The Torah attaches extreme gravity to our words. As Shlomo HaMelech says: “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). This point is illustrated in the laws relating to lashon hara, rechilut, ona'at devarim and leitzanut. Another example is making a vow (a neder). When making a neder the spoken word has the force of Torah law.
The Chachamim were strongly opposed to making nedarim. Therefore there is a custom to say “bli neder” (without a vow) before undertaking certain obligations. People who have made nedarim are encouraged to have them annulled (hatarat nedarim).
The ninth perek of Masechet Nedarim discusses some of the Halachot relating to hatarat nedarim. The person who made the neder appears before a Torah scholar or a panel of three laymen. The person must specify the neder to at least one member of the panel (Yoreh Deah 228:14). The neder is not automatically annulled. An “opening” must be found – a consequence of the neder that is foreseeable and objectionable. The neder can only be annulled if the person can honestly say that had they taken this consequence into account they would not have made the neder37. If the person cannot honestly say this then the annulment is of no effect and the neder remains in force.
The Chachamim regard it as an extremely serious matter to approach the days of judgment with a violation of a neder. Therefore we do hatarat nedarim twice during this time:
on the last day of Elul, which is erev Rosh Hashana38; and
the Kol Nidrei service on erev Yom Kippur.
However these services do not comply with all of the Halachot relating to hatarat nedarim as described above.
On Erev Rosh Hashana, we perform hatarat nedarim in front of a panel of three people, (this complies with one requirement of the Halacha). However, we do not specify each if the nedarim. The declaration that we recite specifically says that it is impossible to specify the nedarim because there are so many. Accordingly, we cannot not find appropriate “openings” to justify annulling each of the nedarim. Therefore the hatarat nedarim of Erev Rosh Hashana is not a halachic annulment, but only a means of repentance for the sin of breaking a neder (Artscroll Rosh Hashana Machzor, p3).
The erev Rosh Hashana hatarat nedarim also states that future nedarim should be of no force. This prior nullification does not free the person from the obligation to keep their word, it only reduces the severity of the sin. The prior nullification is only effective if the person making the neder forgets it while making the vow. If they had the nullification in mind and made the neder anyway, the neder is binding (Yoreh Deah 211:2).
The purpose of Kol Nidrei is to annul nedarim and shvu’ot that were made and violated during the previous year. According to this view, Kol Nidrei is phrased in the past tense, and refers to nedarim ‘from the past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur’. As with the hatarat nedarim of Erev Rosh Hashana, Kol Nidrei does not satisfy the Halachic requirements because the nedarim are not specified and there is no mention of a legitimate “opening” or consequence to justify the annulment of each neder. On that basis, Rabbeinu Tam strongly objected to Kol Nidrei being in past tense. Rabbeinu Tam suggested that Kol Nidrei should rather be a declaration to nullify in advance any future nedarim. Therefore, according to Rabbeinu Tam, the Kol Nidrei text should be phrased in the future tense – “from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur”. The authorities are divided as to which version is correct, and some authorities suggest that it is preferable to accommodate both views.
The fact that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur both begin with a form of hatarat nedarim reinforces the seriousness of vows and more generally, reminds us to be particularly vigilant with the words that we speak.
37 To formally annul the neder, the panel or scholar repeats the formula “it is permitted to you” three times (Yoreh Deah 228: 3,7).
38 An allusion to this can be found in the pasuk dealing with nedarim – Lo yachel devaro kechol (He must not break his word (Bamidbar 30:3)); the last letters of each word in this phrase form the word Elul.
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