Nidrei and the Repentance
of Yom Kippur
By Rav David Brofsky
festivals, Yom Kippur is a bit of an enigma. The Torah's constant emphasis upon
"affliction" (inui nefesh) on that day, as well as its identity as a
"Shabbat Shabbaton," deserve attention. In the context of Yom Kippur, the
Torah clearly states the theme of atonement, which is not the case regarding
Rosh Hashana (see
For on this day
shall ATONEMENT be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be
clean before the Lord (Vayikra 16:30).
avodat Yom Kippur, the service of the day, clearly entails confession and
atonement, as the Torah states:
And Aaron shall
lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and CONFESS over him all the
iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions, even all
their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat and shall send him
away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness (Vayikra
What is the nature
of this repentance and atonement, and does it differ at all from the general
commandment of teshuva?
While elaboration on the general mitzva of teshuva is
beyond the scope of this lecture, we should note that the Rishonim
grapple with the fundamental question of whether the Torah can demand that one
repent for his sins, as well as with technical questions relating to the source
and means of repentance.
The Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1), who devotes an entire section to
the laws of teshuva, writes:
If a person
transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah, whether a positive
command or a negative command - whether willingly or inadvertently - when he
repents and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be He, as
it states (Bamidbar 5:6-7): "If a man or a woman commit any of the sins
of man... they must confess the sin that they committed." This refers to a
verbal confession. This confession is a positive
Rambam's emphasis upon the "viddui" (confession) generated much
discussion among the commentators. While some (Minchat Chinukh 364)
insist that the Rambam denies that one must repent, but rather holds that the
Torah provides the proper means for one who wishes to return in the form of
viddui, others (R.
Soloveitchik as cited by Pinchas Peli in On Repentance,
pp. 70-76) explain that while the viddui is the "means" to repentance
(the ma'aseh), the fulfillment (the kiyum) is achieved through
honest and soulful penitence, as the Rambam himself explains (introduction to
Hilkhot Teshuva): "There is one positive commandment - that the sinner
should repent from his sin before God, and confess…"
Yom Kippur, as well as the days preceding it, is an auspicious time for
repentance, as the Rambam (2:6) writes:
repentance and calling out are desirable at all times, during the ten days
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and
will be accepted immediately as it states (Yeshayahu 55:6): "Seek God
when He is to be found..."
Rambam (2:7) also records a unique obligation to repent on Yom
Yom Kippur is the
time for repentance for every individual and for the many [the nation], and it
marks the final pardon and forgiveness for Israel.
Therefore, all are obligated to perform repentance and confess on Yom Kippur.
The mitzva of the Yom Kippur confession begins on the eve of the day,
before one eats…
Rambam cites this obligation in his general treatment of teshuva,
Hilkhot Teshuva, and NOT in the more specific laws of Yom Kippur.
Apparently, the obligation on Yom Kippur is more urgent, but it is not necessary
qualitatively different than the general
Incidentally, the Ramban insists that the mitzva of teshuva
should be derived from a different source.
For you shall obey
the Lord your God to observe His commandments and statutes that are written in
this book of the Torah, FOR YOU SHALL RETURN TO THE LORD YOUR GOD with all your
heart and with all your soul. For THIS MITZVA which I am commanding you
today – it is not removed from you, nor is it distant. It is not in
heaven, [for you] to say, "Who will ascend for us to heaven, and take it for us
that we will hear it and fulfill it?" It is not across the sea, [for you]
to say, "Who will cross for us to the other side of the sea, and take it for us
that we will hear it and fulfill it?" For the matter is very close to you,
in your mouth and in your heart to fulfill it. (Devarim 30:10-14)
(Devarim 30:11, s.v. ki) explains that "this mitzva" refers
to the mitzva of teshuva.
Yonah (Spain, 1180-1263), in his famous work
on teshuva, Sha'arei Teshuva (14), disagrees. He
is a positive Biblical command for a person to arouse his spirit to repent on
Yom Kippur, as it says (Vayikra 16:30), "You shall be purified from all
your sins before the Lord."
R. Yona believes that on Yom Kippur, not only is there a unique imperative to
repent, but its character differs from the general year-long commandment to
repent. On Yom Kippur, we not only "return," we are "purified."
R. Soloveitchik, in the context of a broader discussion in which he
distinguishes between "kappara" (acquittal) and "tahara"
true teshuva not only achieves kappara (acquittal and erasure of
penalty), it should also bring about tahara (purification) from
tum'a (spiritual pollution), liberating man from his hard-hearted
ignorance and insensitivity. Such teshuva restores man's spiritual
viability and rehabilitates him to his original state.
I would like to suggest that the Kol Nidrei prayer, which ushers
in Yom Kippur, may be rooted in this difference between repentance and
Each year, we
begin Yom Kippur with the somewhat mysterious prayer of Kol Nidrei. Its
haunting tune brings a rush of emotions and feelings, as it ushers in the Day of
is no more than an annulment of past vows and a declaration that future vows
should be null and void. It is therefore somewhat curious that this legal
procedure should open the holiest day of the year! The Torah emphasizes the
obligation to keep one's word. For example, we learn (Bamidbar 30:3):
If a man vows a
vow to the Lord or swears an oath to impose an obligation on himself, he shall
not break his word; according to all that comes out of his mouth he shall do.
Torah says elsewhere (Devarim 23: 22–24):
When you make a
vow to the Lord your God, do not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will
require it of you and [if you don't fulfill it] you will have incurred a sin.
But if you refrain from vowing, you will not have incurred a sin. That which has
come from your lips you shall observe and do, what you have voluntarily vowed to
the Lord your God which you spoke with your mouth.
Indeed, the Talmud
(Bava Metzia 47b), in a more general sense, censures those who do not
keep their word in business dealing.
They [the Sages]
said: He who punished the generation of the flood and the generation of the
dispersion, He will take vengeance of him who does not stand by his
If so, how is it
possible that we publically and ceremoniously annul our
notion that Jews may not only annul their past vows but may also stipulate that
future vows should not be binding was a source of great antagonism between Jews
and non-Jews throughout the ages. Jewish apostates and enemies of the Jews have
used Kol Nidrei to cast suspicion upon the honesty and trustworthiness of
Jews and their oaths for hundreds of years.
R. Yechiel of
example, in his Disputation of Paris held at the court of Louis IX, where he
debated the convert Nicholas Donin (1240), was forced to counter this claim. He
We only annul the
unintentional vows, in order that a person should not transgress with his vows
or oaths… and only those [vows] which relate exclusively to himself, and not to
others. However vows which involve other people may not be annulled.
In 1875, the
Russian Czar issued a special "ukase," or proclamation of the Czar, which
recognized the rabbinic interpretation of the prayer. The rabbis, responding to
the government, wrote:
In the name of
God, and according to the Torah, we annul vows and oaths in which a person
prohibits upon himself… However, God forbid that anyone should think that we
annul vows and oaths which we swear to the government and in courts, or vows and
oaths which we take between other parties.
responses highlight the dilemma that Kol Nidrei
criticism of Kol Nidrei was so great that not only did the Reform
movement decide unanimously to abolish Kol Nidrei in the rabbinical
conference held at Brunswick in 1844, but even R. Samson Raphael Hirsch omitted the
recitation of Kol Nidrei in Oldenburg in 1839 (although he later
As recently as
1964, Elizabeth Dilling's The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today (48)
repeats the claim that Kol Nidrei demonstrates the way Jews relate to
Our task in this shiur is not to
trace the historical development of this prayer, but rather to present its
halakhic significance and attempt to explain its centrality in the traditional
Yom Kippur liturgy.
references to Kol Nidrei appear in the Ge'onic literature. R. Natronai
Ga'on, who served as the head of the Sura academy in the middle of the ninth
century, records that while he had heard that some were accustomed to recite
Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, this was not practiced in the "two academies"
and he had never seen such a practice (Teshuvot Ha-Ge'onim, Sha'arei
Teshuva 143). His student and
successor, R. Amram Gaon, records the Kol Nidrei in his siddur,
but comments, "But the holy academy sent word that this is a foolish custom and
it is forbidden to practice it."
Nidrei became a widely accepted part of the Yom Kippur liturgy towards the
turn of the millennium (although it goes unmentioned by the Rambam), despite
constantly attracting all sorts of criticism.
Ge'onim, as well as many Rishonim, expressed great difficulty with
this custom. General unease about vows, uncertainty regarding the right to annul
them, and a general fear of both the internal educational message and external
perception of such an apparent loophole, led many to oppose its recitation. In
addition, many raised halakhic objections: Hatarat nedarim (nullification
of vows) requires a beit din of three judges (in the absence of an
outstanding individual scholar), as well as regret and specification of the vows
or oaths. If so, our question grows even stronger: Why do we recite Kol
Nidrei on the eve of Yom Kippur?
Rishonim defend the traditional understanding of Kol Nidrei, that
the congregation annuls their vows before the onset of Yom Kippur, as the
language of Kol Nidrei, phrased in the past tense, supports. Therefore,
R. Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levi
the Ra'avya (Yoma 528), for example, insists that Kol Nidrei does
actually annul one's past vows, and the entire congregation "aligns their
intentions with the shaliach tzibbur's, as if they said explicitly 'and
we regret the vows we have made, and we request annulment,' and he releases them
with the consent of the community, as an individual cannot absolve vows unless
he is an expert (mumche)." In other words, with the consent of the
community, the chazzan serves as an individual judge, empowered to annul
vows and oaths.
Tam (1100–1171), however, disagrees, and raises many objections to the
traditional understanding of Kol Nidrei (Rosh, Yoma 8:28). He
insists that Kol Nidrei does not affect the past by annulling previous
vows, but rather stipulates that any vow that one will take in the future should
not be binding. Indeed, the Talmud (Nedarim 23b)
he who desires that none of his vows made during the year shall be valid, let
him stand at the beginning of the year and declare, "Every vow which I may make
in the future shall be null." [His vows are then invalid,] provided that
he remembers this at the time of the vow. But if he remembers, has he not
cancelled the declaration and confirmed the vow? ... Raba said: … Here the
circumstances are, for example, that one stipulated at the beginning of the
year, but does not know in reference to what. Now he vows. Hence, if he
remembers [the stipulation] and he declares: "I vow in accordance with my
original intention," his vow has no reality. But if he does not declare thus, he
has cancelled his stipulation and confirmed his vow.
According to this
gemara, one may declare each year that all vows that one makes during the
year should not take effect, as long as one remembers this stipulation at the
time of the vow.
Rabbeinu Tam explains that Kol Nidrei fulfills this Talmudic
recommendation. In fact, Rabbeinu Tam altered the text of Kol Nidrei.
While the original text read: "All
personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we took from
the last Day of Atonement until this one we publicly renounce," Rabbeinu Tam
amended the text to read, "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal
oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom
Kippur, we publicly renounce."
Rishonim still questioned the validity of Kol Nidrei, and some
even write that one who relies upon Kol Nidrei and then violates one's
vows transgresses the Biblical prohibition of violating one's word (bal
Tzedkia ben R. Avraham Ha-Rofe (thirteenth century), known for his work
Shibbolei Ha-Leket, suggests that Kol Nidrei may simply serve as a
reminder before the festival of Sukkot, during which time one
traditionally fulfills one's vows, to keep all of one's commitments (317). He
suggests that since "avon nedarim," the sin of not discharging one's
vows, is so great, we petition God in Kol Nidrei for forgiveness, both
for those vows which went unfulfilled, and even for those which were kept. In
other words, Kol Nidrei doesn't annul vows, but rather begs God's
forgiveness for not keeping them.
Teshuva of Yom Kippur
observed above that the repentance of Yom Kippur may differ from that of the
rest of the year. I would like to bring a few examples, which may ultimately
enable us to understand the practice of reciting Kol
Talmud (Yoma 88b) cites two interesting disagreements regarding
the Rabbis debate whether one should include sins from previous years in the
current year's viddui.
was taught: Sins which a person confessed [i.e. recited viddui about] on
this Yom Kippur, one should not include in his viddui on another Yom
Kippur. If one repeated [the sin], then one must confess it again on another Yom
Kippur. If he did not repeat them, and still confessed them, the verse
(Mishlei 26:11) says regarding this person, "As a dog that returns to his
vomit, so is a fool that repeats his folly."
Eliezer ben Ya'akov says: How much more so is he worthy of praise [if he repeats
the viddui the next year], as it says (Tehillim 51:5),
"For I know my
transgressions; and my sin is ever before me."
Ostensibly, the first opinion, which
states that one should not confess prior sins on Yom Kippur, make perfect sense.
Indeed, it would seem that to confess again might even be misinterpreted as a
lack of faith in the power of repentance on the part of the sinner! Why, on Yom
Kippur, should one repent for prior sins?
Furthermore, the Talmud cites another
debate regarding the extent to which one must specify each sin when reciting the
And one must specify each sin, as it
says (Shemot 32:31), "And Moshe returned unto the Lord, and said: 'Oh,
this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold;'" these
are the words of R. Yehuda ben Baba.
R. Akiva said: "Happy is he whose
transgression is forgiven [literally, covered], whose sin is pardoned"
Here, too, one may wonder why one
should NOT confess all of one’s sins!
R. Menachem Meiri (1249-1310), in his Chibbur Ha-Teshuva (1:10),
sheds light on this debate. After discussing the various opinions regarding the
final halakha, he concludes:
There are some of the Ge'onim
who rule that if one wishes to repent for a specific sin and his teshuva
relates at that moment to that specific transgression, then he should specify
the sin. However, he who intends to repent in a more general manner and to
confess all of his sins does not need to specify each transgression. Rather,
they should be before him, inscribed in his heart and he should have in mind to
include them in the general statement "chatati" (I have sinned). That was
the intention of the viddui from the Geonic era, which was comprised of
four words: “We have sinned, become guilty, caused perversion, caused
Meiri distinguishes between a general overhaul of one's spiritual fabric, for
which one should confess in a more general sense, and a more specific
repentance, for which one should specify the sin.
Interestingly, the Rambam, in his Hilkhot Teshuva (1:1),
one transgressed any commandment of the Torah, whether a positive or a negative
one, whether deliberately or accidentally, then when one repents one must
confess verbally to God… This means verbal confession, which is a positive
commandment, and is performed by saying, "O Lord, I have sinned, transgressed
and rebelled before You, and have done such-and-such, and I am ashamed by my
actions and will never do it again." This is the main part of verbal confession,
and expanding on it is praiseworthy…
Rambam rules that one should specify the sin. However, regarding Yom Kippur, he
Day of Atonement is a time of repentance for all, whether individually or with
the community, and completes the pardoning and forgiving of Israel.
Therefore, one is obligated to confess and repent on the Day of Atonement… The
confession which all Jews recite starts, "For we have sinned, etc." This is the
core of confession. Any sins which one confessed on the Day of Atonement one
confesses on the following Day of Atonement, even though has maintained his
repentance, for it is written, "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin
is ever before me."
the Rambam cites the more general viddui, which does not specify each and
every individual sin. Furthermore, he also rules that one should repeat prior
sins in each year's viddui. Why?
The Rambam may believe that the teshuva of Yom Kippur differs from
the regular day-to-day teshuva. During the course of the year, our
teshuva focuses upon specific transgressions. On Yom Kippur, however, we
direct our teshuva towards our entire personality. On Yom Kippur, in
performing teshuva we don't just acquit or remove the need for
punishment, but rather search out the cause for our sins. Yom Kippur offers a
full spiritual "tune-up." For that, one must recount all of one's sins, in order
to understand what led and continues to lead one to sin.
and the Teshuva of Yom Kippur
mentioned above, the Rabbis express great ambivalence, and often unease,
regarding vows in general. For example, the Talmud (Nedarim 9a) cites the following debate
For it was taught: “Better it is that
you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay” (Kohelet 5:4).
Better than both is not to vow at all; thus said R. Meir. R. Yehuda said: Better
than both is to vow and repay.
(Nedarim 60b), taking vows is equated with building illegal
For it was taught: R. Natan said:
makes a vow is as though he had built an unlawful alter (bama), and who fulfills it,
is as though he burnt incense thereon.
Furthermore, one who vows is
considered, by some (Nedarim 77b), to be a sinner.
said to R. Nachman: Behold, Master, a scholar came from the west [the Land of Israel] and related that the Rabbis gave a
hearing to the son of R. Huna ben Avin and absolved him of his vow, and then
said to him, "Go, and pray for mercy, for you have sinned." For R. Dimi, the
brother of R. Safra, learned: He who vows, even though he fulfils it, is
designated a sinner. R. Zeved said: What verse [teaches this]? "But if you shall
forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in you" (Devarim 23:23); hence, if you
have not forborne, there is sin.
even criticizes those who spend their days fasting.
Shmuel said: Whoever
fasts is termed a sinner. He is of the same opinion as the following
Tanna. For it has been taught: Eleazar Ha-Kappar ben Rebbi says,
What is Scripture referring to when it says [of the Nazirite], "And
make atonement for him, for he sinned by reason of the soul" (Bamidbar 6)?
Against which soul did he sin? [It must refer to the fact that] he denied
himself wine. We can now make this inference from minor to major: If this man
[Nazirite] who denied himself wine alone is termed a sinner, how much more so he
who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.
do the rabbis find so problematic with taking vows?
The Rambam, at the end of his Hilkhot Nedarim (13:23-25),
makes vows in order to discipline his moral disposition and to improve his
conduct displays commendable zeal and is worthy of praise… All such vows are
ways of serving God, and of them and their like the Sages have said, "Vows are a
fence around self-restraint."
in spite of the fact that vows are ways of serving God, one should not multiply
prohibitory vows nor employ them regularly… Indeed the sages have said,
"Whosoever makes a vow is as though he had built an unlawful
and oaths are a means of dealing with one's moral and spiritual weaknesses.
While at times they may be necessary, or even praiseworthy, ultimately they do
not solve the problem. Ideally, one should change one's behavior through
thorough examination and introspection, leading to sincere repentance, and not
through the artificial means of a vow.
On Yom Kippur, we cast aside our vows and oaths and state before God: We
are willing to purify ourselves and to once and for all get to the bottom of our
moral and spiritual failings. We no longer need vows and oaths to keep us from
sinning. We will plumb the depths of our personalities, searching for that which
motivates us to sin.
teshuva process, which begins on Yom Kippur evening, aims at
rehabilitating our weak personalities and rendering the need for vows null and
void. Only this type of repentance leads to purification, as the Torah
"For on this day shall
ATONEMENT be made for you, to CLEANSE you; from all your sins shall you be
cleansed before the Lord.