Circumventing the Heavenly Tribunal

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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The Yom Kippur service begins with vidui (confession), which is recited before the final meal of erev Yom Kippur, and should ideally be recited again before nightfall.[1]  Vidui is an essential element of teshuva, and therefore a central theme of Yom Kippur, repeated a total of ten times over the course of the day (corresponding to the ten times that the Kohen Gadol uttered Hashem’s holy Name).[2]  On this awesome day, when our very lives and the lives of our loved ones hang in the balance, we beseech Hashem for mercy.  Vidui is a wondrously potent segulah to tip the scales of judgment in our favor.

One might imagine that confessing our sins might lead to our incrimination.  The truth, however, is just the opposite.  Vidui is the key to our vindication.  The Zohar explains:


דמאן דמפרש חטאוי לא אתמסר דיניה אלא בידא דמלכא קוב"ה בלחודוהי ומאן דדאין ליה קב"ה איהו לטב.


If one confesses his sins, his judgment is decided by none other than the King, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.  One who is judged by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, will surely be judged favorably.[3]


The protocols of the Heavenly Tribunal may demand harsh judgment for the sinner, commensurate to the gravity of his deeds.  However, when the case is presented directly to Hashem, He can overrule these protocols.  Hashem Alone, the Forgiving King, judges His beloved children without any interference, when they confess their sins to Him.

The Reishis Chochma explains that when the sinner himself precedes the prosecuting angels, by confessing his own sins, he is forgiven, and the prosecutors are given no opportunity to wage their accusations. [4]  This parallels the legal principle of מודה בקנס פטור – “One who confesses having caused damage, is exempt from paying a fine,” as our Sages learn by inference from the verse, אשר ירשיעון אלהים – “Whom the judges have incriminated,” implying that fines do not apply to one who incriminates himself.  The Rambam rules that even if witnesses later appear to testify, the exemption remains in place, since the damager himself preceded them with his confession.  The same holds true in the Heavenly Courts.  Once the sinner himself confesses, the accusers are silenced forever.

The Shlah[5] also cites this parallel, and adds that a person can never be punished for his own confession, since he is considered his own relative, and a relative’s testimony is invalid.  Therefore, his testimony cannot be used against himself.  Nevertheless, it is sufficient to deflect the accusations of the prosecuting angels.

On a deeper level, we must understand that the whole purpose of punishment is not to cause suffering for its own sake, chas v’shalom.  Rather, Hashem punishes only to spur us on towards self-improvement.  This is necessary only if a person does not realize that he has sinned, as Yermiyahu HaNavi warned, “I will judge you for saying, ‘I have not sinned.’”[6]

Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi states:


לבש שמואל חלוקן של ישראל, אמר לפניו ריבונו של עולם כלום אתה דן את האדם אלא על שהוא אומר לפניך 'לא חטאתי' ואלו אומרים לפניך 'חטאנו'.


Shmuel donned the mantle of the Jewish people, when he stood before Hashem in prayer and said, “Master of the Universe, do you judge man for anything other than feigning innocence?  These people admit that they have sinned.[7]


The Midrash tells us that when Bnei Yisrael accept responsibility for their misdeeds, and place the guilt upon themselves, Hashem champions their cause before the Heavenly Tribunal:


ובשעה שישראל מתודים ומודים על החטא שבידם אומר הקב"ה למלאכי השרת "אמר להם הקב"ה למלאכי השרת בואו ואודיע לכם צדקתם של בני, שאני טענתים בעולם כמה צרות, כמה צרות ויסורים הבאתי עליהם בכל דור ודור ובכל שעה ולא בעטו בהם אלא קוראין את עצמם רשעים וקוראין אותי צדיק והם אומרים בלשון הזה אבל אנחנו העוינו והרשענו... וסרנו ממשפטיך ולא שווה לנו ואתה צדיק על כל הבא עלינו כי אמת עשית ואנחנו הרשענו".


When Bnei Yisrael confess their sins, HaKadosh Baruch Hu says to the ministering angels, “Come, and I will show you the righteousness of My children.  After all the misfortune and suffering that I brought upon them, throughout the generations, and throughout time, they still have not rebelled against me.  What more, they call themselves sinners, and call Me righteous, proclaiming: ‘We have sinned … and strayed from Your laws, to our own disadvantage.  You are just in all that You do to us, for You act truthfully, while we have sinned.’”[8]


By confessing our sins, we find forgiveness, and thereby bring peace to our hearts and souls, and great joy to Hashem Above, as is written in Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu:


"'ימים יוצרו ולו אחד בהם', זה יום הכיפורים לישראל, שהוא שמחה גדולה לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם, שנתנו באהבה רבה לישראל. ולא זו בלבד אלא בשעה שהוא מוחל לעוונותיהן של ישראל אין מתעצב בלבבו אלא שמח שמחה גדולה, ואומר להם להרים ולגבעות, לאפיקים ולגאיות בואו ושמחו עמי שמחה גדולה, שאני מוחל לעוונותיהם של ישראל... ואומר 'מחיתי כעב פשעיך', מה עבים הללו נמחין על ידי הרוח כך עוונותיהם של ישראל נמחין בעולם הזה ואין להם תקומה לעולם הבא, שנאמר 'מחיתי כעב', מה תלמוד לומר שם 'כי גאלתיך', גאלתיך מספר מיתה ונתתיך בספר חיים, לכך נאמר 'כי גאלתיך'".


“The days were created, and one of them is His.”[9]  This refers to Yom Kippur, a day of great rejoicing for He-Who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-existence.  This day was given with abundant love to the Jewish people.  When Hashem pardons the sins of Israel, there is no spite in His heart, but rather great joy.  He calls to the hills and the mountains, to the springs and to the valleys, saying, “Come and rejoice with me, with great festivity, as I pardon the sins of Israel.” …  Just as clouds are driven away by the wind, so too are the sins of Israel erased in this world, leaving no remnant in the World to Come, as the verse states, “I have wiped away your sins like clouds, and redeemed you.”[10]  I have redeemed you from the Book of Death, and inscribed you in the Book of Life.[11]


With awe, trepidation, and faith in the endless mercy of our loving Father in Heaven, we approach this holiest day of the year, in which we confess to Him all our sins, and are thereby cleansed of them, and sealed in the Book of Life.


Kol Nidrei

At face value, Kol Nidrei seems to be no more than a technical, legal formality, to absolve ourselves from our rash vows.  It is therefore surprising how much importance is attached to it, with its slow, grave melody, its prominent position at the commencement of our Yom Kippur prayers, and the atmosphere of awe that it engenders.

In truth, there is a much deeper level of Kol Nidrei, in which it is not our own vows that we wish to absolve, but Hashem’s, as the Zohar states:

  ביה נפקי משלשליהון אינון דאית עלייהו גזר דין בנדר ובשבועה, ובגין דא תקינו למימר ביה כל נדרי ואיסרי וכו', כולהון יהון שביתין ושביקין, לא שרירין ולא קיימין.

Thereby, those who have been sentenced to judgment, sealed by vow and by oath, are released from their chains.  For this reason, [the Sages] instituted the practice to recite Kol Nidrei, by which the vows are annulled and rendered non-binding.[12]

According to this explanation, Kol Nidrei releases Hashem, so to speak, from his vow to punish the sinners.  Thereby, we open the gates of forgiveness for them.  A precedence for absolving Hashem’s vows can be found in the Midrash, which describes Moshe’s prayers for forgiveness on behalf of Bnei Yisrael:

בשעה שעשו ישראל את העגל, עמד משה מפייס האלקים שימחול להם אמר האלקים: משה! כבר נשבעתי "זובח לאלהים יחרם", ודבר שבועה שיצאה מפי איני מחזירה, אמר משה: רבון העולמים! ולא נתת לי הפרה של נדרים, ואמרת  "איש כי ידור נדר לה' או השבע שבועה לאסור אסר על נפשו לא יחל דברו" – הוא אינו מוחל, אבל חכם מוחל את נדרו בעת שישאל עליו, שכל זקן שמורה הוראה, אם ירצה שיקבלו אחרים הוראתו, צריך הוא לקיימה תחילה ואתה ציויתני על הפרת נדרים, דין הוא שתתיר את נדרך כאשר ציויתנו להתיר לאחרים מיד נתעטף בטליתו וישב לו כזקן, והקב"ה עומד כשואל נדרו ... ומה אמר לו? דבר קשה אמר לפניו תהית אתמהה אלא תוהא אני על הרעה אשר דברתי לעשות לעמי...אותה שעה אמר משה "מותר לך, מותר לך – אין כאן נדר ואין כאן שבועה" ... א"ר שמעון בן לוי לפיכך נקרא שמו "איש האלקים", לומר שהתיר נדר לאלקים.

After Bnei Yisrael built the Golden Calf, Moshe stood in prayer, to appease Hashem, and win His forgiveness.

“Moshe, I have already sworn that ‘He who sacrifices to false gods will be destroyed.’  Once a vow has left My lips, I do not annul it,”[13] Hashem said.

“Master of the Universe, have you not taught me that vows can be annulled?  You wrote in Your Torah, ‘A man who makes a vow to Hashem, or swears on oath, to forbid something to his soul, he may not undo his words.’[14]  He may not undo his words, but a Torah scholar may annul his vow, if he is asked to do so.  If an elder makes a ruling, and wishes other to follow it, he must first follow it himself.  You commanded us concerning the annulment of vows.  It is only proper that You first have Your own vow annulled, as You have commanded me to annul the vows of others.”

Moshe then wrapped himself in a tallis, and sat down as a judge, while HaKadosh Baruch Hu stood before Him, and asked to have His vow annulled….

“I regret the evil that I vowed to inflict upon My nation,” Hashem said.

“Your vow is absolved.  Your vow is absolved.  There is no vow.  There is no oath,” Moshe said… R’ Shimon ben Levi explained that for this reason Moshe is called “the man of G‑d,”[15] since he absolved Hashem’s oath.[16]

Accordingly, we can well understand, that in our fear and trepidation of the upcoming judgment, we find it necessary to absolve Hashem of any vow He might have made to punish us for our sins.


Another explanation can be found in light of the following passage from the Zohar, regarding Hashem’s vow to cast the Shechinah into exile:

קם רבי שמעון [על רגלוי] וסליק ידו לגבי עלא ושבח למארי עלמא ואמר, רבון עלמין עביד בגין שכינתא דאיהי בגלותא ואם איהי באומאה, הא אבא ואמא דאנון חכמה ובינה יכלין למעבד התרה, הה"ד ה' צבאות יעץ ומי יפר, אם התלמיד אומי הרב יכיל למעבד התרה: ואם נדר או נשבע בן דאיהו ו' דלא יפרק לה אלא דתהא בגלותא עד זמנא ידיעא, ונדר או שבועה איהו בי"ה דאנון חכמה ובינה ואיהו אתחרט הא תלת בני נשא יכילין למפטר לה וכו'

Rebbe Shimon stood on his legs, raised his arms upwards, and praised the Master of the Universe saying, “Master of the Universe, act for the sake of Your Shechinah, which is languishing in exile.  And if you are bound by an oath, then Abba  and Imma, which are Wisdom and Understanding, may absolve it, as it is written, ‘Hashem, G‑d of hosts has proposed an oath, who can nullify it?’[17]  If a disciple has vowed, his teacher may absolve it.  But if Ben, who corresponds to the letter vav, has made a vow or oath not to redeem the Shechinah, but to leave it in exile until the appointed time, then the oath or vow, which corresponds to the letters vav, heh, which are Wisdom and Understanding,  can be absolved before three men (a reference to the three Avos).[18]

Hashem’s oath to banish the Shechinah into exile is also mentioned in the Gemara, in which Rabbah bar bar Channah heard a Divine voice lamenting, “Woe to me, that I have sworn, but now that I have sworn, who can annul My vow.”[19]  Rashi explains that this refers to the vow to exile the Shechinah.

According to this explanation, Kol Nidrei is a prayer, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the Shechina in exile.  As Hashem’s loving children, we pray for His sake, not for our own, that He may at long last rejoice with the liberation of the Shechinah from exile, and the end of the long and bitter Golus of His nation.  May it be soon and in our days.


Kol Nidrei can also be understood as a prayer on behalf of the misguided sinners, who transgressed Hashem’s commandments simply out of foolish indiscretion.  A vow can be absolved, when it is revealed that the person who made it did not realize its implications.  The vow is thereby nullified retroactively.  So too, as penitents, we ask Hashem’s forgiveness, since we sinned without fully realizing the terrible implications of our sins.  Therefore, may Hashem forgive and nullify them, just as a scholar annuls a vow.

Accordingly, we can well understand why Kol Nidrei is followed by the verse:

"ונסלח לכל עדת בני ישראל ... כי לכל העם בשגגה"

“May it be forgiven for the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael … for the entire congregation sinned by mistake.[20]

[1] Mishnah Berurah 607 s.k. 1

[2] ibid, 620 s.k. 2

[3] Zohar, Bamidbar 231a

[4] Shaar HaTeshuva, ch. 5

[5] Amud HaTeshuva: Torah Or

[6] Yermiyah 2:35

[7] Talmud Yerushalmi: Taanis 2:7

[8] Pesikta Rabbasi

[9] Tehillim 139:16

[10] Yeshayah 44:21

[11] Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah, 1

[12] Zohar, Pinchas 255a

[13] Shemos 22:19

[14] Bamidbar 30:3

[15] Devarim 33:1

[16] Shemos Rabbah, 43:5 s.v. Vayichal Moshe

[17] Yeshaya 14:27

[18] Tikkunei Zohar, 6

[19] Bava Basra 74a

[20] Bamidbar 15:26