For many of us, one of the high points of Yom Kippur is the opening prayer of Kol Nidrei. Of course, Kol Nidrei is in fact not a prayer but rather a legal formula that allows for the annulment of vows. Moreover, as we shall see, in its present formulation it is self-contradictory and is therefore an ineffective means for achieving its original purpose. Nonetheless, the popularity of Kol Nidrei has been and remains overwhelming. After the Shema it may be the best known Jewish prayer, among Gentiles as well as among Jews. Renditions of Kol Nidrei have been recorded not only by traditional ḥazzanim but also by Al Jolson as well as Gentile performers such as Johnny Mathis and Perry Como.
From the outset there was widespread rabbinic opposition to the inclusion of Kol Nidrei. As mentioned above, Kol Nidrei was viewed as an improperly formulated annulment of vows; its inclusion in the liturgy would mislead its hearers into assuming that they were henceforth released from the past year’s vows. Second, rabbis were concerned that once it was commonly known that vows were annually subject to cancellation people would be much less cautious about taking vows. Third, there was discomfort with its implication that Jews could not be trusted to honor their vows since they were subject to annulment. This has been true even in those circles most disposed toward liturgical reform. In the nineteenth century Abraham Geiger, one of the fathers of the Reform Movement, attempted unsuccessfully to remove Kol Nidrei from the prayer book; an attempt by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, failed as well. [End Page 20]
Undoubtedly for most people it is the ritual surrounding Kol Nidrei—the removal of all the Torah scrolls from the ark, the white kittel or robe of the ḥazzan, the sight of two or more people standing with Torah scrolls standing on either side of him or her—rather than the words themselves that create a feeling of solemnity and awe. In addition, the traditional tune used for Kol Nidrei is moving to many of us. As the liturgical scholar Naftali Wieder puts it, “despite [Kol Nidrei’s] language and its legalistic content it is freighted with significant emotional and religious power that is absorbed from the emotional climate of the Day of Judgment and spiritual introspection.”1
If the effectiveness of Kol Nidrei derives from its musical and liturgical setting, however, we are left with the question of why this text above all others has become the opening to the Yom Kippur service. Of course many answers have been proposed. My own contribution to addressing this question is to suggest that we see Kol Nidrei as a meditation on what I call the promise and problem of words, a meditation that is especially appropriate as Yom Kippur begins. Before expanding on this idea, however, I would like to take a brief look at the look at the halakhic, textual, and liturgical history of Kol Nidrei.
Nowhere in Tanakh is there any mention of the possibility of annulling vows. The only instance mentioned in which a vow may be cancelled is that of a woman who takes a vow; her vow may be cancelled by her father or her husband on the day on which he becomes aware of it (Numbers 30:2–17). All other vows are unconditionally binding. Indeed, in the book of Judges we are told that the chieftain Jepthah takes a vow obligating him to offer to God the first to greet him when he returns from war if he is victorious. When his daughter comes out to greet him he tears his clothes in anguish, because he is now obligated to offer her as a sacrifice to God in [End Page 21] fulfillment of his vow (Judges 11:29–40). At no point is the possibility of annulling his vow mentioned.
However, by the time the Mishnah was composed, the institution of hattarat n’darim, the annulment of vows (literally, “the unbinding of vows”), had already come into existence, despite its having no biblical warrant. In...