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Mattot-Maasei: The Divine Power of Speech  

Vladimir Zelensky taking an oath (Image courtesy of rawpixel.com)

There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”
― Philip K. Dick, VALIS

Yom Kippur begins, and the Torah’s are paraded amongst the congregation and carried to the bimah/ podium, flanking the the shaliach tzibbor, the leader of the service.  In a low and melodic voice, the synagogue reverberates with the words ‘kol nidrei.’  The mood is set for the next twenty-four hours. Can anyone imagine beginning Yom Kippur with anything but Kol Nidrei?

Yet, if one reads the prayer, they will realize that in fact it is not at all a prayer, and it is a rather strange declaration uttered on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  Far from a prayer souring to the stratosphere of spiritual heights, kol nidrei is a rather prosaic and pedantic formula to annul distinct types of oaths and vows- shevuot and nedarim.  In fact, this is not the first time in the High Holiday period that Jews have been involved in the business of annulling vows, hatarat nedarim.  On the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, it is a well-established custom that the congregants create small ‘courts’ of three, and the one intending to annul their vows stands before this makeshift court of three and asks for annulment for any vows in the previous year that he has not fulfilled.

Like the kol nidrei prayer, the formula recited by the individual is extremely specific, listing all the possible types of obligations he may have accepted upon himself.  He says that if he had known what he does now, he would not have obligated himself in the first place and regrets doing so, and asks the makeshift court to release him from these obligations.  The ‘court’ of fellow congregants then recites a formula releasing him of these vows. Like the shaliach tzibbor who says all the vows of the congregation are ‘nullified and of naught,’ the makeshift court responds to the individuals request by saying ‘all is forgiven.’  What is the meaning of this strange declaration of kol nidrei, and why would this open the holy service of Yom Kippur?

That a formal declaration and ceremonial act can release one of an obligation to fulfill one’s words is not at all obvious.  To start, doesn’t one need to know what vow he is asking to have annulled?  The kol nidrei is a formulaic general declaration. It is for this reason that there has been a heated dispute about its very inclusion in the liturgy of Yom Kippur.[1]  The first attestation of the use of the declaration is by Rabbi Natronai Gaon in 710 CE.   However, he completely objects to the custom, being careful to mention that it is not recited in the ancient Babylonian academies, and ‘what is the use of making an oath if you have already made a conditional’!  (Ibn Ghhiyat, Shaarei Simcha 1:60). In other words, one cannot gain nullification for oaths they willingly plan to violate. The entire declaration seems to him not only ineffective, but morally questionable.   

The Tosafists (Rabbeinu Tam) also voiced concern about nullifying vows after the fact, as one needs to know the vow explicitly and then express regret for it before a court.  None of this happens during kol nidrei, and it therefore seems like some form of magical incantation.  It is for this reason Rabbeinu Tam emended the text to read ‘from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Yippur,’ meaning that one is making a conditional on all future self-imposed oaths.  Ashkenazic siddurim combines both past and future oaths, while other siddurim only include the past tense.  Another objection voiced over the generations is that people could use this text to make oaths in bad faith; one would make an oath in full knowledge that it would be released during kol nidrei.

In fact, this notion was invoked historically in antisemitic tracts to argue the Jews are a dishonest people and cannot be trusted.   For these reasons and others, in the mid-nineteenth century there were systematic attempts to eliminate the Kol Nidrei declarations in Reform congregations as well as some Neo-Orthodox congregations, but ultimately the haunting tune and the compelling ritual remained.  (To be clear, the nullification of oaths has only to do with self-imposed oaths.  An obligation imposed by a court or another cannot be nullified by the individual.)

What is interesting about all of this is the fact that considering the many objections, the kol nidrei survived the through the ages. From where does this obsession with the release of vows come?  From this week’s parashah.

When a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word (li yahel devaro); he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Numbers 30:3) [2]

It is actually a prohibition to not fulfill that which comes out of one’s mouth.  Rashi comments here that the use of the word yahel for ‘break his word’ is akin to the word yehallel, to desecrate.  “Do not make the words that come out of your mouth like that which is unholy.”  In essence, some words create a personal obligation- almost like a personal mitzvah; this is called a shavuah, an oath.   In other cases if one forbids oneself a permitted object, that object actually becomes forbidden to him.  This is called a neder, a vow.   Whether one creates a personal obligation on the self (shavuah) or a personal prohibition on an object (neder), both utterances take on a quality of their own, creating a reality outside the self.  When this reality is violated, one must gain forgiveness from God (Numbers 30:6).

In Leviticus we learn of a sacrifice that must be offered if someone violates their oaths while invoking the name of God. In general, a sacrifice is given when one violates the commands of God, not their own words (Lev. 5:4, Rashi idem, quoting B.T. Shavuot).  Maimonides states that if one commits to donate to tzedakah and does not fulfill the obligation, it is similarly a rabbinic violation that incurs the rabbinic punishment of lashes, a harsh punishment considering the act is only one of utterance, not action (Sefer HaMitzvt, Prohibition 157). Clearly, not fulfilling the vows is not something that is simply a moral violation, but in some sense it is a deep violation of the Divine.  For this reason, in other places in the Torah, one is dissuaded from making vows altogether.  (See for example Deuteronomy 23:23, Ecclesiastes 5:3)

On one level, it is clear that the violation of broken vows is using the name of God in the context of falsehood, akin to swearing falsely in a court of law.  To invoke God’s name and not take one’s words seriously is seen as a lack of fear in God. In the ancient period, invoking God seemed to have been a somewhat regular practice of people not sufficiently sensitive to the seriousness involved.

However, there is a deeper reality to this.  Human beings are said to be created in the image of God, but in what regard are they Godlike? Like God who brings forth the world through Divine utterances, human beings create a civilized existence through the power of speech.  Human beings are not distinguished by their agility or strength, but their collective ability to organize together and create societies, and the secret of our ability to transcend the natural world around us resides in the Divine gift of speech.  Speech can create worlds and it can destroy worlds.  Just like the physical world which according to the rabbis is sustained by Divine speech, society is sustained by the meaning of our words.  Not fulfilling one’s vows empties words of meaning, and by extension denies the very thing which makes us Godlike, our speech.  In this sense, any utterance of untruth, whether or not the name of God is invoked, denies us of our divinity.  When the Divine image of each person and society is reduced, so is the Divine.  As such, speaking untruth- even inadvertently and unintentionally, is both a violation of interpersonal relations as well as a violation of God.

However, even on a more basic level, consider our interpersonal relationships.  Whether between family members, within communities, between communities, or even between countries, words must be sacred.  Words must convey a seriousness of intention, or trust will quickly erode.  Without this fundamental trust, society as we know it cannot endure.  There needs to be a unity between our intentions, our deeds, and our speech.  If this unity is lacking, replaced by false promises with a lack of intentionality, our very relationships are compromised, whether those relationships are with others or with God.

It now should make sense why we utter these words at the very beginning of Yom Kippur, a day in which we try to make amends in our relationships with both others and God. As the very foundation of relationships, we begin the day with the nullification of vows. While on the one hand, one might read this as a superstitious attempt to relieve oneself of Divine consequences of unfulfilled oaths, or even worse an attempt to get out of obligations- a danger the rabbis saw, in truth I believe it has endured for the exact opposite reason.  Jews have taken their words so seriously that words stated in vain, obligations uttered by the mouth and unfulfilled by the body, must require a response.  This formulaic incantation with its haunting melody sensitizes each person present at the outset of Yom Kippur that our words indeed matter, and we are required to take our words and commitments seriously.  We are enjoined to hear the advice of Ecclesiastes

It is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill.   Do not let your mouth bring you into disfavor, and do not plead before the messenger that it was an error but fear God; else God may be angered by your talk and destroy your possessions (Ecclesiastes 5:5-6).

We are living in an age where the word has become weaponized, and untruths abound.  As a result, trust has broken down at all levels.  Lo Yahel Devaro our parashah declares!  Do not make a joke out of the power of words, but ensure your words are meaningful, mindful, and convey truth and commitment.  Today we need these qualities more than ever.

Shabbat shalom

[1] I have only quoted a few sources, but this debate has an exceedingly long halakhic history, and even today some congregations omit kol nidrei.

[2] The placement of these commands here are beyond the purview of this reflection, but they are probably connected to the vows the tribes of Reuben and Gad make to fulfill their obligation in joining the other ten tribes in conquering the Land west of the Jordan before settling in the land of the east side.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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