As I sat preparing my words for tonight, I happened to think about something that, on the surface of it, might seem to bear no relation at all to Kol Nidre: the Native America traditon of smoking calumets, commonly known as “peace pipes.” I’m not an anthropologist, by any means, so everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt, but what I remember most clearly from my reading on this topic is the role of these implements in sealing treaties and establishing covenants. As part of a negotiation process, a substance—maybe a mix of tobacco and other herbs—would be ignited in the bowl of a ceremonial pipe, not to be inhaled, but rather to be puffed and billowed up in a thick smoke. According to one explanation that I glanced at, the desired effect was to “bring heaven and earth together with the words of the people who were smoking, to form a sacred bond.” The ritual created the conditions under which words could be trusted. It purified speech.
When I bring this practice to mind, I imagine the body’s organs of communication—the lungs, throat, tongue, teeth, and lips—gathered together in a common purpose; pressed against the hole of the calumet to issue breath in the form of a thick white smoke—a substance that is a few shades more tangible than language itself. I wonder if the instinctual basis for the development of this custom was, in fact, firstly, the recognition that there is something smoke-like about the spoken word; something blown-up, puffed-out and dissipating. And, further, that it is the invisibility of words that makes them so complicated. Where do they go when their sound dissipates? What lasting effect have they wrought upon the world? And where did they come from? Was the intention of the mind that shaped them honest?
Perhaps it was believed that these anxieties could be allayed somewhat if speech were given a slightly more durable shape, in the form of smoke: visible as it issued from the region of the mouth, hanging in the air for all to see, before it dissolved to wisps and tatters.
Jews have a reverence for the power of words, and a comparable anxiety about the potential for their misuse. Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam, we say in our morning prayers: blessed is the one who spoke the world into being. This recalls the creation story in which God’s simply saying “let there be light” is all it takes to make light be. Mystical doctrines further literalize this divine linguistic power, suggesting that each letter of the Hebrew alef-bet holds within itself a very real creative force, one that we partake of in our most profound and prayerful speech-acts. We derive from God the power to make worlds with our own words. And, by extension, we have to imagine that we can destroy them, too.
I want to suggest tonight that we also have our own purifier of speech, our own calumet, and that, if you look closely, you may still perceive the wisps of its smoke hanging in the air. True to our way of going about things, it is not an object of carved stone decorated with feathers, but an arcane, quasi-legalistic Aramaic text, chanted to the most haunting of melodies.
Kol Nidre appears in our mahzorim as a prayer, but it has its roots in the fomality of the courtroom. It seems to have emerged out of the traditional practice of convening an impromptu beit din, or rabbinic tribunal,on the eve of the High Holidays. Any three friends could form this beit din for a fourth, assisting him in a ceremony known as hatarat nedarim—the absolution of vows. In fact, each of the four would take turns reciting the oaths and promises left unfulfilled in the year that was passing, hearing in response the absolving formula: hakol yihyu mutarim lach—literally: everything will be permitted you. That is to say: you’re off the hook.
The text of Kol Nidre, as we know it, represents a particular crystalization of the language used in this kind of ceremony, carefully formulated to cover the maximum of ground. It’s said that Eskimos have numerous words for the substance that we, in our simplicty, call snow. We learn from this fact that every culture develops a rich vocabulary surrounding the things it takes seriously. The joke would be to suggest that Judaism therefore has a similarly extensive treasury of words for bodily discomfort and cuts of deli meat, but the truth is we also possess quite a lexicon of oaths and vows—nuanced terms describing the verbal act of commiting oneself to a course of action.
Kol Nidre presents a number of these terms in a litany. This is the substance of its incantatory opening phrase, which I want to go over, briefly, in some details. (If you want to follow this, it’s on page 398.):
Kol nidrei—all of my nedarim, all of the vows I have made to dedicate something to sacred use;
V’essarai: my issarim, the oaths I have taken to abstain from something;
V’charamei: the vows in which I have invoked the specter of cherem, of placing something off limits, in a ban;
V’konamei: my konam-vows, a Greek loan-word that refers to offering something as a korban, a sacrifice;
V’chinuyei: essentially a miscellaneous category, covering any technical subdivision of vows not explicitly named;
V’kinusei: my konas-vows, apparently similar in substance to konam-vows, oaths of sacrifice;
U’shevuot: the mother of them all, a shevua, a promise to do something by the name of God itself.
After invoking all of these various permutations, the text then proceeds to fix the timeframe under review, either the past or coming year depending on the version of Kol Nidre we are chanting. It then offers another litany, this time a string of words synonymous with annulment: “We repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our nedarim are no longer nedarim, and our issarim no longer issarim, and our shevuot are no longer shevuot.”
Thus, through Kol Nidre, the opening moments of Yom Kippur become a grand hatarat nedarim, in which we each simultaneosly play the role of confessor and absolver, achieving for ourselves as a kahal, a community, this moment of purification.
But what it is that we’ve renounced? What have we been cleared of?
This is a matter of longstanding controversy. Jew-haters of many generations have pointed to Kol Nidre as prime evidence that Jews can’t be trusted: don’t they gather as a community once a year to repudiate all of their promises? L’havdil, on the other side of the spectrum, rabbis have taken pains to articulate that Kol Nidre only covers a narrow, though profound, category of oaths. It does not free you from legal obligations, such as contracts, or any other type of ethical or interpersonal responsibility; what we refer to as inyanim beyn adam l’chavero—matters between a person and his or her peers. Rather, Kol Nidre addresses those vows that are beyn adam l’makom, “religious vows” bearing upon the relationship between a person and God.
But this begs the question: which kind of vows are more significant? Counter-intuitively, it would seem that obligations beyn adam l’chavero, between people, hold more weight than those beyn adam l’makom, between a person and the ground of all being. The later type, after all, can be undone by a mere liturgical formula, while the former remain in effect.
It might be fairer to set aside the question of relative importance and focus instead on the fact that these two categories of vows just seem to be qualitatively not the same. One type is not better than the other; they simply have different natures, and are subject to varying rules of making and unmaking. A contract between people is established through mutual consent, and can only be undone in the same way. A vow to God is something else. We read in Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, chapter 30, verse 3: “When a person vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that later rabbis determined there was a way to be released from such oaths, we learn from this verse that a vow to God is a volitional binding of the soul. It is language issuing out of an intimate layer of being, shaping a commitment between a person and what she believes to be sacred. And the failure to fulfill such a promise, whether a neder, issar, konam, cherem, or shevua, breeds its own form of distress.
“Between the idea/and the reality/Between the motion/and the act/Falls the shadow…Between the conception/and the creation/Between the emotion/and the response/Falls the shadow.” These are the words of T.S. Eliot, from his great poem “The Hollow Men,” in which he surveys the landscape of broken sacred promises, of chasms gaping between word and deed, and names it “the shadow.” A sacred vow, after all, is an effort to unify thought and action, taking the form of the statement, “I will do what I believe.” And when such an effort fails, the spirit finds itsef in some degree of darkness.
Sometimes the answer must be: try harder. But sometiems we must recognize that the landscape has grown so littered and obscure that there are dangers greater than acknowledging our failure to fulfill a promise. We might lose the ability to speak truth altogether.
And so, once a year, we put Kol Nidre to our lips, kindle it, and purify our speech.
Kol Nidrei: I stand before the makom, the ground of my being, and acknowledge there have been times this year when my words have been less than smoke. When I kept what I said I would offer. When I did what I said I would not. When I witheld what I said I would sacrifice. When my lips played frivolously with the power to create and destroy.
I say this not in shame for what I have done but in fear of a language that means nothing. I hope that when the smoke settles, my words will once again be the sinew binding my deepest thoughts to my strongest deeds, and I will make worlds.