Daniel Damboritz
Bachur, New York (2002-2003)
Currently Attorney, Partner in High Tech Group at Yigal Arnon & Co

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Each year, Jews end their seuda mafseket (the meal before the fast) and rush to Shul, men dress in their kittles (a traditional white robe) and their talitot, and prepare themselves for the Kol Nidrei prayer.

However, once the shaliach tzibbur (cantor) begins chanting the old historic text of Kol Nidrei, accompanied by a melody that carries with it a heavy emotional weight accumulated over the ages, we quickly realize that it is no more than an annulment of past vows and a declaration that future vows should be null and void.
Many have wondered why Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidrei. The Torah is very clear how important it is to keep your vows, as we are told in Bamidbar 30:3: “איש כי ידור נדר, לא יחל דברו” – “If a man vows a vow… he shall not break his word.” The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 32b indicates how severe it is to renege on a vow, by stating that:
“בעוון נדרים בנים מתים כשהן קטנים”
“Because of the sin of unfulfilled vows, a person’s children die when they are young.”

Later, Chazal (the Sages) teach that while a person cannot break his vow, a Beit Din (a rabbinical court) may annul a vow if they are convinced that there was no anticipation of the consequences of the vow.
Still, Kol Nidrei has a spellbinding effect on us all, and we do not quite know why. It remains unclear why the opening section of the Day of Atonement would begin with the release of a person from his vows. Is hatarat nedarim (release of vows) really the ideal prayer to bring us to do Teshuva?

I saw written, and heard several talmidim (students) of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l recalling his annual public Teshuva lectures, saying that Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the two congregants wearing Tallitot and holding Sifrei Torah, together with the shaliach tzibbur form a Beit Din.
At this stage, the shaliach tzibbur cries out:
“על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים”
“With the consent of the Almighty, and consent of this congregation, in a convocation of the heavenly court, and a convocation of the lower court, this Beit Din is providing a ruling that the transgressors are permitted to pray with the community.”
This is extremely meaningful – this lower court allows, on this one special Day of Atonement, people who have been excommunicated by the community, to pray amongst the community. Perhaps on this Day of Atonement, these transgressors will find a way to repent their actions and be able to rejoin the community.

The Beit Din then call upon the heavenly court to forgive the congregation, stating that the members of the congregation were not aware of the consequences of their actions. The shaliach tzibbur and the lower court plead with G-d to forgive the congregation for their actions over the course of the past year, stating the terminology a Beit Din uses when asked to release a vow – had the people understood the consequences of their actions, they would have never done them in the first place.
In the very next part of Kol Nidrei the cantor calls out the verse “ונסלח לכל עדת ישראל ולגר הגר בתוכם כי לכל העם בשגגה”  – Forgive the entire congregation of the children of Yisrael and the stranger amongst them, for the entire people sinned unintentionally.
The Beit Din is asking that the community be forgiven because their actions were not deliberate, all their actions were unintentional. To which G-d answers the shaliach tzibbur with – “סלחתי כדבריך” – I have pardoned them as you have asked. Sigh of relief.

Rav Soloveitchik had another insight of Kol Nidrei, in light of the sin of the Golden Calf, where the pasuk describes Moshe Rabeinu praying that Bnei Yisrael be spared from punishment. The Torah uses the unique word  “ויחל” (“Va’yechal”) to express Moshe’s prayer, and the Talmud in Tractate Berachot 32a, suggests that the Torah used this word because of its similarity to another word, that is directly connected to the annulment of vows, as mentioned above “יחל”  – “yachel.” Rav Soloveitchik suggested that this prayer was “an attempt by Moses to annul G-d’s vow to destroy the Jewish people.” Just as we stated above, no person (not even G-d) is able to annul his vow unless and until a Beit Din terminates the vow. So too, we recite Kol Nidrei – it is structured in such a way that the shaliach tzibbur, with the two congregants holding the Sifrei Torah who together form a Beit Din, release G-d from this vow to punish Bnei Yisrael for the sins of the past year.

When the vow is annulled, we all chant with joy “שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה” – Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.