On Yom Kippur Eve as we chant Kol Nidrei, the moving melody ushers us into this solemn day of reflection and self-examination, but the ancient text itself seems remote and inscrutable in translation. Yet there is meaning to the text and that meaning can be understood after looking back into Kol Nidrei’s past. Kol Nidrei can be best understood as a prayer, not a legal declaration, to annul past unfulfilled personal vows and oaths.
When Kol Nidrei was created, it filled a need formally to annul past, unfulfilled vows and oaths so that one could come to Yom Kippur with a clean slate. This renunciation however had no legal basis. Later the geonim may have altered the original Kol Nidrei text, making it into a prayerful plea to God to void these past, unfulfilled vows and oaths. In the twelfth century Rabbi Yaakov b. Meir (called Rabbeinu Tam) mandated a revision of Kol Nidrei to conform to talmudic law. He ruled that the Kol Nidrei declaration was only valid when it annulled future, not past, vows and oaths. In the thirteenth century Jewish communities in Spain resisted the revision of Kol Nidrei mandated by Rabbeinu Tam by retaining the earlier version. Kol Nidrei then became an early marker of the differences between Spanish Jewry, the Sephardim, and the Ashkenazim, their French and German brethren.
A review of the difficulties associated with Rabbeinu Tam’s revised Kol Nidrei justifies the continued use of the original form by Sephardim. Rabbeinu Tam’s revision was based on a passage from tractate N’darim in the Babylonian Talmud whose purpose was to automatically annul exaggerated vows, those made to strike a bargain, or those made under pressure. [End Page 56] The revised Kol Nidrei annuls all vows made in the year to come, even when the votary fully intends to fulfill them. Given the choice, people likely would not have wanted to annul their vows in advance. They were not supposed to vow, but did so to strengthen their resolve to act in a certain way. The revised Kol Nidrei was contrary to their intention although halakhically correct. In addition, after recital of the revised Kol Nidrei someone making a vow during the year ahead must follow an impossibly confusing procedure given in the Talmud if he or she earnestly wishes fulfill it. The revised Kol Nidrei was also used in Christian controlled lands as proof that a Jew could not be trusted when making an oath in court. Lastly, the revised Kol Nidrei did not satisfy the need which the original met, to remove a feeling of guilt for not having fulfilled a past vow.
For some five hundred years, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim were generally distinct from each other in their customs, and particularly in their version of Kol Nidrei. Beginning with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, many Ashkenazim became more inclusive in their interpretation of the declaration. Some Ashkenazic congregations began reciting both the original Kol Nidrei as well as Rabbeinu Tam’s revision. In modern times Reconstructionist communities have reverted entirely to the original form of Kol Nidrei because they likely felt less constrained with the niceties of Jewish law. They were more concerned with the need to come to Yom Kippur without the baggage of unfulfilled vows, and that was the effect of the older version of Kol Nidrei.
On Erev Yom Kippur, the recitation of a form of Kol Nidrei like that propounded by the geonim, which asks for forgiveness for past unfulfilled vows and oaths, serves a purpose common with the prayers for Yom Kippur itself in that it guides worshippers to admitting their faults, asking for forgiveness, and finding pardon and atonement.
Origin of Kol Nidrei
Before examining the wording of the early, ninth-century Kol Nidrei and then its revision by Rabbeinu Tam in the twelfth century, it would be well to ask how it first came into existence. Under talmudic law, the formal method for annulling past oaths and vows required one to come before a rabbinic authority or a court of three laymen to ask for annulment of the vow or [End Page 57] oath. Standing before...