Kol Nidre and the Gift of Speech
Rabbi David Stav
Co-Chancellor, Ohr Torah Stone
Why does Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, begin with Kol Nidrei, ostensibly a declaration about vows? What does this have to do with the themes of forgiveness, atonement and repentance?
I suggest that an answer can be found in the notion that man’s superiority over animals lies in his power of speech, as the Torah notes: “And [God] breathed into [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living spirit” [Gen. 2:7]. Targum Onkelos translates “living spirit” as “a talking spirit” — ru’ach memalela.
This gift of speech was given so we would use it for the good; if we use it for the bad, we stoop even lower than an animal. An animal cannot bring ruin and cause damage with words, but we can do just that with our power of speech, as our Sages teach, “Sins involving speech are more severe than sins involving actions” [Talmud, Arachin 15a].
Knowing that the punishment for such a sin is so severe explains the importance of Kol Nidrei, a means of rectifying and amending the sins of the tongue and the mouth.
The words recited immediately prior to Kol Nidrei — “al da’at HaMakom ve’al da’at ha’kahal anu matirim lehitpalel im ha’avaryanim” (“with the consent of God and the consent of the congregation, we hereby permit all present to pray with the sinners”) — was written in the time of the Conversos (Hebrew: “Anousim”) in Spain. The wicked persecutors of the time forced the Jews to leave their Jewish faith and convert by afflicting upon them terrible kinds of torture.
There were many among the Jewish people who were unable to withstand such horrific torture and converted outwardly, even as they continued to be faithful to the Jewish faith in secret without divulging their secret even to other Jews. And yet when Yom Kippur arrived, they gathered secretly in basements, putting their lives at great peril, and came together to pray so that the Holy Day may be brought in as a congregation, in dignity and glory.
They stood there together before their God pleading for mercy, and begging forgiveness for appearing as sinners all year round, knowing well that God cannot reject the prayers of many who have flocked before Him together, even if they be sinners. And it was in those days, and because of those “sinners-against- their-will” that this specific prayer was enacted: “We hereby permit all those present to pray with the sinners…”
This unique wording has been preserved until our time, because even today many of those who come to pray on Yom Kippur are sinners all year round, and if for some reason it had not been permitted generations ago, with “the consent of God and the consent of the congregation” to pray together with such sinners, such joint prayer could have blemished the prayers of the righteous.
But now that it has been permitted for all to pray together, the sinners and the righteous together, the prayers of the sinners are elevated along with the prayers of all of Israel, all of whom are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all of whom wish ultimately to do the will of God. Moreover, then they all become holy and pure once again, and worthy of having their prayers answered by The One Who listens to all prayers.