One of the prominent aspects of the High Holidays is the “Annulment of Vows”. Yom Kippur prayers begin with Kol Nidrei; and after Shacharit on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the men form ad hoc batei din (courts), before which each man will take a turn to request absolution of his vows.

Today I wish to focus on one Jewish law regarding Hatarat Nedarim (Annulment of Vows), namely that the petitioner is obliged to articulate the vow which he seeks to absolve.1 Accordingly, when an individual will approach a rabbi to undo a vow, the rabbi will ask for some details. So why is this requirement ignored in the traditional Erev Rosh Hashanah procedure?

In response to this question, Rav Yaakov of Lisa2 writes in his siddur Derech haChaim, that the Erev Rosh Hashanah undoing of vows is effective only for forgotten vows. For this reason, the requirement to articulate the vows is waived.3

I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, because the text in my Sidur clearly stipulates that one is requesting absolution for both “known” vows and for “unknown” vows.

Upon more careful scrutiny, it came to light that there are differences in the text of Hatarat Nedarim between the way it appears in the Sefer Shaloh (Amsterdam 5409) and the first print of the Siddur Shaloh (Amsterdam 5477), and the way it appears in the second print of the same Siddur (Amsterdam, 5502):

The Siddur of the Shalo printed in 5477.
The Siddur of the Shalo printed in 5477.
The Siddur of the Shalo printed in 5502, with the added words marked in red.
The Siddur of the Shalo printed in 5502, with the added words marked in red.

The earlier edition does not state the inclusion of “known and unknown vows.” Presumably, Rav Yaakov of Lisa had the earlier version, and he was therefore at liberty to exclude “known vows” from Hatarat Nedarim.

This answers another question:

Towards the end of the paragraph, we say: “Indeed, the halachah requires the one who is remorseful and wishes to have his vows untied, that he spells out his vow. But know ye, my rabbis, that my vows are numerous, and it is impossible to enumerate them. Please, therefore, consider as if I had enumerated them.”

Which makes you wonder: If “enumeration” is a requirement of absolving of vows, how can this be dispensed with, even if the vows are “too numerous”?

Evidently, the Rav of Lisa understood this to say: “True, I should be enumerating my vows. But because they are so numerous, I cannot remember them all. Therefore, I request that you waive the need to enumerate”.

To summarize: According to the Derech haChaim, “known vows” are not untied at Hatarat Nedarim on Erev Rosh Hashanah. His position is based upon the Shibolei haLeket.4

But, as mentioned, the later edition clearly includes “known vows” in the Hatarat Nedorim. I have yet to discover the identity of the author of the changes in this latter edition, who is clearly at odds with the answer given by the Derech haChaim. But more importantly, we’re now back with our question: How does the Erev Rosh Hashanah procedure of Hatarat Nedorim overlook the halachic requirement to enumerate the vows one seeks to annul?

But now let’s look carefully at the end of the paragraph and we’ll see another change between the two editions. The newer edition adds a clause: “I do not seek absolution for those vows that should not be untied.”

This added sentence holds the key to answer our question:

Let’s step back a moment and ask: Why, when seeking annulment of vows, do they need to be enumerated?

One reason given is that a person may have undertaken a vow as a kind of reassurance to a second party.

(For example: A widow seeks payment of her Ketubah. Her late husband’s children (from an earlier marriage) might challenge her claim, alleging that she may have already helped herself to some of the estate. In earlier times the widow would have to swear that she hasn’t received any payment of her Ketuba. At some point, our Sages stopped making the widow make the said oath. Instead, they required her to make a vow: “I forbid myself the benefit of any fruit if I have received any part of my Ketubah.” This vow of hers would reassure the heirs of the estate that are not paying out beyond their obligation.)

Or: a person had a weakness towards a certain sinful behavior, e.g. gambling. In order to bolster his resolve not to indulge in his weakness, he made a vow to abstain thereof.

In either of the above examples, the rabbi who absolves the vow is actually performing a disservice! To avoid such mistakes, our Sages instituted that the rabbi has to ask the petitioner for details of the vow he seeks to be annulled.

However, thanks to the added clause: “I do not seek absolution for those vows that should not be untied,” the above fear is allayed. The petitioner expresses his understanding that not all vows will be automatically undone; vows that will adversely affect other parties will not be untied, nor will vows that may ease the path towards forbidden behavior.

Following this approach, the request, “My vows are numerous, and it is impossible to enumerate them. Please, therefore, consider as if I had enumerated them,” takes on a different meaning:

“True, I should be enumerating my vows. [But that is for fear that I might seek to annul vows that may not be annulled.] I declare that I am not pleading to annul vows that cannot be annulled. [Regardless of the above reassurance, I understand that the Beit Din may insist on following protocol, requiring that I enumerate my vows.] But, know ye rabbis, that my vows are so numerous, therefore please consider my plea for annulment as if I [had followed protocol and] enumerated my vows.”5

According to the later edition, it appears that one who knows of his personal vow or chumrah, that has no bearing on other parties, nor any lead to sin, should be able to rely on the Hatarat Nedarim of Erev Rosh Hashanah to release himself from his vow.

However, the Ramah6 clearly states that, unless there is an extreme need, one shouldn’t rely on the Kol Nidre of Erev Yom Kippur.

Arguably, the Ramah’s reservation does not address the Hatarat Nedarim of Erev Rosh Hashanah. But even according to the latter edition (as above), the dispensation given is clearly because “they are too numerous to enumerate.” That itself tells us that one whose vows are not “too numerous” is indeed obliged to articulate the vows he seeks to annul. This need not be spelt out before the entire beit din; it is sufficient that the details are divulged to one member of the court.7