Jews around the world will gather in synagogues to hear the cantor sing Kol Nidre, whose melody will break your heart.
All vows and prohibitions and oaths …
that we may vow or swear or prohibit upon ourselves
from this Yom Kippur until the Yom Kippur that is coming upon us for goodness—
regarding all of them, we repudiate them.
All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect.
Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.
In the oldest version of the declaration, dating from around 800 CE, the vows that are disavowed are those we have made in the past year, from last Yom Kippur to now. In the 12th century Rashi’s son-in-law changed the text to annul vows that we would make in the coming year. Either way, the main issue is the same: Beginning in the Bible and continuing in rabbinic literature, there is an awareness of the ease with which we forget our vows. This passage in Deuteronomy is poignant in its advice to the would-be vow-er:
A careful understanding of the language and imagery of the High Holidays provides a lens through which the power of Kol Nidre comes into focus. The vows that the song alludes to are akin to New Year’s resolutions; by deflecting the impulse to make such resolutions, Kol Nidre acts as an antidote to our unhelpful reliance on willpower as the path to self-improvement. It points us instead down the more productive road of strengthening our relationship with what we hold most dear.
Out of context and without the perspective of Jewish
By putting vows aside, Kol Nidre clears the path to different kind of self-improvement. Instead of making vows, we do teshuvah. The noun teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root shuv (shin-vav-bet)—to return—and it has two meanings. First, teshuvah is the act of returning, a coming-back. Second, a teshuvah is a comeback, a response, as in “I asked him a question and he came back with a teshuvah,” or “She told him she loved him and his teshuvah was a kiss.” On Yom Kippur, the goal is to become aware that we are standing in the presence of infinite grandeur and to offer the appropriate teshuvah, to come back with the right response. The High Holiday liturgy that is designed to evoke this response is strikingly short on promises of good behavior. Instead of putting vows in our mouths, what it does is try to place us inside a relationship that, once we are aware of it, we would never dream of betraying—a relationship to which we cannot but respond.
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