The Yom Kippur liturgy is identified especially with the “Kol Nidrei” chant. The Kol Nidrei, though an ancient custom (it is mentioned in the Zohar and in the early Geonim), is neither a prayer nor a blessing, nor even a liturgical poem (piyut). Its content is purely legal and formal – a public ceremony of release from vows.
The original form of the Kol Nidrei involved a release from vows made during the previous year. While some Rishonim questioned the legal validity of this release and encouraged viewing Kol Nidrei as a condition to pre-empt certain future vows only, most congregations continue to mention the nullification of existing vows. Why does the nullification of vows have special relevance to Yom Kippur?
SIN: A LASTING STAIN ON THE SPIRIT
The foundation of sin is a misdeed or mistake, and the foundation of repentance is mending our ways. However, the Torah reminds us repeatedly that changing course is not enough. A sin is not like a mistake in math which we can merely notice, correct and then move on as if it never happened; rather, it leaves a lasting stain on the spirit.
The related ideas of sin and guilt, while unpleasant to experience, testify to the unity and continuity of the human spirit, in particular to that unique spiritual capacity we call “conscience”. If I am a moral person, then when I commit a sin I feel keenly that the misdeed remains with me; I ask myself, how could I have done such a thing? Before committing a sin, I am likely to ask myself, how will I be able to live with myself afterwards?
However, this unity and continuity do not condemn us to a life of bitterness and anguish over our sins. HaShem provides us with an opportunity to purify ourselves, to bleach out the stain on the spirit, through the process of kappara or atonement. There are many cathartic experiences which bring kappara, including fasting, charity, and sacrifices, and of course the atonement of Yom Kippur.
OATHS: A LASTING OBLIGATION
Oaths and vows are another salient testimony to the unity and continuity of the spirit. Nedarim and shavuot are a way of binding ourselves in the future. HaShem gives us the awesome power to associate actions or objects with His name, thereby creating a lasting obligation to act in a certain way at the risk of desecrating His name, G-d forbid.
Yet here also, a careless vow does not condemn us to a life of regret and anguish. HaShem provides us with the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to uproot the vow at its source, through the process of hatara, the annulment of vows. Again, mere regret is not enough; it is necessary to go through a formal process of confronting the vow and articulating the basis for the annulment.
TRANSFORMING THE PAST
This parallelism between atonement for sin and release from vows is one motif which connects Kol Nidrei to Yom Kippur. In each case the amoral, practical response is to ignore the connection to the past – to turn a new leaf and move forward without paying any attention to the mistaken sin or vow. The judgmental response is the opposite: to strictly uphold the connection to the past, to live in guilt or with the unbearable restrictions of a past vow. In each case, our tradition provides us with a middle way.
Atonement and annulment of vows do not free us from the past by vitiating the conscience, by weakening the unity and continuity of the spirit. The lasting impact of sin and of vows is affirmed; the connection between past and future is maintained. It is the past itself which is altered! In these two instances our Sages taught us that we can actually change the past. It is a fundamental principle that vows that are permitted because of regret are uprooted retroactively. (Nedarim 21b and elsewhere, Shulchan Arukh YD 228:7.) And our Sages inform us that teshuva is capable of transforming our misdeeds into merits! (Yoma 86b.)
In effect the same continuity of spirit which allows the past to affect the future, through the taint of sin or the binding force of vows, is activated in the opposite direction. The human spirit grows and attains insight; our past acts are then reinterpreted from the vantage point of our new perception. The past is not denied or erased, but rather is integrated into our new self in a constructive way.
The introspection of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, followed by the contrition and afflictions of Yom Kippur, reinforce Yom Kippur’s status as a day of spiritual elevation and insight which is uniquely suited to this recasting of the past. On this day we have special power to transform our misdeeds in such a way that they advance, rather than impede, our continuing spiritual growth.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.