The Development of Kol Nidrei Through the lens of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library

Friday, 7 September, 2018 - 2:03 pm

MS. Reggio 2 (1) copy.pngKol Nidrei, the opening communal prayer for the annulment of vows at the onset of Yom Kippur, is one of the most familiar prayers of Yom Kippur. The text according to the Ashkenazic tradition states the following:[1]


All vows,[2] and things we have made forbidden on ourselves, and oaths, and items we have consecrated to the Temple, and vows issued with the expression “konum,” and vows which are abbreviated, and vows issued with the expression “kanos,” that we have vowed, and sworn, and dedicated, and made forbidden upon ourselves; from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur - may it come to us at a good time - we regret having made them; may they all be permitted, forgiven, eradicated and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer. Our vows shall no longer be vows, and our prohibitions shall no longer be prohibited, and our oaths are no longer oaths.


Until this point say three times.[3]


And[4] it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance.[5]


In this essay, I will look at the development of this prayer through the liturgy found in the manuscripts at the Bodleian Library. The variations, erasures, and corrections of the prayer in the manuscripts give an insight into the history of the Kol Nidrei prayer and the controversies surrounding it – whether it should be said or not; if it should be said, whether the vows it refers to pertain to the past year or the future year; if the vows do pertain to the future, what the precise wording should be; whether it should be said in Hebrew or Aramaic.


These controversies are reflected in the manuscripts with the following variations: a. one completely omits Kol Nidrei; b. Kol Nidrei is written in Aramaic; c. Kol Nidrei is written in Hebrew; d. Kol Nidrei recited rescinding past vows; e. Kol Nidrei recited in a form rescinding future vows; f. the Kol Nidrei prayer is corrected from the past tense to future tense.



Tradition not to say Kol Nidrei



This all-important text of Kol Nidrei, considered by many today to be the symbol of the Yom Kippur service, is not mentioned in the Torah, nor is it instructed explicitly in the Talmud that one should annul one’s vows on the eve of Yom Kippur. The earliest liturgical text with the mention of Kol Nidrei is in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (810-875), where he writes:[6]


One goes barefoot to the synagogue and takes out the Torah scroll and recites Kol Nidrei three times.


While Rav Amram mentions it, indicating it as a Gaonic period tradition, he writes that the Babylonian academy viewed this as a foolish custom and forbade its recital.[7] Rav Natronai Gaon (853-856) and Rav Hai Gaon (889-896) both testify that Kol Nidrei was not recited in the two Babylonian academies. Natronai testifies, however, that in other countries it is said. Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (1320 – 1376) also acknowledges the prayer but recommends one should not say it. In his commentary on the Talmud, he writes:[8] ‘There are some congregations that recite Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur.’ He proceeds to suggest, however, that one should not actually recite the Kol Nidrei at all, as it encourages leniency regarding vows. The tradition to not recite Kol Nidrei is reflected also with Maimonides (1135-1204), as he does not mention it in his laws of Yom Kippur or in his Order of Prayers in his legal code Mishneh Torah. The tradition not to say it may be reflected in the 14th century Sephardi Catalonian Machzor in the Oppenheimer collection (MS. Oppenheim Add. 8° 1) that also does not include it.



Tradition to say Kol Nidrei



MS. Canonici Or. 140 (1) copy.pngIn all the following manuscripts that we will explore here, the Ashkenazi, Italian and other Sephardic Machzorim manuscripts, the prayer of Kol Nidrei is included. In addition, a 13th century English manuscript, Etz Chaim, by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London, also mentions the tradition to say it. Incidentally, Chazan quotes halachic rulings by Moses of Oxford in his work, indicating that this work likely reflects the customs in the Oxford Jewry, as well as London, in the 13th century.


The tradition to say Kol Nidrei is reflected in the following manuscripts:


1.     MS. Canonici Or. 140 (1270-1280) – Ashkenazi.

2.     Etz Chaim (1279) – Ashkenazi.

3.     MS. Bodley Or. 167, fol. 51a (1275 – 1325) – Ashkenazi.

4.     MS. Reggio 2 (1291 – 1325) – Ashkenazi.

5.     MS. Bodley Or. 5 (1301 – 1400) - Aragon.

6.     MS. Michael 619 (1320 - 1330) – Ashkenazi.

7.     MS. Canonici Or. 95 (1326 – 1375) – Ashkenazi.

8.     MS. Bodley Or. 501 (1326 – 1375) – Ashkenazi.

9.     MS. Canonici Or. 18 (1450 – 1500) - Italian.

10.  MS. Canonici Or. 47 (1526 – 1575) – Ashkenazi / Yiddish.


Examples of Talmudic and Medieval Vows


The Kol Nidrei prayer reflects a period when making vows was not just in the context of a legal contract but a common practice in social interactions between people. The following two cases illustrate the common practice and types of vows in the Talmudic period:[9]


Rabbi Kahane visited the home of Rabbi Yosef. Rabbi Yosef said to him: Let the master eat something. Rabbi Kahane responded: No, by the Master of all (G-d), I will not eat.’




Abaye’s wife had a daughter from a previous marriage. Abaye said that she should be given in marriage to his relative, but his wife said she should be given in marriage to her relative. He said to his wife, “Benefit from me should be forbidden to you if you disobey my wishes and marry her to your relative.”


In the medieval period vows appear in the form of expressions of commitment, as in the following two cases:


1.     Joseph, the eldest son of Tosafist Rabbi Yechiel of Paris (d. 1286), was imprisoned and upon being his release made a public vow that he would immigrate to Israel.[10] He was however released from his vow by his father or a fellow rabbi, due to it contravening the mitzvah to respect one’s parents.[11]


2.     A second case is recorded by 13th century Rabbi Meir Hakohen, in his commentary on Maimonides Hagahot Maimuniot,[12] that a colleague, Rabbi Menachem, made a vow to immigrate to Israel. However, after the vow was made, his wife became pregnant. Rabbi Meir brings the ruling that the vow could be annulled, as the fulfillment of the vow would put the mother and child’s life in danger. On the other hand, to travel without his wife would violate his marital responsibilities, which constitute a mitzvah. Furthermore, he was obligated, as a teacher, to teach Torah to young children – constituting another mitzvah. Thus, the danger to life and the two mitzvot combined served as basis for releasing the vow.


It would appear that if a person made vows like these or similar, but had not undergone the process of annulment, then the Kol Nidrei would be effective in annulling them.[13]


Discrepancy between past and future in the manuscripts


There is, however, discrepancy in the manuscripts pertaining to the custom to recite Kol Nidrei. In the following eight Ashkenazi manuscripts, the annulment of the vows refers to the future year:


1.     MS. Canonici Or. 140 (1270-1280).

2.     MS Bodley Or. 167 (1275 – 1325).

3.     MS Leipzig Etz Chaim (1279).

4.     MS. Reggio 2 (1291 – 1325).

5.     MS. Canonici Or. 95 (1326 – 1375).

6.     MS. Canonici Or. 47 (1526 – 1575).

7.     MS. Michael 619 (1320 - 1330).

8.     MS. Bodley Or. 501.


These manuscripts all state that the vows being annulled are for the future: ‘From this year until next year’ - ‘m’shana zeh ad l’shana haba.’  In the Italian and Aragon Machzor manuscripts, however, it cites Kol Nidrei with the liturgy pertaining to annulment of vows made during the past year. This can be found in MS. Bodley Or. 5 (1301 – 1400) and MS. Canonici Or. 18 (1450 – 1500), where the text states: ‘From last year to this year’ - ‘M’shana she’avar ad shana ha’zeh.’ This distinction in the manuscripts implies a difference between Ashkenazi custom that suggests the liturgy pertaining to the annulment of vows should be said in the future and Italian and Sefardi custom that it should be said in the past.


Change in the Ashkenazi custom


MS. Bodley Or. 167 (5) copy.pngThis distinction is not the whole story however. When examining the Ashkenazi manuscripts, one can see that the custom to say Kol Nidrei regarding future vows may not have always been the case. In two 13th century manuscripts at the Bodleian Library[14] one can see a correction regarding Kol Nidrei, whereby the text regarding the period the annulment of vows is effective was written, erased, and replaced by the present text.


In the Canonici Oriental 140 Machzor (1270-1280) there are two corrections made to the text: The word ‘past’ – ‘she’avar’ is changed to ‘zeh – ‘this,’ and a word in the margin was added: ‘For the good’ - ‘l’tovah.’ The difference to the complete sentence before and after the change is as follows. The text formerly stated: ‘From the past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur which comes upon us - ‘m’Yom Kippurim sheavar ad Yom Kippurim zeh haba aleinu.’ The text, after the correction, states: ‘From this Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur which comes upon us’ - ‘m’Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim zeh haba aleinu.’ Along with the correction of the single word ‘she’avar’ - ‘past’ inside the text, an additional word was added in the margin: ‘For the good’ - ‘l’tovah.


The principle correction in this manuscript that changes it from the past to the future is the erasing of the word ‘past’ - ‘she’avar’, and replacing it with ‘this’ -‘zeh’, thereby changing the annulment of the vows from past to future. To make this change even clearer it adds in the margin a second correction: ‘For the good’ - ‘l’tovah’, making it clear that it is referring to the year ahead: That it shall be for the good.


It is interesting that the editor chose not to remove the second ‘this’ - ‘zeh’, which was initially written in the context of describing the annulment of the vows made from the past year to this year. Instead, the editor retained the second ‘this’ and merely reinterpreted it to be understood in the context of the adjustment, albeit slightly awkwardly, reading that the annulment refers to vows made in the future: ‘From this ‘zeh’ year until this ‘zeh’ year which comes upon us (in the future).’ Although the retention of the second ‘this’ - ‘zeh’ seems somewhat forced, once however the text has ben changed from past to future, the editor proceeds to add in the margin a second correction – the additional word ‘for the good’ - ‘l’tovah,’ intending with this prayerful wish to make it clearer that the vows being annulled in the Kol Nidrei are indeed regarding the future year.[15]


In the Bodley Machzor 167 (1275 – 1325) the change in the text from past to future contains three corrections. The text formerly stated ‘From past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur’ - ‘m’Yom Kippurim she’avar ad Yom Kippurim zeh.’ The text, after the correction, states: ‘From this Yom Kippur until Yom Kippur which comes upon us’ - ‘m’Yom Kippurim zeh ad Yom Kippurim haba aleinu,’ implying two corrections inside the text: The word ‘past’ - ‘she’avar’ is changed to ‘this’ - ‘zeh,’ and the second ‘this’ - ‘zeh’, is erased altogether. In addition, in the Bodley Machzor, there is a third correction: as in the Canonici Machzor, there is also the additional word ‘for good’ - ‘l’tovah’ added in the margin, intended to clarify further and be consistent with the correction from the past to the future.


As seen in the two latter manuscripts, within the tradition to recite the Kol Nidrei lies a second controversy, in the context of Ashkenazi custom: whether it should be recited pertaining to the annulment of the vows of the past year, as was the custom for centuries, as recorded in Seder Rav Amram, or pertaining to the future year. As testified by the changes in the 13th century Canonici and Bodley Machzorim, and subsequent Ashkenazi Machzorim, the debate appears to have been settled in favour of the change that the annulment of vows in the Kol Nidrei should refer not to the past year but to the future one.


This correction evidently made its way also to England. Shortly after the Canonici and Bodley Machzorim were composed in the 1270s, a compendium of Jewish law, Etz Chaim, was completed in 1279 by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London, containing an abridged version of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides with additional laws reflecting Gaonic, French and English customs that were not included in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. In this work, he clearly states that the liturgy of Kol Nidrei should be recited in the future tense containing the words: ‘From this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.’[16] Similarly, German halachic authority, Mordechai ben Hillel HaKohen (c. 1250–1298), writes[17] that one should say Kol Nidrei for annulment of vows for the future year.[18]


Why the change?


MS. Michael 619 (1) copy.pngThe debate about the correct liturgy of Kol Nidrei, as opposed to whether it should be said at all, was a major subject of discussion in the 12th century. So, what was behind this significant change in the liturgy? One of the greatest halachic authorities of 12th century France, Rabeinu Tam (1100-1171), grandson of the Biblical commentator Rashi, raised four objections to the recitation of the Kol Nidrei, as recited in his day, where the text referred to the past year. Instead of cancelling or objecting to the tradition, however, like the Gaonim did, he proposed a simple change in its wording: instead of referring to the past, it should refer to the future year. This enabled the prayer to be preserved in the Ashkenazi tradition.


The four legal objections that were raised on the text of the Kol Nidrei were as follows:


Objection 1: According to Jewish law, one must have three people to annul a person’s vow or a single person who is an expert (mumche) in annulling vows. This is found in the Talmud[19] and is codified by Maimonides:[20] ‘A vow can be released only by a distinguished sage or by three ordinary men in a place where there are no sages.’ This is not the case, however, when the Kol Nidrei is recited by a single leader of the prayer, the chazzan.


Objection 2: The release of a vow must be based on regret. This is based on a dispute in the Talmud:[21]


Rav Yehuda said that Rav Asi said: A halachic authority can not broach dissolution of a vow based on regret, (only based on a mistake). There was a certain person who came before Rav Huna to request dissolution of a vow. Rav Huna said to him: “Is your heart upon you? Do you still have the same desire that you had when you made the vow?”

[The man] said to him, “No.”

And Rav Huna dissolved the vow for him. Since Rav Huna dissolved the vow based on regret alone, he evidently holds that one may broach dissolution based on regret.


Tosafot comments that the regret must be retroactive from the time the person accepted the vow and not just a regret to continue keeping it in the future. Maimonides codifies this:[22] ‘When a person took a vow and then changed his mind and regretted his vow, he may approach a sage and ask for its release.’ In the case of releasing a vow he details further the type of regret necessary:[23]


The person who took the oath must come before the distinguished sage or three ordinary people if there is no expert. He says: "I took an oath concerning this and this and I have changed my mind. If I knew that I would feel such discomfort concerning this, I would not have taken the oath. If, at the time of the oath, my understanding was as it is now, I would not have taken the oath." The wise man or the foremost among the three asks: "Have you already changed your mind?" He answers: "Yes." He then tells him: "It is permitted for you," "It is released for you," "It is absolved for you," or the like with this intent in any language. 


As this process of regret is not apparent in the Kol Nidrei, it would not be effective.


Objection 3: Jewish law stipulates that when a vow is annulled one must detail the vow. This matter is a dispute between two sages of the Talmud:[24]


A dilemma was raised before the Sages: Does one who comes to a halachic authority and requests that he dissolve his vow need to detail the vow, or does he not need to do so? Rav Nacḥman says: “He does not need to detail the vow.”

Rav Pappa says: “He needs to detail the vow.”

Rav Nacḥman says that he does not need to detail the vow, as if you say that he needs to do so, sometimes the person who took the vow will cut short his statement and not provide all of the details of the vow.

Rav Pappa says that he needs to detail the vow, because the vow might concern a matter that is prohibited.


According to the unanimous view of medieval rabbis, including the Tosafot, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (1235-1310) and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), Jewish law follows the view of Rav Pappa that a vow must be detailed in order for it to be cancelled.[25] The detailing of one’s vows is clearly not part of the Kol Nidrei liturgy rendering it ineffective.


Objection 4: The Mishneh states:[26] ‘A person may annul any vow, except his own.’ As Kol Nidrei is recited by the chazzan, there is no one who is annulling the chazzan’s vows, further illustrating how the Kol Nidrei liturgy does not conform to Jewish law pertaining to the annulment of vows.


Resolving the objections


MS. Reggio 2 (1) copy.pngRabbi Asher ben Yechiel and Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel both resolve the objections raised by Rabeinu Tam. Firstly, the Kol Nidrei already has the required three people to annul the vows, as the congregation recites the Kol Nidrei together with the chazzan. Secondly, regret for having made vows that were not subsequently kept does occur in face of the severity of punishment which Jewish law stipulates for the offence of violating a vow.[27] Thirdly, detailing one’s vow is only applicable when approaching an expert sage, who would not annul the vow without all the details being presented for fear that it may pertain to a mitzvah or prohibition that should in fact not be annulled. Such vows would in any event not be included in the Kol Nidrei when the chazzan acting together with the community annuls vows, thereby not requiring enumeration.[28] In addition, as the Kol Nidrei is recited in unison with the community, the chazzan’s vows are also annulled.




Despite later attempts to resolve the problems with the Kol Nidrei, Rabeinu Tam argues that Kol Nidrei should only apply to vows affecting the coming year. He argues that by making this change in the text, the liturgy will be footed on more solid grounds, as it would be based on a discussion in the Talmud in the tractate of Nedarim (vows) that sanctions annulment of vows for a year ahead. The Talmud states as follows:[29]


One who wishes that his vows have no force all year long should arise on Rosh Hashanah and say: Any vow that I will declare in the future shall be null, provided that one remembers his disclaimer at the time of the vow. The Talmud asks: On the contrary, if he remembers his disclaimer at the time of his vow and utters the vow anyway, he has thereby abolished his stipulation and confirmed the vow? Abaye said: Amend the statement of the Mishnah and read: Provided that he does not remember his disclaimer at the time of the vow. Rava says: In fact the correct reading of the Mishnah is as we said initially. What are we dealing with here? With a case in which he stipulated something on Rosh Hashanah and he does not know now what he stipulated, and now he is declaring a vow to a thing that might have been the subject of the stipulation. If his stipulation is remembered - and mentioned - at the time of the vow, and he said explicitly: ‘I am declaring the vow in accordance with my initial intent,’ then his vow has no substance. If he did not say: ‘I am declaring the vow in accordance with my initial intent,’ then he has abolished his stipulation and confirmed the vow. 


Two Talmudic sages, Abaya and Rava, disagreed concerning how disclaimers made on Yom Kippur abolishing all vows uttered during the year ahead can be effective. Abaye argued that it is only effective if the person has completely forgotten about the disclaimer at the time of the vow, otherwise the vow overrides the disclaimer.


Rava’s opinion is subject to two interpretations, either he was in disagreement with Abaye’s criteria, or that he was expanding the criteria. According to the first opinion, Rava argued that the disclaimer is effective in only a single case, when the individual only partially remembers the disclaimer at the time of the vow but not its precise details. If the individual, despite his partial memory, nonetheless recalls and mentions that he was relying on the disclaimer at the time of the vow, the disclaimer is valid and the vow is abolished, once it turns out that the disclaimer indeed applied to the type of vow he made. According to the second opinion, however, Rava agreed with Abaye, and the disclaimer is effective in two cases - if the individual has completely forgotten about the disclaimer at the time of the vow, and if the individual partially recalls the disclaimer. Rava and Abaye both are certainly in agreement that if the individual recalls completely all the details of the disclaimer while making the vow, the vow is not abolished and remains in force.


Maimonides,[30] Rabeinu Tam,[31] Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel[32] and Rabbi Nissim of Girona[33] hold the view that Rava is indeed expanding on, not disagreeing with the view of Abaye. There are therefore, according to this approach in reading the Talmudtwo cases when the disclaimer is effective: a. when the disclaimer is completely forgotten or b. partially forgotten. A rule in the Talmud is that Jewish law (halacha) follows Rava against Abaye. Maimonides in his Law of Vows thus codifies these two scenarios for disclaiming a future vow:[34]


The following laws apply when a person issued a stipulation before he made a vow, saying: "I am retracting from any vow that I will take from now until ten years in the future," "They are nullified," or other similar statements, and then took a vow: If he remembered the stipulation at the time he made the vow, the vow is effective, for by taking the vow, he nullified the stipulation. If, however, he did not remember the stipulation until after he made the vow, the vow is nullified even if immediately after taking the vow, he brought the stipulation to mind and maintained it. Although he did not verbalise his retraction at the time he made the vow, the retraction preceded the vow and he verbalised it beforehand. There is an authority who rules stringently and says that he must remember the stipulation immediately thereafter taking the vow. The following rules apply when one made a stipulation similar to that mentioned above for a year or for ten years and afterwards took a vow, remembering at the time that he took the vow that he had made a stipulation, but forgetting the subject of that stipulation or what it involved. If when taking the vow, he said: "I am acting according to my original intention," his vow is not effective, for he has nullified it. If he does not make such a statement, he has nullified the stipulation and upheld the vow, for, at the time he took the vow, he remembered that there was a stipulation and, nevertheless, took the vow.


In summary, based on this text of the Talmud about disclaiming vows for the year ahead, Rabeinu Tam proposes that Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur should be based on the Talmud pertaining only to the future, as opposed to the past, thereby justifying and validating the prayer to be recited on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Nissim of Girona likewise argues that the intention of Kol Nidrei should in fact only pertain to future vows and claims the text became confused.[35]


Acceptance of Rabeinu Tam’s view


From the medieval manuscripts and, as mentioned, in the work of Jewish law by Mordechai ben Hillel, the view of Rabeinu Tam appears to have been accepted by Ashkenazi communities, and the Machzorim were indeed changed to reflect this. This is also the case regarding the custom of the Jews of medieval England, as evident in the text Etz Chaim by Rabbi Jacob ben Judah Chazan of London, reflecting the complete acceptance of the change. The text in Etz Chaim reads as follows:


In the evening service, the chazzan annuls the vows of the congregation, both certain and doubtful, which they regret, and one should say: ‘From this Yom Kippur until Yom Kippur that will come upon us for the good,’ because one who wants that his vows of the whole year should not be fulfilled shall say that ‘all the vows - Kol Nidrei – that I will make in the future shall be cancelled. This is as long as the disclaimer is remembered, and this should not be revealed. In Machzorim they added: ‘Except the Takanot Hakhilot – the institutions of the communities.’


This English rabbinic text makes clear its full acceptance of the view of Rabeinu Tam that Kol Nidrei pertains to the future and is based on the reading of the Talmud in Nedarim. The three conditions mentioned by Chazan are also fully in line with the particular view of Rabeinu Tam – that firstly, the disclaimer is only effective if the individual (partially) remembers the disclaimer at the time of the vow, as interpreted in the discussion of the Talmud, according to Rava, and certainly if the individual doesn’t recall the disclaimer at all.[36] Secondly, that one should not reveal this to the laymen in the community. This is reflected in the Talmud in the discussion about making a disclaimer on future vows, that it should be an obscured process, since it can otherwise cause leniency regarding vows; and finally, the incorporation of the additional text: ‘Except the Takanot (enactments) of the congregation’, which is only relevant pertaining to future vows that the disclaimer will not be effective relating to communal matters.


Retracting complete acceptance


The general acceptance of Rabeinu Tam’s view came into question, however, in the centuries that followed. Rabbi David ben Zimra (1479-1573), known as the Radbaz, in the 16th century, was asked whether one should follow the view that Kol Nidrei is said in the past or future. The Radbaz responded that he personally incorporates both, past and future, together in one sentence: ‘From the past Yom Kippur until Yom Kippur which comes upon us for peace.’[37] Turkish Rabbi Chaim Benveniste (1603–1673) also recommends not completely accepting the amendment of Rabeinu Tam and proposes incorporating both views: ‘From the past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur which comes upon us for peace and from this Yom Kippur which comes upon us for peace until Yom Kippur which comes upon us for peace.’[38]


Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) in the 18th century goes further and argues that the ancient version with the liturgy in the past, as presented by Amram Gaon, is without doubt correct, but one should also show respect to the ‘righteous’ Rabeinu Tam and incorporate both versions into the Kol Nidrei. He would thus repeat the Kol Nidrei word for word in both tenses: once using the accurate tense of the Aramaic wording that reflects the past year, and once the Aramaic wording in future tense.[39] In the 19th century, Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870–1939), author of Kaf Hachaim, writes that his community would recite the Kol Nidrei following the view of Rabbi Chaim Benveniste but that unlike Rabbi Jacob Emden, they would recite whole sentences twice to reflect the past and future.[40]


Why the resistance to change?


Once the view of Rabeinu Tam was accepted by Ashkenazi authorities in the Middle Ages, with all the editions of the Machzor corrected, as can be seen in the manuscript copies at the Bodleian Library, a question arises: Why did subsequent halachic opinions question and retract this view by incorporating also the mentioning of the Kol Nidrei in the past? 


A reason for this may be due to a deeper approach to the prayer of Kol Nidrei, arising in light of the discovery and spreading of the teachings of the Zohar, the principle work of the Kabbalah. The earliest non-liturgical text mentioning the Kol Nidrei prayer was written many years before Amram Gaon, in the work of the Zohar,[41] where it states:


On Yom Kippur one is released from one’s chains. Those who have heavenly decrees of punishment against them due to their sins, issued by Divine vows and oaths, behold, on Yom Kippur, which is from the mystical attribute of understanding (binah), the world of freedom, the vows and oaths become annulled and cancelled, and the decree automatically is cancelled. Because of this, they instituted: Kol Nidrei - All vows and things we have made forbidden on ourselves are permitted, forgiven, eradicated and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer.[42]


This implies that Kol Nidrei is principally about the cancelling of all heavenly decrees against the Jewish people. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi offers another interpretation of Kol Nidrei, based on a further teaching in the ZoharIn a discourse of Chassidic mystical teaching in 1796,[43] published in Likkutei Torah, he draws on a teaching in the Zohar,[44] and proposes that Kol Nidrei is a part of the concept of repentance on Yom Kippur, whereby a person becomes released from being tied (kishurim) to sin and the allures of the material world. This in turn enables the soul to ascend and achieve a great love for G-d. A common aspect of these two interpretations of Kol Nidrei is that they are both applicable when recited pertaining to the past, not the future. For this reason, despite the major reconstitution of the prayer by Rabeinu Tam in the 12th century, largely accepted by all Ashkenazi Jewry for a few centuries, it may be that with the awareness of an additional meaning to the Kol Nidrei liturgy, in the context of the overall theme of repentance of Yom Kippur and the desire to ask G-d to cancel all negative decrees that may await the Jewish people, G-d forbid, a connection to the past year becomes important once again.[45] 




The Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library portray the development of the Kol Nidrei prayer over more than a thousand years, reflecting the varying views of whether it should be said at all, and whether the vows it details relate to the past or future. We can follow the fascinating flow of thought through the manuscripts with the fundamental change in the Kol Nidrei made by Rabeinu Tam in the 12th century when the text switched from referring to vows made in the past year to only vows to be made in the future year. This in turn justified the custom to be based on a relevant text of the Talmud, a necessary factor in responding to the Gaonic view in the 10th century that reciting Kol Nidrei is a ‘foolish’ custom. While Rabeinu Tam’s view was generally accepted amongst Ashkenazic Jews for a few centuries, complete validation was subsequently challenged and references to both past and future vows were eventually incorporated into many Ashkenazic and other versions of the Machzor. A reason for this surprising retraction may be due to the awareness of a deeper spiritual interpretation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, as put forward by the Zohar and expanded upon by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, which suggests a connection to the more general theme of repentance (Teshuva), considering the past, as well as resolution for the future. Additionally, the custom of annulling vows as originally instituted is no longer as relevant, as vows no longer form an integral part of societal interactions as they did in the days of the Talmud and the medieval period. In this light, with the more spiritual approach to the Kol Nidrei prayer, focusing on repentance and renewal, the version that implies annulment of past vows remains pertinent, and enables an additional inspiration for a meaningful return to G-d and a spiritual commitment for the future year on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.




[1] In the modern day Ashkenazi Machzor, the prayer of Kol Nidrei is preceded by the following: ‘With the consent of the Almighty, and consent of this congregation, in a convocation of the heavenly court, and a convocation of the lower court, we hereby grant permission to pray with transgressors.’ This is in the margin in a number of the 13th century Machzor manuscripts. The origin of this statement is from Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293) and is intended to include in the Yom Kippur service those who may be subject to a ban (cherem) by the community. Mordechai ben Hilel writes that the reason for this statement is based on the Talmudic statement (Keritot 6b. Mordechai Yoma 725): Rabbi Chana bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chasida, “Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast. For behold galbanum has a foul smell and yet the Scripture counts it among the ingredients of incense. Abaye said it from here, ‘...And founded his consortium on the earth (Amos 9:6)." Aleppo Rabbi Yesha'aya Atya (1732-1792) offers a reason for this, since by including the sinners of Israel in the service on Yom Kippur it places the righteous in relation to the wicked, allowing them to be considered indeed righteous. Without being accompanied by the wicked, the righteous will themselves be scrutinised (Bigdei Yesha commentary on Mordechai, Yoma 725). See Orot ayyim, p. 106b.

[2] The Ashkenazi and Aragon Sephardi version has the Kol Nidrei text in Aramaic: Kol NidreiSeder Rav Amram, however, writes it in Hebrew: Kol Nedarim. This is also the Italian version, as can be seen in MS. Canonici Or. 18.

[3] There are in fact three reasons for reciting Kol Nidrei three times: Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (Yoma 8:28) writes it is to affirm the annulment of the vow, as can be found pertaining to the laws of the Omer offering (Menachot 65b). Rabbi Moses of Cucci says it is publicise the pronouncement. Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel writes that Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan of Mainz (1090–1170), known as Ra'aven, would say that the reason is in case someone didn’t hear it the first time or second time it is repeated up to three times. This is why the Chazan raises his voice while reciting it the second and third time. See Kaf Hachaim 619:27.

[4] Numbers 15:26.

[5] This is recited since a person may have forgotten that the vow had been cancelled when violating the vow. The person still requires atonement for the perceived sin, despite there being no actual sin. This may be compared to a case when a person had intention to eat pork but in fact ate lamb. The person till requires atonement for the intention (Talmud Kiddushin 81a). Alternatively, as per the view that Kol Nidrei refers to the past year’s vows, it is to avoid punishment for violation of these vows. See Ros”h on Yoma 8:28.

[6] 2:37a.

[7] Seder Rav Amram 1:47a.

[8] Nedarim 23b.

[9] Nedarim 22b; 23a.

[10] Notes on the margin of Mordechai, from Piskei R. Shlomo of London, in Oxford MS. Neub. 781, fol. 67b.

[11] Oxford MS, Neub. 672, Mordechai fol. 33b.

[12] Laws of Oaths 6:7.

[13] See Nedarim 23 for many examples of types of vows that permit annulment. As will be explained later, the effect of Kol Nidrei will be dependent on the nature of the liturgy. If it’s in the past, then all vows will be covered as long as there is regret for fear of punishment for violating one’s vow. If it refers to the future, then it would be subject to not having full recollection of the disclaimer of Kol Nidrei when the vow was made. This would mean that when the promise to immigrate to Israel was made or the prohibiting oneself from eating with a colleague, he had forgotten that Kol Nidrei was recited when he made the vow.

[14] Machzor MS. Canonici Or. 140, fol. 45a, and in a Machzor from Thomas Bodley’s collection, MS. Bodley Or. 167, fol. 51a, (1275 – 1325).

[15] The words ‘haba aleinu’ - ‘that comes upon us,’ without the marginal addition of the word ‘l’tovah – ‘for the good,’ could linguistically be understood to mean in reference to the past or future. The additional word ‘for the good’ - ‘l’tovah’ seems then to make clear that it is indeed referring to the future, as per the correction. Similar text can be found in the blessing for the new month: Rosh Chodesh will be on (the day of the week) which comes to us for good – ha’ba aleinu l’tovah.

[16] Introduction to Etz Chaim.

[17] Mordechai, Yoma 726.

[18] The Semak does not mention Kol Nidrei at all in Mitzvah 218. The Hagahot Rabeinu Peretz however does mention that one should say Kol Nidrei but does not mention whether it should be for the past year or future year. In the printed addition, the notes on Hagahot Rabeinu Peretz quotes the Mordechai that it should be in the future tense. 

[19] Bechorot 36b.

[20] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Vows 4:5.

[21] Nedarim 21b.

[22] Laws of Vows 4:5.

[23] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Oaths 6:5.

[24] Gittin 35b.

[25] Tosafot (Bechorot 45b), Rashba (Gittin 35b) and Rosh (Gittin 35b) offer numerous reasons why the law follows the view of Rav Pappa: a. His view is mentioned last. b. Rav Huna (Gittin 35b) agrees with Rav Pappa, resulting their view as a majority view against the singular opinion of Rav Nachman. c, A Mishnah without any opposing view states as such in Bechorot 6:6: A priest who marries a women in sin is unfit to serve until he pronounces a vow prohibiting him from benefit. The Talmud explains that this follows the view that the vow must be detailed if it were to be annulled and therefore the vow is effective in allowing the pries to serve in the Temple despite the forbidden relationship, once intention to divorce is confirmed with the vow, since such a vow would not be annulled, once a priest hears the details of the vow that it was made to invalidate a forbidden relationship. d, The view of Rav Pappa is praised in Jerusalemite Talmud Nedarim, Perek Hashutfin. See the ruling in Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Deah 228:14.

[26] Negaim 2:5. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Oaths,

[27] Mordechai cites the severe Talmudic dictum that someone who makes a vow is like building an unauthorized altar and someone who keeps the vow is bring an unauthorised sacrifice upon it.

[28] Karban Nethaniel on Rosh (Nedarim 23b). See Shibolei haLeket 317 that states that Kol Nidrei is only effective for forgotten vows. This is also the view of Rabbi Yaakov of Lisa (1760-1832) in his Sidur Derech haChaim. The simple reading of Kol Nidrei does not however make this distinction and the need to enumerate one’s vows in the Kol Nidrei is waived, as per the above mentioned view of the Rosh. Rabbi Moses Isserles (Yoreh Deah 211:1, quoting Responsa Mahari Weil, ch. 2) states that unless there is an extreme need one shouldn’t rely on the Kol Nidrei to annul one’s vows. See Dayan LY Raskin’s article ‘Absolving Vows’ (Sep, 2018) that deals with this subject in detail pertaining to Hatorat Nedarim (Absolving Vows) on Erev Rosh Hashana, arguing that the view of the Rosh, excluding from Kol Nidrei vows relating to a mitzvah or Torah prohibition is applicable to also Hatorat Nedarim (Absolving Vows) on Erev Rosh Hashana and is implied by the statement that the reasons for not enumerating one’s vows is becase they are too numerous. The underlying reason for this addition is to exclude vows that may in fact not be annuled, due to them being a mitzvah or prohibition of the Torah. He argues however that in the Erev Rosh Hashana absolving of vows enumeration should be informed to a member of the Beth Din absolving the vows, if they are not too enumerous

[29] Nedarim 23b.

[30] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Vows 2:5.

[31] Tosafot Nedarim 23b.

[32] Rosh to Yoma 8:28.

[33] Nedarim 23b.

[34] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Vows 2:4-5.

[35] Nedarim 23b. This is despite the fact that he himself maintains that the prayer should not be said at all, due to causing leniency in the acceptance of vows (ibid).

[36] The text of the Etz Chaim might also accept that the view of Rava is in dispute with Abaye and the only case where the disclaimer is effective if there is partial memory of the disclaimer but not if there is full remembrance, for he would then be cancelling the disclaimer or no remembrance, in which case it’s also not effective.

[37] Sha’a lot U’Teshuvot Radba”z 433.

[38] Kaf Hachaim 619:17.

[39] Sheilas Ya’avetz 145.

[40] Kaf Hachaim 619:17. According to Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), known as the Arizal, followed the view of Rabbi Chaim Benveniste. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813), known as the Alter Rebbe, in the 18th century writes in his Shluchan Aruch that one should follow the view of Rabeinu Tam. This is also the Chabad custom, although Rabbi Schneur Zalman didn’t actually compose a text for the Kol Nidrei in his Siddur, allowing Chabad Chassidim to follow the prevalent custom of Ashkenazi Jewry in 18th-19th century Russia and Poland. It is thefore inconclusive what version Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself recited, taking into consideratuion the view of Rabbi Chaim Benveniste that the Arizal had the custom to recite Kol Nidrei in the past and future.

[41] Zohar, Ray’a Mehemna, 255b.

[42] This translation follows the commentary of Mosuk M’dvash.

[43] Likkutei Torah Matot.

[44] Re’ya MehemnaPinchas.

[45] The point made in this essay is similar to the view of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908) in Aruch Hashulchan (619:3). He bases his argument however on the fact that the Kol Nidrei according to Rabeinu Tam’s correction is ineffective as it is only relevant if a person had forgotten the Kol Nidrei disclaimer when making the vow. In view of a public declaration on Yom Kippur of the disclaimer in the form of the Kol Nidrei prayer, it is impossible that the person would have actually forgotten have recited Kol Nidrei at the time of the vow. He concludes: Kol Nidrei is merely a prayer like other prayers instituted to ask G-d to accept our prayers, as explained in the Zohar ready in some Machzorim before Kol Nidrei. They also both suggest a meaningful connection between Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei, as opposed to merely being a convenient time to recite it when the community is already assembled.



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