Why do we say Kol Nidrei? Inference to the Best Explanation*

Day of Atonement, Isadore Kauffman

This is dedicated to the memory of my late husband, Peter Lipton, who inspired so many people with his philosophical Yom Kippur sermons and children’s services. This Yom Kippur would have been his 65th birthday.   

What explains why Jews throughout the world begin the most solemn day in the calendar by reciting a dry legal formula in Aramaic that seems to have nothing to do with the day itself?

All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and konams and konasi and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement … and from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement that will come for our benefit. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

Attempts to answer that question fall into two broad categories: historical perspectives on the legal declaration known as Kol Nidrei and its unstable relationship to Yom Kippur; and sociological investigations of the communities who recited it, including external challenges they faced, such as pressure to convert to other religions, and internal practices, such as the improper use of vows in business and other contexts.

My starting point is neither history nor sociology but liturgy. For present purposes, I’ll define liturgy as ritual language – the use of words in ways that transcend reason to affect reality, in our case mainly by seeking to influence God to act for our benefit and the greater good.

A liturgical precedent

Since the Bible has very little in the way of liturgy, the rabbis were forced to be creative when they set out to establish guidelines for liturgical practice. A prominent figure in their discussion is Hannah, who gave up on priests and sacrifices and used words to convince God to give her a child. Much of what the rabbis have to say about Hannah is drawn from 1 Samuel 1, where her story appears.

1 Samuel 1:9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant seed, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

As the Bible tells it, Hannah tries to persuade God to give her a child by making a vow: if you, God, do this, then I, Hannah, will do that. But the rabbis attributed to Hannah in addition an ingenious argument that seems to owe a lot to their own way of thinking.

Long experience of teaching this text in university lecture rooms and informal shiurim has taught me that it arouses strong emotions. You’re either in awe, as I am, or you’re infuriated – as was Dorothy, one of my wonderful students at Beit Mozes home for the elderly in Jerusalem, when I taught it there a few months ago.

Identifying something like a legal loophole in the Torah, Hannah as the rabbis imagine her forces God’s hand. Here’s how she does it.

According to Sotah, the law of the jealous husband in Numbers 5, a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity must undergo a humiliating ritual that culminates in drinking bitter waters administered by a priest. If she is guilty, her stomach will extend, her thighs will sag, and she’ll be in great pain. If she is innocent, she’ll be fine.

The Sotah law is about suspicion of infidelity; it has no connection whatsoever with fertility. So it’s a surprise when God throws in a promise at the end that an innocent woman who drinks the bitter waters will conceive:

 Numbers 5:28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be cleared and will bear seed.

A woman falsely suspected of adultery emerges from the bitter waters ritual not just unscathed, but pregnant.

As the Talmud tells it, Hannah sees a way to turn this surprising addition to her advantage. She tells God that if compassion doesn’t motivate him to give her a child, she’ll engineer a situation in which he has no choice:

And she vowed a vow and said, O Lord of Hosts…  If only you will look [on my misery and remember me].  R. Eleazar said: Hannah said before the Holy One Blessed Be He: Sovereign of the Universe, if You will look [on my misery etc], good, but if you will not look, I will go and shut myself up with another man in the knowledge of my husband Elkanah. Since I will have been alone [with the other man], they will make me drink the waters of the suspected wife. And you cannot falsify your law, which says: she shall be cleared and will bear seed (Babylonian Talmud Berahot 31b)

What gave the rabbis the idea to put these brazen words into Hannah’s mouth? One factor was probably linguistic. Hannah doesn’t ask God for a son but for the ‘seed of men’ (1 Samuel 1:11), and Numbers 5 declares that an innocent suspect will ‘bear seed’ (v. 28). More importantly, I think, the rabbis correctly identified vows as one of the very few tools of persuasion available to women – albeit within limits.

Vows and Gender

The Torah makes it clear that when it comes to vows, gender is crucial. A man cannot under any circumstances break his vows (think of Jephtah and his daughter):

Numbers 30:1 Then Moses said to the heads of the tribes of the Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded. When a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

Women, however, must break their vows if the relevant male authority figure – a father, a husband or a future husband – objects immediately – that is on the day he hears the vow.

Numbers 30:3 When a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and any pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, and no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.

If she marries, while obligated by her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her at the time that he hears, then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband hears of it, he expresses disapproval to her, then he shall nullify the vow by which she was obligated, or the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her. (But every vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, by which she has bound herself, shall be binding upon her.)

10 And if she made a vow in her husband’s house, or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, 11 and her husband heard it and said nothing to her, and did not express disapproval to her, then all her vows shall stand, and any pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. 12 But if her husband nullifies them on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning her pledge of herself, shall not stand. Her husband has nullified them, and the Lord will forgive her13 Any vow or any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may allow to stand, or her husband may nullify.

A thrice-repeated phrase stands out in the laws of vows: and the Lord will forgive her. The plain meaning of these words is that God is willing to cancel a woman’s vow if her father or husband objects to it in a timely fashion. But the choice of a verb for ‘forgive’ that is both unusual and generally reserved for sin and high stakes situations justifies a closer look.

Forgiving Sin

The verb salah, forgive, occurs only 20 times in the Torah. Of these 20 occurrences, 13 are in the passive form and appear in Leviticus and Numbers in relation to priestly atonement for sin. Here’s an example.

Numbers 15: 25 The priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the Israelites, and they shall be forgiven; it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord, for their error. 26 All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.

Of the Torah’s 7 active forms of salah, three appear in Numbers 30 as above. One appears once in Deuteronomy 29 regarding false worship:

Deuteronomy 29:18 It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the Lord our God to serve the gods of those nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. 19 All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways” (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)— 20 the Lord will be unwilling to forgive them, for the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven.

Two occurrences of salah appear in Numbers 14 in the context of God’s threat to annihilate the people after the sin of the spies:

Numbers 14: 13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.” 20 Then the Lord said, I have forgiven, just as you have asked.

And one occurrence of salah appears in Exodus 34, during Moses’ second ascent to mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 34:So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, The Lord.” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

In all these cases, it’s easy to see the Torah’s influence on the Yom Kippur liturgy. The passages dealing with priestly atonement for sin are at the heart of the Musaf Avodah service; the notion of names in a book (Deuteronomy 29:20) could be precursor to the book of life; and a short version of the declaration of God’s attributes of mercy, compassion, patience and so forth, is recited dramatically at key points in the Yom Kippur prayers.

The occurrence of salah in Numbers 30 is different. This is not a high-stakes situation in which the entire people’s fate hangs in the balance, and it has no connection to sin. It’s dry legal discussion of personal practice seemingly without broader significance. But although Numbers 30 is not immediately visible in Yom Kippur observance, Yom Kippur observance is present in Numbers 30.

Vows and Yom Kippur

The Torah doesn’t have a lot to say about Yom Kippur, but it features in Numbers 29, just before the laws of vows:

Numbers 29:7 On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation and afflict yourselves [literally ‘your souls’]; you shall do no work.

Three times Numbers 30 describes a vow as an obligation a woman takes ‘upon herself’, literally ‘upon her soul’. The fourth occurrence uses the same terminology previously applied to Yom Kippur: the woman takes on the vow to afflict herself.

Numbers 30:13 Any vow or any binding oath to afflict herself [literally ‘her soul’], her husband may allow to stand, or her husband may nullify.

The suggestive cluster of themes and terms in Numbers 30 – vows, husband-wife relationships, forgiveness, affliction, and the repeated mention of ‘the day’ – paves the way for an explanation for why we say Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur as God and Israel’s Wedding Day

According to the rabbis, the day on which Moses received the second set of commandments on Mount Sinai and petitioned God to forgive Israel for the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34) was Yom Kippur. Based on this connection, the Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 26b identifies Yom Kippur as the wedding day of God and Israel.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, which each woman borrowed from another… And similarly [it says in another verse]: “Go forth, daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song of Songs 3:11). This verse is explained as an allusion to special days: “On the day of his wedding”; this is the giving of the Torah [through the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur].

As Israel’s ‘husband’, God is entitled to annul her vows on ‘the day’ that he hears them. On which day was a husband most likely to hear his new wife’s vows for the first time? On their wedding day, which in the case of God and Israel was Yom Kippur. And what would God do when he heard the cancelled vows to which he himself, as Israel’s husband, had objected? He would forgive Israel, just as he promised three times in Numbers – but not just her vows, also her sins.

An unexpected phrase in the Sotah law of Numbers 5 presented Hannah with an opportunity to force God’s hand regarding pregnancy. In the same way, I think, an unexpected phrase in the laws of vows presented a liturgist with an occasion to force God’s hand regarding sin.

The Torah promised that a woman whose vows are cancelled on the day her husband hears them will be forgiven by God. I suggest that someone, somewhere, sometime had the extraordinary idea of applying this to Israel on Yom Kippur, God’s bride on her wedding day. Somehow, it caught on, and although we soon forgot why we say it, if we ever really knew, most of us never stopped.

And here’s the evidence that even if what I’ve written above is not the best explanation, it’s a lovely one. The first word after the thrice-repeated Kol Nidrei prayer in the Yom Kippur mahzor is salah, forgive. In accordance, perhaps, with the thrice-repeated promise in Numbers 30, once Israel, God’s ‘wife’, has formally cancelled the vows to which her ‘husband’, God, objected on the day that he heard them, their wedding day, All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven (Numbers 15:26).

* My late husband Peter was a Philosopher of Science; he wrote a book called Inference to the Best Explanation.

About the Author
Before coming to Israel in 2011, Diana Lipton was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). Here in Israel, she's lectured on Bible at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and, currently, in the Bible Department at Tel Aviv University. She's the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Chaim. Her latest book, 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah' (Urim Publications) is available on Amazon; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank.
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