Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
I have always been amazed by the power of Kol Nidrei, the prayer that introduces the evening service on Yom Kippur. Each year, I marvel at the sheer number of people who put aside all other
commitments in order to be in synagogue, to be present to hear these ancient words. What brings us in the doors? Is it the haunting melody? Is it the threefold repetition of the prayer that moves us toward an emotional crescendo?
Or is it the message of this prayer, which promises to absolve us of our responsibility for any vows that we may make in the coming year? When we make vows, we put into speech our deepest fears and most profound hopes. Like Hannah who vows to dedicate her son to the sanctuary if God grants her a son (I Samuel 1), many of us make various commitments to do certain things or give up certain things that we cherish, in order to avert danger or bring about a hoped-for future.
Yet some vows are rash, regrettable, or unrealizable; some are made under duress. Kol Nidrei reminds us that we have the choice to keep or annul our vows, thus affirming our most basic rights to self-expression and self-determination. This is part of what gives both the prayer and its recitation its profound power.
Parashat Matot enumerates various regulations concerning the status of women’s vows (30:3-17). It also describes the circumstances under which a woman’s vow may be annulled. We read that if her father or husband hears the vow on the day that she makes it, the vow can be nullified. The woman’s personal status–whether she is a child, married, or divorced–will determine the status and power of the vow and whether she may fulfill it. Although she possesses the ability to make a vow, she may have to abandon her oaths and vows if the male authority figure in her life hears them. Given that fact, what are her options? She could take her chances with vowing and being heard.