This is the devotional for Day 9 from the Chosen People Ministries.
On the evening initiating Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jewish people gather around the world to hear the ancient and magnificent Kol Nidre (All Vows), which is sung at the commencement of the service. This moving, mournful and soulful Aramaic prayer is found only in the liturgy pertaining to Yom Kippur and nowhere else. Its purpose is to seek God’s forgiveness for breaking vows and promises. After moving through the Ten Days of Awe, confessing and repenting for our sins, it seems out of character that the finale of our contrition comes as a request asking God to forgive us for intentionally breaking our past and future commitments.
This is difficult for most of us to understand, but it is worth trying, as the prayer helps us understand some aspects of Jewish history that are important to remember.
The translation is as follows:
In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God — praised be He — and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.
All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.
May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.1
Many Jewish leaders over the years have wanted to actually remove Kol Nidrei from the Yom Kippur service. It has become the source of considerable antisemitism, as non-Jews believed it was the Jewish way to release themselves from debts to Gentiles.
Further, it should be understood that in Jewish tradition, Kol Nidrei is not a request to be free of legal obligations that cannot be met. It is quite rightly understood there will always be penalties for a failure to perform a contract, as Judaism cherishes the value of keeping one’s word.
According to one rabbinic commentator,
…NO ONE claims that Kol Nidrei exempts individuals from either past or future vows that involve others. Kol Nidrei is ONLY for personal vows, as demonstrated above. Whether in business deals or in interpersonal interaction, Kol Nidrei does not in any way provide license for Jews to be deceitful or lying.2
The reason Kol Nidrei became so important is that it memorializes events in Medieval Europe, especially during the days when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or Islam and chose to practice an “underground” version of Judaism.
Those Jews, primarily located in Spain and Portugal, were calledConversos or Crypto Jews (secret Jews). The singing of Kol Nidrei gave these “converts” an opportunity each year to ask God to forgive them for falsely converting.
This prayer, which still moves Jewish people to tears, reminds us of darker times during the Inquisition and persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe. The prayer actually says more about the Jewish view of God than it does about the man’s ability to keep his word. The unknown author of the prayer believed that even the unwitting breaking of vows was wrong, but God would be gracious, merciful and forgiving. In the minds of “converts” to Christianity (Medieval Catholicism) who were pressured to renounce their Judaism under the threat of death, Kol Nidrei provided comforting solace that the God of Israel understood their plight and forgave them.
Sometimes, the only lifeline Jewish people had to hold was that God would graciously understand the difficulty of keeping the Torah (Law). The Jewish people were not looking for an excuse through the prayer, but rather expressed their hope that God fully knew the circumstances endured by the Jewish people and that He also understood the deepest intentions of their hearts. Kol Nidrei expresses faith in the goodness and love of God.
Therefore, in a rather unusual way, Kol Nidrei reminds the Jewish people that our failure to keep promises and obligations, under more usual circumstances, require God’s forgiveness, as our word is our bond not only to man, but to God as well. The prayer actually elevates our commitments to life, family and business to a higher level by giving these obligations a divine dimension.
When we fail in our earthly obligations, we understand that we have sinned before God and need His release and forgiveness. This is beautifully expressed in the words of the Psalmist, who wrote,
Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises to You, for You have delivered my soul from death. Have You not kept my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living? (Ps. 56:12-13).
The above passage gives us insight in to the conflicted heart of the Psalmist. He mourns his failings, yet still trusts in a forgiving and good God who is able to keep him from sin. He does not blame God for demanding that he keep the commandments, nor does he demand license to disobey, as he takes full responsibility for his sin. On the one hand, he recognizes that God is the only one who can keep him from failing but understands as well that sin is his failure and not God’s inability to “keep” him.
We can also be conflicted. We trust God to give us the power to be obedient and to walk with Him in purity, but we still sin. In these moments, we are tempted to say that God is complicit in our sin because He did not give us the strength to resist evil and sin. Do you ever feel as if God did not keep his part of the agreement in giving you power over sin? It is understandable to feel that way, but it is not true. He empowers us to choose His will over our own and we must make the right choice. We cannot blame the Holy One for our sin. And we cannot knowingly make the wrong choice knowing that He will forgive us. His grace is a not a safety net for sin and disobedience.
Give it your all… resist sin, yet know that failure will come. I pray that you will be honest with God at that moment and fall upon His mercy knowing that He also forgives.
May I encourage you to read and meditate upon my favorite Psalm, which captures the heart of King David (after being confronted by the prophet Nathan with his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah)? The lessons in the passage will give us hope and strength to obey, knowing that if we fail (and we will), that we are never beyond His ability and power to forgive.
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart— these, O God, You will not despise. Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then they shall offer bulls on Your altar (Ps. 51).