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Why is Kol Nidrei considered the holiest of Jewish prayers?

Why is Kol Nidrei considered the holiest of Jewish prayers?

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While Kol Nidrei—a prayer wherein we release vows—is certainly traditionally seen as one of the most important prayers of the year, there is little in Jewish literature to support this idea.

The question, however, remains: why does Jewish tradition lend so much weight and solemnity to this seemingly technical prayer?

There are those who have claimed that the reason goes back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when the conversos (Jews who chose to convert to Christianity rather than face expulsion or death, but remained faithful to Judaism at heart, and to some degree in observance too) would gather on Yom Kippur eve in their hideout synagogues. Before beginning the Yom Kippur services, they would tearfully and emotionally entreat G‑d to forgive them for all the public statements they made in the previous year which were contrary to Jewish doctrine. This is supposedly also the reason why Kol Nidrei is prefaced with the statement: “. . . by the authority of the heavenly tribunal and by the authority of the earthly tribunal, we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”

While this is certainly a romantic answer, the fact is that the Kol Nidrei prayer predates the Inquisition by at least 500 years. It would seem that the simple answer to the question is that Kol Nidrei is the opening prayer of the holiest day of the year, and as such is said with great devotion—not because of its content.

According to Kabbalah, Kol Nidrei is more than a technical vow-annulment procedure. Rather, by releasing our vows we are asking G‑d to reciprocate in kind. In the event that He has pledged not to bring the redemption just yet, in the event that He made an oath to bring harsh judgments on His people in the following year, we ask that He release these vows and instead grant us a year of happiness and redemption.

Perhaps this is the reason for the solemnity of the prayer.

Have a sweet and healthy new year,

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
for the Chabad.org editorial team

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Dick Zimon Boston MA. USA October 11, 2016

G'mar Chatimah Tovah
To those I have wronged,
I ask for Forgiveness ,
To those I have helped,
I wish I had done more,
To those I neglected to help,
I ask for understanding,
To those who helped me,
I thank you with all my Hear Reply

Suzy Manhattan October 3, 2014

Kol Nidrei hebrew print Looking all over for a printable version of the Hebrew text. Next year maybe?

Shanah Tovah Reply

F.D London,UK October 3, 2014

the formula is restricted to those vows which concern only the relation of man to his conscience or to his Heavenly Judge ...................The teachers of the synagogues, however, have never failed to point out to their cobelievers that the dispensation from vows in the "Kol Nidre" refers only to those which an individual voluntarily assumes for himself alone (see RoSH to Ned. 23b) and in which no other persons or their interests are involved. In other words, the formula is restricted to those vows which concern only the relation of man to his conscience or to his Heavenly Judge (see especially Tos. to Ned. 23b).
No vow, promise, or oath, however, which concerns another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the "Kol Nidre." Reply

Anonymous September 4, 2014

Overturning God's Law! What is the meaning of this strange and disturbing prayer recited by millions of Jews every fall? Surely, you may say, it cannot literally mean what it says: that Jews invalidate all their promises, contracts, agreements, and even curses throughout the coming year? If that were true, the word of a religious Jew would be meaningless. No rational person could trust anything he said, not to mention elect him to high office.

To understand the Kol Nidre prayer, let's first consider the opposite: God's ancient command to His chosen people to fulfill all their oaths and promises. "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee...that which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform" (Deuteronomy 24:21, 23) Reply

kat Germany September 12, 2013

RE: @kat: "Promises" Ah! I understand. My Rosh ha-Shana resolutions are still valid.
Thank you Reb Zisha for caring and for your kind response. I'm very grateful to you for this clarification.
G'mar chatima tova! Reply

Reb Zisha Boston, MA September 11, 2013

@kat: "Promises" Actually, kat, the Rosh ha-Shana liturgy makes no mention of "promises". The major theme of the day is the "coronation" of the Holy One as Ruler of All and Everything, since the day is "the pregnancy of potentiality" (usually translated "the birthday of the world".)

We start the beginning of the 10 days of teshuvah/Return/Repentance, and the liturgy in places speaks of seeking forgiveness for what has happened in the past year. There are no implicit or explicit promises in the liturgy. And to get technical (and Judaism does), Kol Nidre speaks of oaths/promises/pledges "from this Yom Kippur until the next", so any promises to Gd on Rosh ha-Shana fall under last year's Kol Nidre. :)

G'mar tov! May you finish sealed for a good year! Reply

kat Germany September 11, 2013

Didn't we just make promises on Rosh HaShanah??? What then were they for if we pray a week later to get all those removed? I'm not getting this :( Reply

Shahin Jedian, Energetic Attunements Los Angeles, CA via chabadsola.com September 25, 2012

Technology of Kol Nidrei Kol Nidrei is a process where we are releasing the empty vessels , or potential goals and credits that we borrowed from the light of the creator. During the year many times we create consciously or unconsciously Goals or pledges that remain unattended. The universe does not like a vacum and so when we leave these potential vessels open with no fulfillment chaos is bound to follow. Hence a cup that is not filled with water will have air residing in it. So to our aspirations when sitting empty with no light, the negative forces take over . (this can be depression, anger, stagnancy) Kol Nidrei is a process where we Energetically close those vessels that we created all year round both in our conscious and unconscious domain and create a space for the new by releasing unfulfilled vessels. The beauty of that is that we are no longer carrying the black bags with us . We now have space for the new resolutions. we can call it clearing our inner space. Reply

Reb Zisha Boston, MA September 24, 2012

Implicit reciprocity Many thanks, Rabbi Silberberg. I love this because it fits in with other reminders in the Yom Kippur tefilla of our reciprocal relationship with G-d Almighty. The poetic song "Ki Anu Amecha" (We are Your people, and You are our Gd) come to mind immediately. Our recitation of Eileh Ezkerah/Martyrology, reminding Gd, as if it were necessary, of how we have suffered for the sake of the Name.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's challenges and "deals" with Gd -- You forgive us and we'll forgive You.

May we be worthy this year to fulfill all our promises to Gd, and to experience Gd fulfilling Promises of the Ultimate Redemption. Reply

Carl Owings Mills, Md via chabaddowntown.net September 21, 2012

Kol Nidre Prayer Why is Kol Nidre the first prayer of the service? Reply

דוד Orlando FL September 21, 2012

Thank you. Am Yisrael Chai. May Our Father, Our King...hear and answer our prayers. Even if we have little merit. Let us say, amen. אמן שלום Reply

Christian Blake NY, US November 4, 2011

Not satisfactory Kol Nidre gives a mandate to act against the will of God with a belief of guaranteed salvation, no matter how many sins are comitted.

That is a more plausible and logical explanation. Reply

Nechama Oak Park, MI October 6, 2011

Thank you Dear Rabbi Naftali, Thank you for the beautiful Kabbalistic insight into the Kol Nidre. It has deepened my appreciation exponentially. I will be, G-d willing, thinking of it while listening this year. May 5772 bring you and yours only goodness and sweetness! Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn September 23, 2011

Re violin Actually, if Yom Kippur has already begun, Kol Nidrei should not be accompanied on the violin or any musical instrument, as that would be a violation of the laws of the holiday. Reply

Beverly Kurtin Hurst, TX June 8, 2011

Kol Nidrei Unfortunately, some Jew-haters use this prayer to mean that any contracts we make are null and void and we won't keep up our end of what was contracted for. They refuse to understand that we're referring to spiritual vows. I echo Mr Jeong's question, when did it start and for what purpose? I always thought it had to do with the inquisitions (or as Monty Python said, "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" ) Reply

Jeong daegu, south Korea via chabadatlacosta.com May 31, 2011

Thank you ! but one quesion. Since when did it start? Reply

Beverly Kurtin Hurst, TX September 22, 2010

Menachim Mandelbaum asked, "so what is the prayer already?" Your answer, my friend is below:

The Kol Nidre is the holiest Jewish prayer and is recited several times on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It means "all vows" and is a flat statement that no promise of any kind will be kept for the coming year. It is also sung by the cantor in synagogue, accompanied on the violin and goes like this:

"All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths."

I hope that helps you to enjoy the flavor of the season. Shalom. Reply

menachim mandelbaum ipswich, USA September 18, 2010

kol nidre so what is the prayer already? Reply

Robert Walsh Miami Beach, Fl September 14, 2010

Wonderful and insightful article! Short, sweet and to the point! Thank you Rabbi Silberberg! Reply

Beverly Kurtin Hurst, TX October 4, 2008

Hmmm That I hadn't known before...500 years prior to the Inquisitions. Well, there goes another bubameister!

Thanks for the great info. Reply