On the Liminality of Kol Nidrei
Originally in Hebrew on Hartman Institute’s Al Da’at Hakahal blog
This year I will once again begin prayers on Yom Kippur Eve with the words, “Or zaru’a la-tzadik” – “Light is sown for the righteous, joy for the upright” (Psalms 97:11). This year, however, I will recite these words facing the Ark in synagogue, leading the prayer service for the first time in my life. As soon as I accepted this role, I began whispering these words to myself, over and over, and listening to myself saying them: “Light is sown for the righteous, joy for the upright.” Sown light. Planted light. What an amazing metaphor.
After this verse, though, we arrive at Kol Nidrei. The gravity of responsibility, the excitement, and the need to be precise for myself and for the congregation behind me and with me, bring me back to the strange words of Kol Nidrei, and to the search. What is it about these words that enables us to enter into Yom Kippur?
Kol Nidre in its entirety is a moment of liminality. We recite the words with fervor and intention, but these are not words of prayer in any respect. The words, “Kol nidrei ve-esarei u-shevu’ei ve-niduyei va-ḥaramei” (“All vows, assumed obligations, oaths, ostracisms, and consecrations…”), are recited in the synagogue, but are not about or addressed to Ribono shel Olam (the Sovereign of the World). Kol Nidrei does not invoke God’s name and does not include any blessing or ancient verse. Its language is legalese, and its subject is breach of contract. And yet, the words are pronounced as a prayer whose familiar incantation sends shivers down our spines.
The liminality of these words runs deeper, because despite their legalistic tone, they have no halakhic status or power. The singularity of Kol Nidrei becomes clearer when we recall the origin of the Jewish vow. Its roots are in the Torah, which states: “If a man makes a vow (yidor neder) to the Lord…and if a woman makes a vow (tidor neder) to the Lord or assumes an obligation…” (Numbers 30:3-4). These verses are woven into the detailed laws of Tractate Nedarim, which presumes that if a man makes a vow, only a court can release him from it, and he must face them. A woman’s vows can be annulled by her husband or father. The vow-maker and vow-releasers are analogous to a person on trial and the judges of the case.
But this is unlike Kol Nidrei, because in the Kol Nidrei recited in the synagogue, there is no court, only the easy consent of the congregation, including ourselves. At the onset of Yom Kippur, the distinction between those who make and those who annul vows, disappears. Everything mixes together here; we all make vows, and we all permit vows at the same time.
We must decide for ourselves who we have in mind when we state, “We permit prayer with sinners”: Ourselves? The person standing next to us? Are we grateful to the congregation that accepts us and takes us in? Or do we look elsewhere, peering around at the sinners behind us and next to us?
Kol Nidrei allows us to bring all our unkept promises and failed attempts into the synagogue – that is, our humanity, and especially our understanding that we all have something to bring. This is the necessary starting point for prayer and repentance. Its power comes from its liminality, its being on the threshold between the day before the holiday and the holiday itself, between human loneliness and community, between pretense and failure, in footwear that does not match our finest holiday outfits, with bellies full, waiting for hunger to set in.
Therefore, although Kol Nidrei is neither a prayer nor the annulment of a vow, when the congregation joins me with their whispered chants, I hope we will all recognize the power of these words to repair and heal something in our souls and in our community. I hope we will realize that the moment a congregation accepts us into its midst for prayer is an exalted moment, and we understand the light that is sown within us will bloom and blossom one day. Each of us can be righteous, as is stated in “Or zaru’a la-tzadik,” and if we choose to be upright, we will be blessed with joy.
– Translation by Elli Fischer