Joseph Breuer (“A Time to Build”, II, 1981) says, “The Jewish people has taught the world the sanctity of the spoken word. Its very existence is built on the sanctity of the word” (page 59).
Yet there we are on Kol Nidrei night, apparently cancelling out the words we have spoken and declaring that our vows are no vows and our oaths no oaths.
Many rabbinic authorities challenged Kol Nidrei and, for different and less honourable reasons, the antisemites attacked the passage on the grounds that it showed one could not trust the word of a Jew. Yet the Jewish people have stubbornly held on to Kol Nidre and would feel lost without it.
Cynics suggest that it is not the content but the melody which people love (one sceptic said that if a cantor sang the melody of Kol Nidrei to the words of “Three Blind Mice”, his congregation would not know the difference and would still cry on cue).
Taking a more charitable view of one’s fellow Jews, one still has to ask what the attraction of Kol Nidrei really is.
Halachic authorities always said it was better not to make vows than to find a vow embarrassing and seek to cancel it. They quoted Kohelet, “If you vow a vow, defer not to fulfill it” (Eccl. 5:4), and even earlier the words of the Torah, “The utterance of your mouth you shall observe and do” (Deut. 23:24).
Nonetheless there are times when, under the influence of emotion, we make grandiloquent promises to God or ourselves and then realise we have undertaken too much. For us Kol Nidrei says, “God, the overwhelming emotion of Yom Kippur may take hold of my tongue. Please forgive me if I promise something I cannot fulfil. Protect me even from words of love for You if there is a possibility that when it comes to it I may be unable to love You as much as I yearn to”.
The Mishnah of course makes it clear that Kol Nidrei does not affect promises made to other human beings but only to God or oneself. Promises to other people must be fulfilled scrupulously, and if this becomes impossible the other person must be asked to release the promise.