Kol Nidrei is the prayer that opens the evening service at the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is of such great significance that the entire service is referred to as the Kol Nidrei service.
Although it is often referred to as a prayer, technically Kol Nidrei is not a prayer but a legal contract: a declaration in front of witnesses that all the promises made between myself and God, from this Yom Kippur to the next Yom Kippur, are null and void before they are even spoken. There are teachings in the Talmud that say we should not even make these vows in the first place, since they are so prone to be broken. But suppose we do make these vows? – out of desperation, for example, in an attempt to negotiate with God – “I will do this if You do that”; or out of good intentions and misguided optimism, promising something that seems within our reach but is ultimately unrealistic, impossible to fulfill. Then the Kol Nidrei gives us safety. As broken, fragile, imperfect human beings, the Kol Nidrei contract with God gives us the safety to experiment, even when we may fail, by knowing that our failures and broken promises are forgiven in advance. We are guaranteed God’s forgiveness before we even make the mistake.
Traditionally we are supposed to hear three repetitions of Kol Nidre. There are of course many many different explanations for this tradition. One humourous one is that this is God’s demonstration of forgiveness, in advance, for the habitual latecomers in the congregation, who may miss repetitions numbers 1 & 2 but will probably arrive in time for repetition #3!
A more serious interpretation looks at the progression in our hearts and moods as we articulate the same contract three different times. The first time, we are sad, afraid, uncertain as to whether we even have the right to ask for God’s forgiveness. The second time, we gain confidence, believing that we deserve forgiveness and we are justified in asking for it. The third time comes from a place of certainty: God will forgive us in advance, even for those sins we have not yet committed, and we have every right to demand this commitment in this Kol Nidrei contract.
Many translations of Kol Nidrei are thematic, expressing the translator’s interpretation of its meaning. The following word-by-word translation, based on the text by Rabbi Ronald Aigen in the Renew Our Days Machzor, highlights the legal nature of this declaration, beginning with a list of seven different forms of vows. As in the English, each original Aramaic word carries a distinct difference of meaning, although many of the nuances cannot be adequately translated into a single English equivalent. Together, the contract covers many different forms of vows, converging them into the phrases “regarding them all”, and “let them all be released”.
All vows, and bonds, and pledges, and promises, and pacts, and obligations, and oaths that we have vowed, and sworn, and pledged, and bound our souls with, from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur - may it come to us for good - regarding them all, we regret them. Let them all be released, forgiven, erased, and be made null and void. Our personal vows are not vows; Our personal bonds are not bonds; Our personal oaths are not oaths.
This legal formulation lists many different forms of promise and personal bonds, then says: all of these promises which I shall make in the coming year– from this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur, may it be for good – are already null and void before I even make the pledge.
In this moment of deep introspection, at the beginning of Yom Kippur, I’m telling God in advance that as the year passes, if in moments of forgetfulness I make a promise as though I think I’m actually going to keep it – don’t hold me to it. I will try my best, but I’ve already been given Your forgiveness in advance. So if I fail then, my failure will already have been forgiven.
The two intertwined elements here are my acknowledgement of my own fallibility; and my reminder to God that unconditional love means that no matter what I do, I will be forgiven.
Kol Nidrei is thus a contract of unconditional love.