The solemnity of the Kol Nidre ceremony is matched only by its puzzling character. Why should a legal ritual for the annulment of vows be inserted into the beginning of what is supposed to be a day of intense prayer? Why, for that matter, should vows be annulled at all? Should they not simply be fulfilled?
The institution of annulment is in itself an ancient one and is mentioned in some of the earliest passages in the Mishnah. A person, having committed him/herself to a vow, can come before a sage to be released from the vow. The release normally took the form of an interrogation whose purpose was to establish that the vow had been accepted originally without full awareness of its implications or consequences. Once it was established that the vow had been undertaken under mistaken premises, then the sage had the authority to declare it null and void.
The earliest rabbinic authorities were unclear about the origin of this institution. The Mishnah (Hagigah 1:8) includes it among the laws that "hover in the air and have nothing to support them"--i.e., they are part of the oral tradition, with no scriptural basis. Some conflicting views recorded in the Talmud try to find biblical support for the institution through some imaginative readings of several verses.
Among the medieval rabbis the status of the annulment of vows continued to be the subject of a dispute. Maimonides, while acknowledging that the institution is part of the oral law rather than a scriptural rule, enumerates it among the 613 commandments of the Torah. In order to do so he must explain that he is using the concept "commandment" in an unusual way: Not that any individual has an obligation to annul his or her vows, but rather the rabbinical court has the duty to deal with requests for annulment. Other commentators argued that this sort of rule cannot strictly speaking be termed a commandment, and that rabbis should be reluctant in promoting laxity in the fulfilment of religious obligations.
The existence of a "Kol Nidre" ceremony is first attested from the tenth century (Contrary to a widespread theory, there is no basis for the association of the ritual with the Spanish Marranos). The association of Kol Nidre with Yom Kippur probably reflects a popular feeling that unfulfilled obligations would impede the atonement process. The earliest versions of the ceremony are worded so as to retroactively absolve the vows of the previous year. This procedure was later modified in most rites, and changed into an annulment of next year's vows.
Most leading rabbinic authorities were initially hostile to this custom. They noted that the public ceremony did not conform to the normal requirements for annulment of vows, which include individual interrogation and the expression of regret. The heads of the Babylonian academies flatly refused to give sanction to what they regarded as an unjustifiable disregard for the explicit biblical precept "If a man vow unto the Lord... he shall not break his word" (Numbers 30:2). They even refused to study the talmudic tractates that dealt with this topic.
Over the years however it became more and more difficult to resist the demand from people who had recklessly gotten themselves tied into obligations that they were now unable to fulfil. The phenomenon of vows has always been associated primarily with the common people, who would use them as a way of emphasizing assertions (even as it is common in English to preface assertions with such phrases as "Damn me if..." etc.). After the fact, the same people took their words seriously enough to be concerned that their unfulfilled vows would obstruct the efficacy of Yom Kippur.
In the end, the rabbis were compelled to make a difficult choice between insistence on respect for one's word, and compassion for those real people who urgently needed such a procedure for easing their consciences and permitting their forgiveness.
The history of this very human dilemma is the story of the controversy over the "Kol Nidre."
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