Feb 2 2012

A Better Understanding of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur

Talk is Cheap- Not!
In a very short time, millions of Jews throughout the world will gather in their synagogues and listen to the soul-stirring plaintive chant of Kol Nidre. Even though Kol Nidre is technically not part of the evening service (known as “maariv” or “arvit”) of Yom Kippur it has become synonymous in popular parlance with the evening service and is certainly experienced as its emotional highlight. Yet, an examination of the words of Kol Nidre leaves one mystified. What is so inspiring about “All personal vows, oaths, and pledges… we publicly renounce…”? Not only are the words not particularly emotionally resonant, their plain meaning is far from obvious.

Kol Nidre is one of the most awesome prayers of the entire Jewish year.

The Torah addresses the issue of vows in several places: “If a man vow a vow…he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” and “When you vow a vow…you shall not delay to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be a sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform.”

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes further sharpens the sentiment: “Do not be quick with your mouth… so let your words be few…many words mark the speech of a fool. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

The Talmud goes one step further, declaring: “Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.”

The message is unmistakable. Talk is not cheap. It is very dear indeed. Our word must be our bond. It is better not to make promises.

Is there any positive function of vows? Yes. The great sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva, asserted that vows can be help to self-restraint. Precisely because of the awesome gravity by which we view our verbal commitment, such an articulation can be an effective last resort when battling weak self-control.

What is Kol Nidre? The Torah provides for mechanisms for cancellation of vows but within very specific familial circumstances or in the context of a court of law. As early as the ninth century Rabbi Amram Gaon in Babylonia pointed out that Kol Nidre does not conform to those parameters required by the Torah for the cancelation of vows.
The popular notion that Kol Nidre arose as a response to the Spanish inquisition of 1492 in order to allow for those Jews forced to vow allegiance to Catholicism to renege on that commitment is clearly false, given that it predates this event by at least 500 years!

One of the most compelling explanations of Kol Nidre was offered by Rabbenu Tam, the famous grandson of Rashi. Pointing to a comparable passage in the Talmud he suggests that Kol Nidre is not canceling past vows already uttered, but proactively clarifying the intent of promises that might be made in the coming year. They should be understood as careless formulations rather than as conscious and formal articulations of a vow. It is indeed similar to the practice of saying the Hebrew words “bli neder,” meaning “without taking a vow,” when offering to do something. It is akin to saying that we will make a good faith effort, but we value our words too much to take upon ourselves promises that we may not be able to fulfill.

From where does this reverence and care about the spoken word come? It is interesting to note that the first thing we learn about God in the Torah is that He creates, and He creates through the power of speech- “let there be light.” The pinnacle of creation is the human being, made in His image. When the Torah describes the creation of the first human being it states, “and man became a living being.” The classic Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah called Targum Onkeles, translates this phrase, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Our capacity for speech is the reflection of our Divine image. It is the most fundamental creative capacity by which we give form to that which existed only in the potential and hidden realm of thought.

Speech is our most precious and powerful capacity. To cheapen speech is to betray our very humanity, our Divine image. Isn’t it abundantly true that many, if not most, of the difficult situations which we create for ourselves are a product of our injudicious misuse of the power of speech? Indeed, I can think of a no more appropriate way to begin the Day of Atonement than through the somber reflection on just how cheap talk is not.