The Vows We Make Today

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. We are often so busy in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to think about what’s most important: our interpersonal relationships.

What do you think of when you hear Kol Nidre? Some reflect on the musicality of the service. Others enjoy being together with community and family. Others are inspired by the beauty of these words giving us a clean slate for the coming year.

This evening we read some pivotal words: “All vows, oaths, agreements and promises between us and G-d which will be made during the coming year but not kept will be retroactively annulled-as if they never occurred.” Why start off our holiest day of the year with these words? One possibility is that the yearning to be forgiven from vows we were unable to keep is a paradigm for our desire to be forgiven from all sins. Another is that we are trying to start the New Year by recognizing our human nature; that we are imperfect and get the opportunity once a year to acknowledge our limitations. What I want to focus on tonight is the idea that vows to G-d are actually more serious than we often view them in contemporary society, that when you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, you need to be serious about what you are saying. We learn that when one invokes the name of G-d, it is no laughing matter. In biblical times, one could not undo vows, and in rabbinic times they could only be undone through the convening of a beit din, or rabbinic court. That’s why we gather before sunset-to symbolically serve as a Jewish court, as we cannot do “business matters” on a Jewish holiday. Because of the serious legal formalities involved, the Talmud records statements such as “Do not make a habit of making vows”[1] and the prophet Kohelet, who we will read in a few days, states “Better not to vow than to vow and not fulfill.”[2]

In biblical times, vows were of paramount importance. Deuteronomy 23:22 asserts, “When you make any vow to your G-d, you must pay it without delay…If you refrain from making a vow, that is no sin for you; but you must be careful to perform any promise you have made with your lips.” In the Bible, Joshua has a mandate from G-d to conquer all the nations who live in the land of Canaan and kill their inhabitants, a חרם, or complete, conquest.  After Joshua had started to do this, the surrounding nation of Gibeon began to worry that they would be next. We learn that “when the inhabitants of Gibeon learned how Joshua had treated Jericho and Ai (destroying all) they for their part resorted to cunning.  They set out in disguise…they went to Joshua and said to him ‘We come from a distant land; we propose that you make a pact with us.’…Joshua made a ברית, a covenant with them to spare their lives.”[3] When Joshua found out that the Gibeonites had tricked him into believing that they were foreigners, he said “Why did you deceive us and tell us you lived very far from us, when in fact you live among us?  Therefore, be accursed!”[4] While Joshua cursed the Gibeonites forcing them to work as servants for the Israelites, he did not go back on his pact and kill them. After all, he had invoked the name of G-d to protect the Gibeonites and to now violate that would be to take G-d’s name in vain, which he would not do.

Another biblical example, which is horrifying to many of us, is in the Book of Judges with the story of Yiftach. Yiftach made a נדר to G-d vowing that “if you deliver the Ammonites into my hands then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be God’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”[5] Allegedly he thought that an animal would be the first thing to greet him. However, three verses later we discover that “when Yiftach arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance.”[6] When Yiftach’s daughter heard of her father’s vow, she was devastated and asks for two months of lamentation before she was sacrificed. We are told that “after two months’ time she returned to her father, and he did to her as he vowed.”[7] Yiftach’s vow to God superseded his ability to protect his daughter. If only he had had a Kol Nidrei prayer as we do today, it would have nullified his נדר to G-d. While we can argue over the ethics of Yiftach’s decision, we see from his example how important vows were in biblical times.

The Talmud describes the process of התרת נדרים, nullification of vows before a בית דין, or court of three rabbis.[8] During the Geonic period,[9] a ceremony (Kol Nidrei) was created through which one could nullify vows, which we symbolically remember today with the Kol Nidre prayer.  Because of the serious nature of vows in Judaism, the ceremony was not readily accepted. Karaites[10] used Kol Nidrei to discredit rabbinic Jews who they said were so willing to take vows and then annul them. Rabbi Yehudai Gaon, a Babylonian sage, was so bothered by the idea of annulling vows that he forbade the study of Tractate Nedarim. Rabbi Amram Gaon, creator of one of the first Siddurim, or prayerbooks, referred to Kol Nidrei as a minhag shtut, or foolish custom.  Medieval anti-Semites, following the example of the Karaites, used the wording of Kol Nidrei to say that a Jew was not trustworthy because he could just as soon break his vow. Rabbi Yehiel of Paris was forced to defend Kol Nidrei in 1240.[11] In the 19th Century, many western European communities[12] got rid of the Kol Nidrei, arguing that it was no longer relevant. However, today there has been a resurgence of uttering the Kol Nidrei prayer before Yom Kippur services.

Is Kol Nidrei still relevant today?  Do we hold vows as highly as our ancestors did? Of course we hold seriously swearing on the Bible when in court. If found lying, one is guilty of perjury, a prosecutable crime, as well as transgressing the third and ninth commandments. However, I am not sure that other vows are taken as seriously by our society as a whole. How many times have we sworn to do something, even making a statement like “as G-d as my witness” and yet we have not followed through? The concept “I give you my word” does not cut it in our society-and if it did, lawyers would be out of jobs.

Have you ever sworn to do something with no intention of following through? Perhaps a person was on your back and you wanted to get rid of him or her. Maybe you genuinely wanted to help but became overextended. Perchance you were afraid of the consequences of something you did wrong, so you said, “I swear I didn’t do it.”

If we want the Kol Nidrei prayer to be relevant to our lives today, we should act in the following manner. First we need to take our words more seriously, only making vows or promises when we can follow through. Also we must remind ourselves what it means to swear to do something and how serious it is, not only in a court of law but in every aspect of life. Swearing falsely is an act of taking G-d’s name in vain and in the courtroom also an act of bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.

If you swear to do something you cannot fulfill or have no intention of doing, what meaning is there behind your words? Of course a promise made to a family member does not equate to an oath taken in court, yet we also must be careful to ensure that our words have integrity, as G-d is witnessing what we do. As Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi stated in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Reflect on three things, and you will not come into the clutches of sin. Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears and a book in which all your deeds are recorded.”[13] If you do legitimately think you can fulfill a vow and in the end are not able to, that is what Kol Nidrei is for. It is not for annulling careless vows or promises but for those which one intended to fulfill but was unable to do.

May each of us think carefully the next time we make a vow, promise or commitment to only do so when we fully intend to carry it out or when we are able to do so.  If we do this, if we can consider our vows as sincere and genuine, our Kol Nidrei prayer will have more meaning, and our words will have integrity.

[1] Nedarim 20a

[2] Ecclesiastes 5:4

[3] Joshua 9:4, 9:15

[4] Joshua 9:22-23

[5] Judges 11:31

[6] Judges 11:34

[7] Judges 11:39

[8] 9th chapter of Tractate Nedarim

[9] 589-1038 CE

[10] who follow the biblical law but not rabbinic law

[11] The disputation of Paris, taking place at the court of Louis IX where Rabbi Yehiel had to debate the convert to Christianity Nicolas Donin. Following the debate a decree was passed to burn the Talmud.

[12] Especially but not exclusively Reform ones

[13] Mishneh Avot 2:1

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