Explaining Kol Nidrei

Written by Gil Student

Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:2

They said: He who exacted punishment from the generation of the Flood [Gen. 7] and the generation of the Dispersion [Gen. 11] will exact punishment from he who does not stand by his word.

Accusation and Text
Oaths and Vows
Annulment Of Vows
Pre-Existing Clause
Kol Nidrei  

The Accusation

Lying to Gentiles is institutionalized within the Jewish religion in the Kol Nidre rite, when all oaths that were broken in the preceding year, are rendered null and void.


The Kol Nidrei service is the first part of the Yom Kippur services and has a long history of being misunderstood. A simple reading of the text without any Talmudic or legal knowledge would lead one to believe that it is license to lie and deceive. However, even a little knowledge shows that this perception is totally incorrect. What we will show is that Kol Nidrei's effect is legally very small and is, in fact, either an annulment for strictly personal vows or a clause for a limited number of future personal vows. Either way, it absolutely DOES NOT undermine the effectiveness of vows taken for others.

The Text

Kol Nidrei [Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor translation - different textual versions will be discussed later]

All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, konam-vows, konas-vows, or equivalent terms that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves - [from the last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur, and] from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur, may it come upon us for good - regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.


Oaths and Vows

Judaism takes vows and oaths very seriously. While the Bible has many passages discussing vows about sacrifices, the only passage in the Pentateuch regarding personal vows is in Numbers 30.

Numbers 30:3

If a man takes a vow to G-d or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.

This prohibition against violating one's oaths is considered so strong that the Talmud [Shevuot 39a] states that the whole world shakes over this prohibition. The Talmud [Bava Metzia 5b] says that even Jewish thieves (yes, there are thieves in every society) are more careful about keeping their word than respecting other's property.


Annulment Of Vows

As part of the Oral Law we have a tradition that oaths can be nullified by a court [Talmud Chagigah 10a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shevuot 6:1]. When a person regrets having ever taken an oath a court can declare his oath to be null and void. However, and this is crucial, there are severe limitations regarding which oaths a court is empowered to nullify.

A somewhat similar notion to the above can be found regarding a woman's oath in Numbers 30:4-10 although there are very big differences between that and a court's nullification. Anyone who is a biblical literalist will reject the concept of annulment of oaths. However, Jews accept this tradition as having been given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Taking oaths is a worthy way of inducing oneself to act properly. Because of the power of an oath, it is an extremely useful psychological motivator. While Ecclesiastes (5:4) tells us "Better that you not vow at all than that you vow and not pay", there are times when vowing is beneficial in enducing proper behavior [see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Nedarim 13:23; Talmud Chullin 2a-b].

Only these oaths can be nullified. Oaths involving more than one person require both to be present and to agree to the annulment.

Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 211:4

All this [about annulling oaths] is said only about a vow or oath that was vowed or sworn for oneself. However, if someone else induced one to vow or swear this annulment does not help at all.

Think about it. The Talmud dedicates one sixth of itself to detailing the Jewish court system which adjudicates based on the sworn testimony of witnesses. What good is their testimony if they can have a different court nullify it in the future? For that reason Jewish courts specifically include in the language of the oath that the witnesses are swearing with the court in mind so that the oath cannot be nullified [Talmud Shevuot 29a; Nedarim 25a].

Any oath taken with others in mind cannot be nullified without their presence and approval. This is affirmed in the following quote and by Nachmanides, Teshuvot HaRamban, 248, 280; Rabbi Yerucham, Toldot Adam VeChavah, 7, 12; Tur, Orach Chaim 619; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 211:4.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shevuot 6:7

Reuven who induces Shimon to swear and answers "Amen" or accepted the oath and Shimon subsequently regrets the oath and requests an annulment, the court does not annul it except before Reuven who induced the oath... Even if the inducer is a child or a gentile the court does not annul it except before him so that he will know that the oath was annulled.


Pre-Existing Clause

Like a contract, whatever clauses one includes in one's vow are binding. If one were to vow to "never eat hamburgers except on weekdays" then one would be allowed to eat hamburgers five days a week. If one were to vow to "never eat hamburgers but this vow is null and void" then the vow would not have any effect. Because one included within the vow a clause that nullified the vow, the vow did not have any obligatory effect. With this in mind, let us address the following passage from the Talmud.

Talmud Nedarim 23b

One who wishes that none of his vows should have effect all year should stand at the beginning of the year and say "All vows that I will make this year will be null"... as long as one does not remember at the time of the vow.

By making this clause ahead of time one is establishing a standard clause that is automatically included in all vows for the rest of the year. However, there is an interesting and important conclusion to this passage - "as long as one does not remember at the time of the vow." If one remembers this clause at the time of the vow one must repeat it out loud. If not, one is, by omission, disavowing the original clause. However, if one forgets then one is not disavowing the original clause and it is still in effect. In other words, this clause from the beginning of the year only works if one forgets it. Otherwise one has to say it again at the time of the vow.

Another important point is that this pre-existing clause does not work if someone else is inducing the vow. When the vow concerns others it must be fully vocalized at the time of the vow in front of these others. Anything that is not said at the time is null and void including this pre-existing clause.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shevuot 2:16

One who takes an oath and says "I vow not to eat today and on your intentions I swear" cannot say "I had such-and-such in mind" because he did not vow on his intentions but on the intentions of others.

This is also affirmed by Rabbi Nissim from Gerona, Ran, Nedarim 23b; Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, Rosh, ad loc.; Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot, ad loc.; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 210:1, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, Biur HaGra, Yoreh Deah 210:3.


Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei dates back to at least the ninth century where it was included in the first comprehensive prayer books, Seder Rav Amram Gaon. In the twelfth century, a debate within the Jewish community ensued regarding the intent of Kol Nidrei.

The clear intent of this service as it was originally written was to be an annulment of previous vows that, immediately prior to the day of judgement (Yom Kippur), would free a person from being liable from violating personal vows. Since, as we saw above, only personal vows can be annulled, Kol Nidrei sought to remove from people the possible stigma of violating their personal vows.

In the twelfth century, Rabbeinu Tam objected to this application of the annulment of vows due to a number of technical reasons, particularly its lack of individuality. How can you annul an individual's vows in a group ceremony which does not even list the vows, asked Rabbeinu Tam? Therefore, Rabbeinu Tam insisted on changing the text of Kol Nidrei to use a future tense so it would serve as a pre-existing clause in future vows (assuming that individuals read along quietly with the service) [Tosafot, Nedarim 23b]. This change was opposed and the original text was defended by some scholars, such as R. Asher ben Yechiel [Rosh, Yoma 8:28]. The prevailing custom is to either follow Rabbeinu Tam's modified text or to use a compromise version that includes both past and future vows.

However, and this is crucial, NO ONE claims that Kol Nidrei exempts individuals from either past or future vows that involve others. Kol Nidrei is ONLY for personal vows, as demonstrated above. Whether in business deals or in interpersonal interaction, Kol Nidrei does not in any way provide license for Jews to be deceiptful or lying.


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