Vows are a fence around self-restraint."


Yet in spite of the fact that vows are ways of serving God, one should not multiply prohibitory vows nor employ them regularly… Indeed the sages have said, "Whosoever makes a vow is as though he had built an unlawful altar…"


Vows and oaths are a means of dealing with one's moral and spiritual weaknesses. While at times they may be necessary, or even praiseworthy, ultimately they do not solve the problem. Ideally, one should change one's behavior through thorough examination and introspection, leading to sincere repentance, and not through the artificial means of a vow.


            On Yom Kippur, we cast aside our vows and oaths and state before God: We are willing to purify ourselves and to once and for all get to the bottom of our moral and spiritual failings. We no longer need vows and oaths to keep us from sinning. We will plumb the depths of our personalities, searching for that which motivates us to sin.


The teshuva process, which begins on Yom Kippur evening, aims at rehabilitating our weak personalities and rendering the need for vows null and void. Only this type of repentance leads to purification, as the Torah teaches (Vayikra 16:30), "For on this day shall ATONEMENT be made for you, to CLEANSE you; from all your sins shall you be cleansed before the Lord.    

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