Kol Nidre’s Conundrum
How can you enter a day of moral repair with words on your lips that annul your past and future promises?
As Yom Kippur begins on Tuesday night, Jews around the world will gather in synagogues to hear the cantor sing Kol Nidre, whose melody will break your heart.
But the words of this song may be even stranger and more disturbing than its haunting melody. Kol Nidre is a legal declaration repudiating our vows. Just before the sunset that ushers in the Day of Atonement, the congregation stands before a symbolic court of law, represented by three Torahs held in the arms of community leaders. The cantor sings:
All vows and prohibitions and oaths …
that we may vow or swear or prohibit upon ourselves
from this Yom Kippur until the Yom Kippur that is coming upon us for goodness—
regarding all of them, we repudiate them.
All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.
Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.
In the oldest version of the declaration, dating from around 800 CE, the vows that are disavowed are those we have made in the past year, from last Yom Kippur to now. In the 12th century Rashi’s son-in-law changed the text to annul vows that we would make in the coming year. Either way, the main issue is the same: Beginning in the Bible and continuing in rabbinic literature, there is an awareness of the ease with which we forget our vows. This passage in Deuteronomy is poignant in its advice to the would-be vow-er:
23:22 If you vow a vow to YHVH your God, do not delay in fulfilling it, for YHVH your God will surely seek it from you and there will be an offense in you. 23 But if you refrain from vowing, there will be no offense in you. 24 What comes out from your lips you are to keep, and you are to do as you have vowed to YHVH your God, volunteering what you have spoken with your mouth.
In other words, it’s always best to refrain from vowing, because it is easy to forget and the consequences are grave.
But isn’t this outrageous? How can you enter a day of moral repair with words on your lips that annul your past and future promises? Without vows, how are we supposed to embark on a path of self-improvement? We make vows in order to turn over a new leaf, to promise a fresh start, to define a new path that will take us in a new direction. And isn’t that exactly what we hope for from Yom Kippur? How odd, then, that this ritual of disavowal should come just at the start of the Day of Atonement! What kind of pessimism would lead us to annul our vows even before we have a chance to try to fulfill them? For many contemporary Jews, attendance at Kol Nidre is one of only a handful of non-negotiable Jewish acts. Are we drawn to it only because the melody is so beautiful, the ritual so solemn, and because most of us don’t understand the Aramaic words, anyway?
A careful understanding of the language and imagery of the High Holidays provides a lens through which the power of Kol Nidre comes into focus. The vows that the song alludes to are akin to New Year’s resolutions; by deflecting the impulse to make such resolutions, Kol Nidre acts as an antidote to our unhelpful reliance on willpower as the path to self-improvement. It points us instead down the more productive road of strengthening our relationship with what we hold most dear.
Out of context and without the perspective of Jewish interpretation, the words of Kol Nidre are easy to misunderstand. Indeed, in many times and places these words were dangerously misunderstood by non-Jews under whose power Jews lived. They were taken to mean that the oaths of Jews in court and the promises of Jews in business were not reliable, and as a result Jews were often subjected to harsh and humiliating treatment.
But the Jewish tradition insists that the vows Kol Nidre disavows have nothing to do with the agreements made between humans in civil or business situations. They are, rather, promises of donation and promises of abstention—promises we might make with ourselves or with God to be more constant in our study, prayer, or practice, to show up for people in need, to eat right and exercise. Kol Nidre reminds us not to make Yom Kippur about these sorts of vows, not to make it a day of New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s resolutions are a pessimistic project because everybody knows they will be broken. They feel optimistic at first, accompanied by a great surge of willpower, but their downfall is something most of us know from experience: Willpower works for a while, and then it stops working. Once the power of the will is broken, once perfection is no longer a possibility, it’s very hard to get back on track.
By putting vows aside, Kol Nidre clears the path to different kind of self-improvement. Instead of making vows, we do teshuvah. The noun teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root shuv (shin-vav-bet)—to return—and it has two meanings. First, teshuvah is the act of returning, a coming-back. Second, a teshuvah is a comeback, a response, as in “I asked him a question and he came back with a teshuvah,” or “She told him she loved him and his teshuvah was a kiss.” On Yom Kippur, the goal is to become aware that we are standing in the presence of infinite grandeur and to offer the appropriate teshuvah, to come back with the right response. The High Holiday liturgy that is designed to evoke this response is strikingly short on promises of good behavior. Instead of putting vows in our mouths, what it does is try to place us inside a relationship that, once we are aware of it, we would never dream of betraying—a relationship to which we cannot but respond.
Forget bagels and cream cheese. Break the Yom Kippur fast in a new way with recipes from a Top Chef master.