The following is a discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the week.For final rulings, consult your Rav.
THE ORIGIN and PURPOSE of KOL NIDREI
The holiest day of the year, the day which the Torah designates as a Day of
Atonement for the sins of the Jewish people, begins with the little
understood but emotionally charged Kol Nidrei Service. For reasons which are
not completely known to us, the compilers of the Yom Kippur Machzor chose
Kol Nidrei, which is basically a halachic procedure for annulling certain
oaths and vows, as the opening chapter of the Yom Kippur davening.
Obviously, then, there is more to Kol Nidrei than meets the eye. Let us take
a deeper look.
It is known that Kol Nidrei dates back to ancient times, possibly as far
back as the era of Anshei Kenesses ha-Gedolah(1). The earliest written
version, though, is in the Seder of Rav Amram Gaon who lived in the ninth
century. Already then, the exact reason for reciting Kol Nidrei on Yom
Kippur was not clearly understood, and the Geonim and the early Rishonim
struggled with its exact meaning and purpose(2).
HALACHIC BACKGROUND - VOWS and OATHS
In earlier times, much more so than today, individuals were inclined to
"accept upon themselves" different types of self-imposed obligations or
restrictions. In order to ensure that these would actually be kept, people
would label their self-imposed obligation as either a neder, a vow, or a
shevuah, an oath, thus giving it legal force. The binding status of vows and
oaths and the horrific and tragic consequences of violating them are
discussed in several places in the Torah and Rabbinical literature(3).
But the Torah also recognizes that sometimes these vows and oaths were
undertaken without due consideration of the consequences. More often than
not, the individual making the oath did not realize how difficult it would
be to keep it. Sometimes, an oath was declared in anger or out of spite and
eventually the individual regretted his words and wished to revoke them. To
that end, the Torah provided a legal formula called hatoras nedorim,
allowing a petitioner to present his case before a bais din in order to find
a legal loophole and extricate the petitioner from his plight. This process
involves complex halachos, and indeed, not always can the court release the
petitioner from his vow.
THE VIEW of THE EARLY AUTHORITIES
Before beseeching G-d for atonement of sins on Yom Kippur, it is imperative
that each individual absolve himself of any vows or oaths that he may have
made and subsequently violated. The severity of violating a vow or an oath
is such that it may block or interfere with the entire atonement process(4).
Consequently, one who is aware of any violations that he may have, is
strongly urged to petition a Jewish court in order to find a way out of his
self-imposed obligations. Indeed, it has become customary that already on
Erev Rosh ha-Shanah, all males petition a beis din for Hatoras nedarim.
But not everyone is familiar with the procedure of Hatoras nedorim, and not
everyone who has violated a neder or a shevuah realizes that he has done so.
To avert and to solve this problem, Kol Nidrei was instituted. Kol Nidrei
declares that in case an individual made a vow or an oath during the past
year and somehow forgot and violated it inadvertently, he now realizes that
he made a terrible mistake and strongly regrets his hasty pronouncement. In
effect he tells the "court" - comprised of the Chazan and two congregational
leaders - that had he realized the gravity and severity of violating an
oath, he would never have uttered it in the first place. He thus begs for
forgiveness and understanding(5).
This explanation of Kol Nidrei, put forth by many of the early authorities
and endorsed by the Rosh, fits nicely with the traditional text of Kol
Nidrei, which reads, "from the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur", since
we are focusing on vows and oath which were undertaken during the past
THE VIEW of RABBEINU TAM
Other authorities - led by Rabbeinu Tam - strongly object to this
interpretation of Kol Nidrei. Basing their opposition on various halachic
principles, they question if it is legally valid to perform hatoras nedarim
in this manner. In their view, Kol Nidrei was instituted to deal with the
problem of unfulfilled vows, but from a different angle. Instead of
annulling existing vows and oaths, Kol Nidrei serves as a declaration
rendering all future vows and oaths which may be uttered without due
forethought - as invalid, "null and void, without power and without
standing(7)." Accordingly, the text was amended to read "from this Yom
Kippur until the next Yom Kippur", since we are referring to what may happen
in the future, not to what has already happened in the past.
WHAT APPROACH DO WE FOLLOW?
Most of the later authorities have accepted Rabbeinu Tam's explanation of
Kol Nidrei and this has become the accepted custom in most congregations(8).
Nevertheless, in deference to the first opinion, many congregation include
both versions as part of the text. Thus the text in some machzorim(9) reads
as follows: From the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur (accounting for
vows already made), and from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur
(referring to future vows), etc.
It is important to note, however, that Kol Nidrei, whether referring to the
past or to the future, does not give one the right to break his word. As
previously explained, Kol Nidrei is valid only for additional obligations or
personal restrictions that an individual undertakes of his own volition. By
no means can hatoras nedarim or Kol Nidrei exempt an individual from court
[or beis din] imposed oaths, etc.
A PRACTICAL APPLICATION
As stated earlier, vows and oaths are not too common in our times. It would
seem, therefore, that the halachic aspect of Kol Nidrei has little practical
application. But when properly understood, Kol Nidrei can be used as a tool
to rectify a fairly common halachic problem. There is a well-known ruling in
the Shulchan Aruch(10) that any proper custom, once accepted and followed,
may not be dropped without undergoing hataras nedarim. People who adopt even
"simple" customs which they are not obligated to practice, like reciting
Tehilim daily, without making the b'li neder (without a vow) stipulation,
require hataras nedarim should they decide to discontinue their
This is where Kol Nidrei(12) can help. As stated above, Rabbeinu Tam
explained that Kol Nidrei is a declaration that invalidates the legal force
of certain future vows. Contemporary poskim(13) rule that "proper customs"
from which an individual wishes to absolve himself although he neglected to
make the beli neder stipulation initially, are included in the Kol Nidrei
declaration invalidating such vows. The "proper custom" may now be
Since Kol Nidrei is an halachic procedure for nullifying certain, specific
future vows, the following conditions must be met:
Each individual must understand exactly what is being said during Kol
Nidrei. Since a legal declaration is being made, if one does not understand
what he is declaring, his statement cannot have legal force(14). The
difficult Aramaic text should, therefore, be studied and understood in
advance of Yom Kippur eve.
Each individual must verbally recite Kol Nidrei along with the Chazan.
Obviously, the Chazan cannot make such a declaration for anyone but
himself(15). It should not be recited in an undertone, but loudly enough for
a person nearby to hear(16). If it is whispered too softly, it may be
Kol Nidrei should be recited while it is daylight, since the process of
annulling vows [and the declaration of voiding them in the future] should
not be done on Shabbos or Yom Tov(18).
1 Shita Mekubetzes (Nedarim 23b).
2 Indeed, some well-known Geonim, including Rav Netronai Gaon and Rav Hai
Gaon, were adamantly opposed to the Kol Nidrei service and ordered their
congregations to omit it entirely; see Tur O.C. 619.
3 For a sampling see Shabbos 32b; Yavamos 109b; Nedarim 20a and 22b; Vayikra
Rabbah 37:1; Koheles Rabbah 5:2; Tanchuma, Matos 1.
4 Shibbolei ha-Leket.
5 It is important to stress that, even according to this opinion, Kol Nidrei
is a "last ditch effort" to guard a person from his own words and to save
him from certain punishment. It is not meant as a crutch to rely on
6 According to this opinion, Kol Nidrei is similar to the first part of
hatoras nedarim which is recited on Erev Rosh ha-Shanah
7 The halachic basis for this type of declaration is in the Talmud (Nedarim
23b) and is not within the scope of this column. Note that according to this
opinion, Kol Nidrei is similar to the second part of hatoras nedarim which
is recited on Erev Rosh ha-Shanah
8 Mishnah Berurah 619:2.
9 This "compromise text" was introduced by the Radvaz (4:33) and later
adopted by Rav Yaakov Emdin (She'alas Yaavetz 145) and other poskim, see Kaf
10 Y.D. 214:1.
11 See The Weekly Halachah Discussion, vol. 2, pg. 528-529 for a full
12 Or the second part of Hatoras nedorim on Erev Rosh ha-Shanah. See Minchas
Yitzchak 9:60 who explains why it is proper (but not obligatory) to recite
13 Harav S.Z. Auerbach in Minchas Shelomo 91 based on Teshuvos Salmas Chayim
2:38. See also Yabia Omer 2:30 and 4:11-9 who relies on this as well.
14 Chayei Adam 138:8 and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:16, concerning hatoras
15 Mishnah Berurah 619:2.
16 Shulchan Aruch Harav 619:3 based on Y.D. 211:1. On the other hand, it
should also not be said too loudly, so not to confuse the Chazan and other
worshippers; Mateh Efraim 619:11.
17 Minchas Yitzchak 9:61.
18 Mishnah Berurah 619:5. See Mateh Efraim 619:11 who explains that as long
as Kol Nidrei begins during daytime it does not matter if it continues into