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A New Promise

By: Rabbi Dr Zvi Ron

One of the most powerful parts of the Yom Kippur davening is the haunting recitation of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur night. Everybody makes sure to get to shul in time to be able to participate in this part of the service. When I was a rabbi of a shul in Richmond, Virginia, the highest shul attendance on Yom Kippur was always at Kol Nidre and Yizkor. However, Kol Nidre is never mentioned in the Talmud and it is not even clear what its purpose actually is once we give it some thought.

Kol Nidre reads as an annulment of our vows, promises we made over the course of the past year. But what vows are we annulling at Kol Nidre? Although Kol Nidre has the trappings of the annulment of vows ceremony, with three people standing in front of the congregation simulating a Beit Din, it does not contain the halachic elements necessary for a real Hatarat Nedarim, like peirut (specifying the vow you want to annul). Thus the Rema rules (Shulchan Aruch 211:1) that we can't rely on Kol Nidre to halachically annul any vows. In fact, the real, halachic, annulment of vows takes place before Rosh Hashana, so that by the time we enter Yom Kippur there should not be any vows left to annul.

Rabbenu Tam states that the promises we made to others we can only annul by asking them forgiveness, promises we made to God we pray about on Yom Kippur. The only vows left for Kol Nidre to take care of are vows that a person made to themselves.

If so, what is the purpose of a purely symbolic representation of annulling personal vows?

It is to make us think of the various promises we made to ourselves over the course of the year; all of our planned changes and improvements. What happened to these promises? Did we live up to the expectations that we set for ourselves? When we say in Kol Nidre that we regret the vows, what we really mean is that we regret that we could not accomplish what we planned to, that we let ourselves down.

Shibulei HaLeket explains that we recite Kol Nidre three times to make sure we will think about what we are saying. We need this time and repetition to review all of our promises. At Kol Nidre we recognize where we fell short, and now we can begin Yom Kippur with a new promise to ourselves as not to repeat our mistakes this year.

Shabbat Shalom and Ktiva v’Chatima Tova.




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