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The Yom Kippur service begins when the Aron Hakodesh is opened, the Sifrei Torah are brought to the bimah and the chazan recites the Kol Nidrei. In the Kol Nidrei service we nullify all vows that the congregation has made in the past year. According to some opinions we also annul in advance all vows that we will make in the current year.
At first glance it would seem odd as to why we begin this holy day by nullifying the vows of the congregation. The commentators offer many reasons for this ancient and sacred custom. Let us review some of the classic reasons and then offer a homiletic approach for this custom.
1) The Gemara says if a person does not want any vow he will make to take effect he should declare in the beginning of the year that all vows that he will make this year should be nullified in advance. On You Kippur we fulfill this law and thus begin the service by nullifying all vows.
2) The commentators teach us that at times our sins are so severe that Hashem vows to bring punishment upon us. The law is that a person cannot nullify his own vow but must go to another person, express regret and seek nullification. On Yom Kippur we are concerned that perhaps even if we repent, our sins may have been so severe that Hashem has vowed not to forgive us. We therefore perform the nullification of vows not only to nullify our vows but to release Hashem from his vow to punish us and withhold the final redemption.
3) The posuk says that “if you will refrain from taking vows there will be no sin” In an attempt to “experience” the concluding words of the posuk “there will be no sin” we fulfill the beginning of the posuk “if you will refrain from taking vows.” This is accomplished through the nullification of vows.
4) Yom Kippur is the day when we seek Hashem’s forgiveness. The tool we use is our mouth and power of speech. However if our faculty of speech is tainted by the sin of unfulfilled vows we are at risk that the tools of repentance may have no effect. As Yom Kippur begins we cleanse and sharpen our tools by annulling all vows in preparation for seeking forgiveness.
Let us now suggest a homiletic interpretation as to why we begin Yom Kippur with the nullification of vows.
The Mishna (Chagigah 1:8) says that the ability to nullify a vow “is something that floats in the air and has nothing upon which to find support.” The commentators explain this as meaning that there is no solid source in the Torah for the law that one can release oneself from a vow by going to a chacham and expressing regret. From the strict interpretation of Torah law it would appear that if someone makes a vow there is no way out. However, we have a tradition handed down from time Moshe received the Torah at Har Sinai that it is possible to nullify a vow by expressing regret to a chacham.
We emphasize here the unique expression Chazal use to describe the concept of being released from a vow as something “that floats in the air and has nothing upon which to find support.” Nowhere do Chazal use these words in describing the source of any other law.
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18a) relates how Rebbi Chanina ben Taradyon was executed by the Romans. They wrapped him in a Torah scroll with bundles of vine shoots and set them on fire. They then placed tufts of wool soaked in water over his heart so that he should not die quickly. When Rebbi Chanina saw his daughter distressed he said to her, “if I were being burned alone I would be upset but now that I am being burned together with the Torah I am not concerned, for the One who will come and seek retribution for the insult of the Torah will come and seek retribution for me.”
The Gemara continues to relate that his students said to him “Rebbi what do you see.” He replied, “I see blank parchment burning but the letters are floating in the air.”
Yom Kippur is not only a day that we pray for ourselves and our family but also for the final redemption of the Jewish people. In the Kol Nidrei service we attempt to reenact the death of Rebbi Chanina ben Taradyon as a way of seeking Hashem mercy to bring our redemption.
The Torah is taken to the bima. The chazan recites the Kol Nidrei. The concept that one can be released from a vow is the only law in the Torah that is described as “Torah that floats in the air and has nothing upon which to find support.” When we hold the Torah and recite the Kol Nidrei we attempt to evoke a reminder that our enemies have disgraced us and the Torah, to the point where we can say “Look, the parchment is burning and the letters of the Torah are floating in the air.” We continue to say, if it was only we who are being persecuted and tormented then we would worry but now that our enemies have insulted the Torah, we are not concerned, for He who will seek retribution for the insult of the Torah will seek retribution for us.
Let us suggest another approach.
Yom Kippur marks the anniversary of the day when the second tablets were given. It is also the anniversary of the day when Hashem forgave the Jewish people for worshiping the golden calf. When Moshe descended Har Sinai and saw the Jewish people worshiping the golden calf he shattered the luchos. Chazal tell us that although the tablets were shattered, the letters flew into the air. Rav Gedalia Schor zt”l explains that the letters remained floating in the air until Moshe received the second set of luchos. At that time the floating letters rested upon the second tablets. As Yom Kippur begins the Torah is brought to the bima and the chazan recites the Kol Nidrei. The concept of nullifying a vow is called “Torah that floats in the air and has nothing upon which to find support.” This service symbolizes that on this day, the Torah that was floating in the air due to our sins was restored to the Torah in our hands after Hashem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of worshiping the golden calf. We likewise seek from Hashem that he forgive us for our sins and return to us our destined portion of the Torah.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5765/2004