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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, NY, with his wife Chaya Mushka and their three children.
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Discussion (16)
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!
kat
Germany
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!
Reb Zisha
Boston, MA
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 :(
kat
Germany
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.
Shahin Jedian, Energetic Attunements
Los Angeles, CA
chabadsola.com
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.
Reb Zisha
Boston, MA
September 21, 2012
Kol Nidre Prayer
Why is Kol Nidre the first prayer of the service?
Carl
Owings Mills, Md
chabaddowntown.net
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
דוד
Orlando FL
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.
Christian Blake
NY, US
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!
Nechama
Oak Park, MI
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.
Anonymous
Brooklyn
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