Kol Nidre: The secret of its survival

October 8, 2016 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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What is the secret of Kol Nidrei...asks Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

It is probably the most well-known prayer-passage in the Jewish liturgy.  Thanks to the orchestral setting of the composer composer Max Bruch and others, non-Jews and estranged Jews who do not even know what the Shema is have heard of Kol Nidrei.  It has lent its name to the entire night service of Yom Kippur.

Yet, what is it in essence?  Not even a prayer! Rather a dry declaration in which we request the nullification of all vows and promises inadvertently made to G-D (not to our fellow-man, as our detractors have slanderously suggested) during the course of the past year – or, according to Rabeinu Tam and most later Ashkenazi authorities those which may inadvertently be made during the course of the coming year.

The declaration is made with all due pomp and ceremony in front of three elders of the congregation at least one of whom is usually the chazan or the rabbi.  True enough, a formal declaration of annulment of one’s vows should take place before a ‘court’ of three elders comprising a bet din.  Yet if this triumvirate of elders is indeed meant to comprise a bet din. then questions must be asked.

Firstly: why is the bet din standing?  We know from various sources – including Rashi to Genesis 18:1 and Shevuot 30b which cites the fact that “Moses sat to judge the people and the people stood”(Exod. 18:13) – that a formal bet din is normally seated.  Indeed such is the posture adopted by the specially-constituted bet din on Erev Rosh HaShana when we perform a longer and more rigorous form of hatarat nedarim, annulment of vows. There the petitioners stand and the bet din sits as is regular.  But here, the three elders stand on the bimah, each or at least two of them embracing a Sefer Torah.

Secondly: when  do these elders recite Kol Nidrei to annul their vows?  The answer is: together with the rest of the congregation.  But surely if they comprised a constituted bet din, they would be listening to the petitioners, i.e. the rest of the congregation, following which they would invoke the powers invested in them as a bet din to say:  “Forgiven, absolved, permitted!” Next, they themselves would need to de-constitute themselves and become petitioners to annul their own vows for which a new bet din would be needed.  Again, this is the actual procedure in the hatarat nedarim which is performed on Erev Rosh HaShana.

Besides these specific questions on the conduct of the ‘bet din’  is a more general question. Why, if hatarat nedarim was already done on Erev Rosh Hashana, does it need to be done again before Yom Kippur?

Another question: Although the procedure is scheduled to begin before sunset, it invariably lasts into nightfall.  But a bet din does not sit at night!  Besides in many kehilot Kol Nidrei even begins well after sunset – and no-one seeks to modify this practice.

Yet another question:  Kol Nidrei is written in Aramaic.  Yet according to most scholars it was written in Erets Yisrael in the seventh or early eighth century.  The lingua franca in 7th-8thc. Israel would not have been Aramaic.  Why should Kol Nidrei have been written in a language not generally known by the populace if its purpose was to annul vows? Surely it is important that the petitioners know what they are asking?

All these questions lead us towards the conclusion that Kol Nidrei is not a formal, halachically-mandated annulment of vows at all! Indeed, the Levush goes so far as to call it ‘idle twitter’.  So – what is the secret of its survival?  Not only it survival but its uniquely celebrated status?

Could it be the haunting, emotive age-old melody – more well-known than any other in the liturgy?  But surely it is unreasonable and illogical to assume that it was the melody which imbued the text with its unique status Rather it must have been the text that gave rise to such a rich, majestic musical setting. We still await a clue.

Let us return to its language.  Aramaic, we said.  But not the parochial Aramaic of talmudic and post-talmudic Babylon.  Rather the pan-Aramaic of the Zohar and the Jewish esoteric tradition.

Now we are warming to the scent. We shall be even warmer when considering an extraordinary tale told in the Talmud (Baba Batra 74a ) involving that most intrepid of travellers Rabba Bar Bar-Chana. An Arab merchant offered to show him Mount Sinai whereupon bar-Chana heard a heavenly voice lamenting: “Alas that I have sworn to exile My children – and now that I have sworn who can annul the oath for Me?”

Rabba Bar Bar-Chana is unable to reply. But he relates that, when he returned from his esoteric experience, his rabbinical colleagues chided him for not having responded “It is annulled!”  After all, was there not a previous occasion or even two when G-D annulled a vow?  Indeed was not Israel’s very existence based on the cancellation of a vow by G-D? The Psalmist (95:11) describes how G-D “swore” in a moment of anger “that they (the Children of Israel) will not enter My rest”. This is a reference to the threat by G-D to destroy the Children of Israel as a result of  the mutiny that followed the report of the ten wicked spies.  However Moses pleads passionately on their behalf for mercy and G-D ‘annuls’ His ‘vow’ declaring salakhti ki-d’vareikha, “I have forgiven according to your words”.  These are the thrice-repeated words which follow the recital of Kol Nidrei.

A year earlier, G-D had also threatened solemnly to destroy the people following the sin of the golden calf.   There too Moses pleads passionately.  And there too, G-D “reconsiders”, revoking His threat and eventually G-D and Israel are reconciled – on the very first Yom Kippur in history!

And so when we recite Kol Nidrei, we are actually engaging in a bold and audacious exercise in subtle subliminal suggestion?  We are in effect saying: “Look, G-D – the nullification of vows which we now re-enact is perfectly in accordance with Your Torah and Your Will. After all, You did it twice in history.  Please, please G-D, do it just once more. You vowed to exile us. Revoke this vow, G-D, and send us the Messianic redeemer to put an end to this exile!”

Now we can begin to appreciate the real power of Kol Nidrei?  Now we can comprehend how a seemingly dry, quasi-legal statement  is actually a feverish entreaty sung to a suitably evocative, yearning, tearful melody?

Kol Nidrei is an invocation for every age.  It is most certainly one for our age.

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