We gather each year on the first night of Yom Kippur to hear Kol Nidrei, a traditional and moving prayer that serves as Israel’s appeal to wipe away sins by annulling the obligations of the previous year—vows that we made between the previous Day of Atonement and today. It is written in Aramaic, and its origins are disputed. Some scholars say it was written during the Gaonic period (ninth century), but many others have suggested the prayer was born out of the dark days of the Inquisition when many Spanish and Portuguese Jewish people were forced to convert to Catholicism under threat of death or expulsion.
Although we are not sure why or when the prayer was created, once it was paired with the soulful melody that now makes the prayer so moving, the impact of Kol Nidrei on the hearts of Jewish people is certain. Whether religious or secular, this Yom Kippur tradition has become one of the most powerful prayers in Jewish life and faith. It is not unusual to have non-religious Jewish people attend synagogue each year on erev (the evening of) Yom Kippur simply to experience the Kol Nidrei prayer.
There are a variety of ways to present Kol Nidrei, some with unique adaptations. The following version was presented at Beth Sar Shalom—Brooklyn, and I thought it was especially creative and beautiful. Listen to it if you have a moment!
Versions of the Prayer
A traditional version of the prayer:
All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called ‘ḳonam,’ ‘ḳonas,’ or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.
The leader and the congregation then say together:
“And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance” (Num. xv. 26).
A more modern translation/version:
All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.
The whole community of the Children of Israel, and the strangers dwelling among them, shall be forgiven, for all of them were without premeditation.—Numbers 15:26
O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt.
The Lord said, “I pardon them according to your words.” (three times)—Numbers 14:20
Rabbi Eric Solomon, a reform rabbi, writes so poignantly about the impact of the Kol Nidrei,
Kol Nidre may have been initiated by the personal need of the marranos to repent for a forced conversion, but its power has reached far past that narrow scope. When we daven the Kol Nidre together as a community, we are looking beyond the simple meaning of the words; we are beginning to focus inward, preparing to unleash our darkest memories, and paving the path towards genuine reflection on God and repentance.
The Appeal of the Prayer
Clearly, at the heart of the prayer is the request of the penitent beseeching God to withhold His judgment and to be merciful for not fulfilling vows of obedience, promises of changed behavior and keeping mitzvot. There is also an underlying understanding that when we live in obedience to God, we are blessed and when we do not, we are judged. Kol Nidrei is an appeal, asking God to release us from the promises we could not keep. The prayer expresses a desire to be forgiven for making unkept vows and for not meeting God’s expectations.
At its core, Kol Nidrei expresses our desire for forgiveness and God’s blessings. Somehow, we all know, in the depth of our souls, irrespective of our theology, that we are worthy of judgment and are in desperate need of forgiveness.
I cannot disagree with these sentiments. The Bible is very clear about these matters. Judaism typically does not affirm the depravity of man in the same way that Christianity does. Yet, the regularity of committing sin is obviously recognized by the very nature of Yom Kippur.
Biblical Blessings and Judgments
The Bible teaches that there is a causal relationship between obedience and blessings, and between disobedience and judgment. It is a theme woven throughout Scripture in more places than we can count, and it generally describes the nature of our relationship with God. In very summarized terms, when we do what He says, we are blessed and happy, and if we do not, then we are judged and, well, not very happy. Israel’s experiences of these blessings and judgments vary throughout the Old and New Testaments, but I am sure no one would argue this pattern is fundamental to Scripture.
Blessing and judgments are embedded in the very covenants the Holy One constructed to guide our relationship to Him.
The themes of blessings and judgments are tied to His perfect nature. He is holy and just, and we are sinful. Yet, God calls upon us to act against our nature and live righteously. If we do, we will be fulfilled and happy. If we do not—if we fail to act righteously—then judgment should be expected. If He should ignore our rebellion against His standards and do nothing about it, then He would appear to be unholy, unjust, unrighteous, and even weak, making demands that not even He could fulfill.
Would we really want to worship a God who had no standards? What if there were no ultimate justice? Or would we worship a God who had standards but did not act upon them? As uncomfortable as judgment might be, we would still rather adore and follow a holy and righteous God who enforced His standards…would we not?
Yet, the Bible teaches that this same God is also loving, gracious, and merciful. As He proclaimed to Moses when He passed by him on Sinai,
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5–7)
We also read in the Bible of His willingness to override His justice and to show mercy, which is not getting what you deserve for your sinful behavior, and grace, defined as receiving what you could never merit.
Again, these relationships, on a larger and national level for Israel, are embedded within the covenants He made with mankind, including a promise to not destroy the world again by a flood (Genesis 9:9–17) and built into the two great covenants that form the foundation of Jewish national existence; the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant.
In the Abrahamic Covenant, the Lord promised Abram and his seed that He would preserve them as a people (Genesis 12), they will possess a land with boundaries outlined in Genesis 15, receive blessings from God (Genesis 12), and be used by God to bring these blessings to the world (Genesis 12:3).
This covenant is described as without time or conditions. The Lord takes responsibility to fulfill these promises sometime in the future without fail.
The promised blessing (Genesis 12:2, “And I will bless you”) may be understood as including the people, the land, and Abram’s reputation, but seems to focus on the promise that God’s blessings are linked to His presence with His people.
The blessings go beyond the land to the hope given by God that His presence will remain with the Jewish people throughout their existence as a nation. Israel would be a nation that would ultimately know the presence of God in their midst. As the Lord promised to Abraham,
I have made you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:6–8)
These manifold blessings will be mediated through Abraham, reside with those who bless the children of Abraham, and flow to the entire non-Abrahamic world. If Israel is disobedient, then according to the covenant with Abraham, the Lord Himself will take the responsibility of turning the hearts of the Jewish people to Himself (Romans 11:25–29). Leviticus 26: 45 says, “But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord.”
The Mosaic Covenant is a bit different. The covenant God made with Moses is causal in nature, and both judgments and blessings are linked to the behavior of the Jewish people; blessings for obedience and judgments for disobedience.
These two covenants determined the history of Israel. When the Jewish people were faithful, they were blessed and remained in the land, and when we were disobedient, the Jewish people experienced God’s judgment and were removed from the Land on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant.
722 BCE – The Assyrians dispersed the northern tribes.
604–586 BCE – The southern tribes go into Babylonian captivity and the Temple is destroyed.
AD 70 – The Romans disperse the Jewish people and destroy the Second Temple.
AD 132 – The Jewish people are further dispersed by Roman Emperor Hadrian.
However, the Lord never allowed His chosen people to languish in captivity for too long and brought Israel back from exile—on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant. Today, almost seven million Jewish people have been gathered back to the land of Israel, but certainly not on the basis of obedience to the Mosaic Covenant! Their return is tied to the unmerited grace described in the Abrahamic Covenant and is part of His unfolding purposes predicted in Ezekiel 36–37 and Romans 11:12; 15; 25–29.
Two Passages that Predict the Future of Israel Based Upon the Covenants
Perhaps the two passages of Scripture that are well-known and speak so profoundly to this causal relationship and pattern—Disobedience:Judgement::Obedience:Blessings—are found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, which are perhaps my least favorite passages of the Bible.
Deuteronomy Chapter 28
This chapter outlines the blessings and judgments that would befall Israel on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant. There are fourteen verses of blessings and fifty-four of judgment. The following three verses at the end of Moses’ discourse summarize the nature of these judgments:
It shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. (Deuteronomy 28:63–65)
We see that this has transpired and is a sober and serious reminder of God’s judgment for our sin.
Leviticus Chapter 26
This chapter is similar but includes more of a focus on grace and the Abrahamic Covenant. The two covenants are interwoven in this text. Chapter 26 begins with two additional reminders of God’s Mosaic commandments, and then, in verses three through thirteen, outlines the promised blessings of obedience.
If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments so as to carry them out, then I shall give you rains in their season, so that the land will yield its produce and the trees of the field will bear their fruit. Indeed, your threshing will last for you until grape gathering, and grape gathering will last until sowing time. You will thus eat your food to the full and live securely in your land. (Leviticus 26:3–5)
However, Moses then presents twenty-five verses (Leviticus 26:14–39) of severe judgment for disobedience. Again, this is a reflection of the Mosaic Covenant and the result of our disobedience to the covenant demands. The Mosaic Covenant is a standard of holiness that reminds us of God’s expectations and standards that we will never achieve on our own.
Principles of Spiritual Restoration
We can learn so much from God’s plans and purposes for the nation of Israel. These principles govern our lives as well. Though the Mosaic Covenant is specific to the Jewish people and the Jewish people are the main focus of the Abrahamic Covenant, by virtue of its promises, it extends to the nations as well.
The hope of restoration is also seen in the midst of His judgments—a reminder of the promised future God has prepared for the nation of Israel on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant. We read in Leviticus chapter twenty-six:
If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me—I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. For the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, will be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 26:40–45)
Personally, as a Jewish believer, I do not view the high holiday season as valuable for purely evangelistic reasons, though many Jewish people come to faith in Jesus during this special time of the year. I also do not fast and pray on Yom Kippur simply on behalf of the sins of my Jewish people and family. I have learned that the true value of the high holiday season, for me and all who cherish their Messianic heritage, is remembering that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a renewing and restoring God, and I take advantage of this season of the year to seek forgiveness and find the renewal that I believe is tearfully sought by the Kol Nidrei prayer.
I suggest we can draw two principles from God’s covenantal relationship with Israel that apply to our lives and are especially evident during the high holiday season.
The Lord will respond to our repentance with grace, mercy and forgiveness. Remember the words of Leviticus 26:40–42,
If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me—I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.
Notice the language. Moses certainly has the Abrahamic Covenant in mind. This covenant was made with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham…in backwards order. This is the covenant that promises grace as the Lord staked His holy reputation on fulfilling what He promised. The day will come when Israel will experience these blessings again as the Lord will cause the hearts of the Jewish people to turn back to Him.
It is the reason we cry out for mercy on this holy day—because God is a God of restoration who keeps His promises. One day, Israel will turn from her disobedience and be totally restored as they live in the land, experience the blessings of God presence, and the nations will also enjoy the benefits of God’s kingdom on earth.
Theses verses remind us that judgment falls upon the chosen people because of our failure to obey the commandments in the Mosaic Covenant. But, the hope for Israel’s restoration is based upon a different covenant and different promises—those found in the Abrahamic Covenant. Even when Israel sins and is in exile, the Lord will still keep His holy hand upon His people. Not because of their obedience, but because of His faithfulness. “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 26:44–45).
If we were completely honest with one another, we would admit that our lives are a battleground! We are constantly struggling and battling against sin. The reason most people do not see this is because the battle is within. We are constantly sinning, repenting, and asking the Lord for renewal and transformation by the power of His Spirit. If not, then we are feeling defeated or, even worse, have given up. The good news is that God is a forgiving God by nature, and constantly extends His grace and mercy to those who have been bought by the blood of Yeshua! There is always hope for overcoming the sins that beset us. Victory is available but it might not look like the spiritual victory described in some Christian books or trite spiritual formulas. The battle for holiness that rages in our souls is one we will fight until we are perfected.
My hope and prayer for all of us is that we will seek the Lord and His strength while realistically recognizing the darkness of our souls. We should continue to fight the battles within our souls. Why? Because we know that the war was won on Golgotha as He said, “It is finished.” But we must keep fighting until He comes, knowing that He understands our frame and weakness and is always available to give us help, strength, and as Paul wrote, “Who is the one who condemns? Messiah Yeshua is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).
So, please do not give up! Remember that the fight for spiritual growth is part of walking with God. It is a battle worth winning though there will certainly be losses along the way. We need to expect some losses and remember that restoration is always available and begins with repentance.
I love Kol Nidrei. It is an honest prayer reminding me of my failures and the multitude of ways even the best among us break our promises to God and man. We might as well admit it! Though we believe in Yeshua, we still break His holy commandments written in both the Old and New Testaments. Does God cast us off for our sins? No! Jesus told us that time and again.
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:9–10).
Like Israel, we are secured by a grace covenant through the death and resurrection of the Messiah Yeshua. When we find ourselves drifting from Him, we must remember that He will not forget us as He does not forget Israel—He always has His hands upon us. There is always hope for grace and restoration, and Yom Kippur and the entirety of the high holiday season is a wonderful time to rededicate ourselves to the Lord, repent of our sins, and find grace that leads to restoration. This repentance and seeking His grace should continue every day of our lives. We really need to live a repentant lifestyle, which leads to a grace-filled life, filled with His powerful and comforting presence every day.
 For more on the origins of this important Jewish prayer, see Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Prayers of Awe (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Pub., 2011).
 Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Kol Nidre,” http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9443-kol-nidre.
 Rabbi Ruth Adar, “What Does Kol Nidre Mean?,” Coffee Shop Rabbi (blog), September 29, 2015, https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2015/09/29/what-does-kol-nidre-mean/.
 Rabbi Eric Solomon, “Kol Nidrei Collection,” SaveTheMusic.com, accessed September 25, 2020, https://savethemusic.com/collections/the-kol-nidre-collection/.
 See the excellent Journal article in the Masters Seminary Journal by Dr. Keith Essex on the Abrahamic covenant: Keith H. Essex, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 10, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 191-212, https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj10n.pdf.