The passage has a unique fascination. The melody breathes pathos. The atmosphere is charged with emotion. Even the most cynical worshipper is moved. Yet the words are Aramaic and legalistic, difficult even for those who are quite adept at Hebrew.
Nonetheless, battles have been fought for the sake of Kol Nidre, and every attempt to exclude it from the liturgy has brought multitudes to its defence.
Kol Nidre is not really a prayer but a legal declaration. Underlying it, wrote Arthur Davis, “lurks a thought that is God-inspired, a conception of the sanctity of Truth”.
A basic teaching of the Torah is that your word must be your bond; it is better not to make promises than to promise and not fulfil your word. Nonetheless, people are liable to make rash vows and grandiose promises when overcome by emotion.
Hence there must be a way of release from an unfulfillable promise. If made to another human being, it is they who have to waive the promise. But if it is a vow to God or a private promise made in His presence, Kol Nidre is a means of absolution.
It comes at the commencement of the day of at-one-ment with God, because otherwise one would be unable, with unfulfilled or unfulfillable promises on one’s conscience, to face the heavenly Judge.
The passage was originally retrospective, as the Sephardi text has it, dealing with the period from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur. Rabbenu Tam (Rashi’s grandson, 12th century) made the formula prospective, looking ahead to vows made from now until next Yom Kippur, and implying, in effect, “God, if, overcome by emotion, we promise You too much, please release us from things we cannot fulfil.”
Many a liturgical commentator has carefully explained all this and stressed that Kol Nidre has nothing to do with promises made between man and man, and does not affect contractual undertakings or oaths taken in a court of law. But antisemites always misunderstand, and Kol Nidre was sometimes quoted as evidence that one could not trust the word of a Jew.
There were congregations which sought means of avoiding the embarrassment which Kol Nidre inadvertently occasioned. Some medieval rabbinic authorities, in fact, had opposed saying Kol Nidre in case it led a person to treat their vows lightly.
The early Reform movement eliminated the words of Kol Nidre or changed them, usually keeping the melody and substituting the words of Psalm 130, though this substitution lent support to the antisemitic argument that Kol Nidre was dangerous.
A chapter in the story emanated from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in the early 1930’s, when the congregational elders wrote to British Chief Rabbi JH Hertz seeking permission to revise Kol Nidre. All that Dr Hertz was prepared to do was to substitute the retrospective text for the prospective version, though in the end not even this change was made.
He wrote: “Recent historical studies have shown the Kol Nidre to be a unique memorial of Jewish suffering and repentance. It arose in Spain, as a result of the Jewish persecutions by the West Goths, in the seventh century. Entire Jewish communities were then doomed to torture and the stake, unless they forswore their Faith, and by the most fearful oaths and abjurations bound themselves nevermore to practise any Jewish observances.
“In this way, even when better times came and the fury of the oppressor abated, the unfortunate members of those communities felt themselves perjured before God and man if they returned to their Holy Faith, or kept even the most sacred of its Festivals. It was to ease the conscience of these crushed and distracted men and women, that the Kol Nidre was formulated.
“In view of this origin of the prayer – which has only recently become known and which alone explains all its anomalies – various congregations that had formerly abolished the Kol Nidre have reintroduced it; realising that the awakening of historic memories, and the forging of links with the past, are vital factors in Jewish traditional life and worship.”