Last year, Jewish Lights published a thoughtful reader, All These Vows, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. It consists of 37 short essays written by scholars and rabbis from all Jewish denominations (with a preponderance of Reform Jews) about Kol Nidrei, perhaps the most evocative prayer in the Jewish liturgy. As anyone who attends synagogue on Yom Kippur eve knows, whenever a cantor or choir begins to intone its haunting melody, many eyes well up with tears.
Ironically, Kol Nidrei may also be the most controversial prayer in the Jewish prayer book. Its origin is unclear: it was unheard of in talmudic times. It presumably arose as part of Jewish folk religion some time before the 10th century. We know for sure that it existed then because some of the greatest rabbis of the time spoke out against it. Some went so far as to refer to Kol Nidrei as a “foolish custom” (minhag shtut) and tried to abolish it.
Kol Nidrei is essentially a formulaic annulment of vows. The Bible says a great deal about the importance of fulfilling vows, but provides no rules for their annulment. The Mishnah and Talmud do provide detailed rules for appearing before a rabbinic court and presenting grounds for requesting a vow’s annulment. According to Halachah, annulments of vows are not automatic; courts accept only some grounds.
Accordingly, the earliest opposition to Kol Nidrei was based on the well-founded halachic argument that this putative annulment text so solemnly chanted does not work. The prayer persisted nonetheless. In the 12th century, leading northern French rabbis, realizing that they could not uproot the prayer, proposed a slight emendation to the text of Kol Nidrei to reduce, but not eliminate, the halachic problems. The prayer until then had annulled vows of the previous year retroactively (“from last year’s Yom Kippur until this year’s”). They proposed a change to a forward-looking declaration. This new text, despite its grammatically indefensible mix of tenses – kol nidrei… dinedarna… mi-yom kippurim zeh ad… (“all the vows that we vowed [sic] from this Yom Kippur until the next”) –has been the standard formula in Ashkenazi circles for the last 800 years.
Rabbi Hoffman’s book has only a cursory discussion of the early years of controversy surrounding Kol Nidrei. But some of the essays in the book tell the fascinating story of the renewed controversy about it in the past 200 years, when again serious attempts were made to remove it from our liturgy. Early Reform rabbis were adamantly opposed to it. Some, like Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), composed alternate prayers, reproduced in this book, for example, asking God to grant us strength to fulfil our vows. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the founder of German neo-Orthodoxy, also eliminated Kol Nidrei from his synagogue’s practice.