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ACUTE ANGLES. Are Our Vows Not Vows?

Dear Rabbi Ingram. After Kol Nidrei, in which we say “our vows will not be vows” in most shuls there is an appeal in which we pledge money. What is the point if my pledge is already cancelled in advance?  Good Yom Tov.  I. K.

Dear I. K.

You have asked a true Talmudic kasheh! Indeed you are not the first to ask this question.  Two of the most prominent figures of the Gaonic era,  R’ Natronai (d. 858) and R’ Hai Gaon (939-1038) branded the recital of Kol Nidrei as “a foolish custom which should be abandoned ….for of what value is the cancellation of his vows to him who takes them and immediately declares them null and void?”

However, the most celebrated figure of the Gaonic era, R’ Saadia Gaon (882-942) staunchly defends it.  And Kol  Nidrei has stood the test of time admirably!

As the declaration is widely understood, Kol Nidrei provides an outlet to annul those vows between man and G-D which due to error or to circumstances beyond one’s control, one has been unable to fulfill Indeed the fact that our Sages deemed it necessary to create a mechanism to cancel such vows demonstrates the seriousness with which vows are held. (Whether the declaration of Kol Nidrei refers to past vows, as in Sephardic texts, or future ones as held by Rabenu Tam and found in Ashkenazic texts is peripheral to this discussion.)

In Judaism, a vow or promise must not be made lightly. The Torah tells us that “when you make a vow to G-D, you must not be lax in making good on it …but if you refrain from vowing, there will be no sin upon you.” (Deut. 23:22-23). King Solomon reinforces this latter idea when he declares: “Better don’t vow than vow and not make good on the vow” (Kohelet 5:4). Notwithstanding these strictures – and possibly occasioning them – vowing held a peculiar fascination in the ancient world.  A whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim (based on Numbers 30), deals with the implications of vows. Many other Talmudic tractates (notably Ketubot) devote large sections to the subject.  It was seen by many as a sign of higher devotion to commit to a vow.  No doubt this view persisted up to the Middle Ages with an ever-increasing fallout of unfulfilled promises, hence the need for Kol Nidrei on the eve of the holiest day of the year when, while sins that are sincerely atoned for are forgiven, the only mechanism for unfulfilled mistaken vows directed to G-D is annulment.  Note: Kol Nidrei does not under any circumstances annul vows or contracts made between man and man.

Nowadays vows and oaths are discouraged. Even when pledging a donation on the bima after a call-up to the Torah, one should say or at least think, the words bli neder. “I’m not making a vow!” As indeed he should every time he promises something.  An observant Jew testifying in court will demur from swearing even on a Tanach (Hebrew Bible).  Rather he will affirm just as an atheist does!  But of course there is the world of difference. The atheist affirms because he doesn’t believe in G-D. The faithful Jew affirms because he is in such awe of G-D that he is afraid that were he to take an oath he may inadvertently breach it in some detail. This should be the awesome spirit in which Kol Nidrei is recited.

You see it as ironic  that the main annual appeal for pledges of charitable funds is held in many shuls on the evening of Yom Kippur immediately after the annulment of pledges and vows; thus it has been dubbed the Kol Nidrei Appeal. If you reflect, however, you will surely concur that it is without doubt the most effective time as more people are in shul that night than any other and, hopefully, more receptive to the performance of mitsvot such a tsedaka to boost their “credit rating” with the One Above.

Of course, no person of integrity seeks to annul the very pledge he makes to charity on that holy night. To the contrary! I am always reminded of what Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits zl said to us group of rabbis at a pre-Yamim Noraim Rabbinic conference in London once.  In many mainstream shuls, it would be the rabbi, as experienced orator, who would make the appeal from the pulpit. Rabbi Jakobovits advised us to say the following to our congregants:  If when you came into shul this evening you planned to pledge £500, remember the words you just uttered: Nidrana lo nidrei! Our vows shall not be vows! Don’t give £500. Instead double it!  Give a thousand!  For sure G-D will forgive you for not making good on your initial pledge, resolving instead to proffer a much better one!

Gmar Chatima Tova! 

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation