There is a universal Jewish custom to annul vows on Erev Rosh Ha-shana in order to enter the holiday free from the serious sin of unfulfilled vows (Shlah, Masekhet Yoma §2-4; Ḥayei Adam 138:8). Some also annul vows before Yom Kippur. The recitation of Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur is directed toward this goal as well.
This annulment is effective for vows that a person forgot having made. It is also effective in annulling the obligation to continue performing a positive custom that one performed three times without stipulating that it does not have the force of a vow. It also annuls commitments to voluntary mitzvot that one undertook without specifying that it does not have the force of a vow. In contrast, if a person remembers making a specific vow, he is not released from it until he details it before three “judges,” who can release him based on a loophole and his regret (SA YD 228:14).
The annulment entails appearing before three men and asking them to release him from the vow. Even three hedyotot (regular people, non-rabbis) can release him, as long as they can understand the words of Torah and grasp the meaning of annulling vows. (See ibid. 228:1.) To release him, the three men say three times: “It is permitted to you,” “It is allowed to you,” or “You are forgiven.” Siddurim have a standard formula for requesting and granting annulment.
Since this annulment is not considered judgment, it may be done at night, and the three people on the “court” may be related to one another or to the person asking for the annulment. Accordingly, three brothers may annul the vow of a fourth brother (ibid. 228:3). However, if a woman requests a vow annulment, her husband may not be one of the three (ibid. 234:57).
The person asking for an annulment customarily stands, while the three people granting the annulment sit, as a court would. Many people may stand before the “court” at once and ask that their vows be annulled, and the annulment may be extended to the whole group at once. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul the vows of one person at a time (Mateh Ephraim 581:49).
If one dreamed that he made a vow, some say he should have it annulled. Some even say that this annulment requires a panel of ten. Though most poskim do not require any type of annulment for a vow made in a dream, as it is not real, le-khatḥila we defer to the stringent view (SA YD 210:2). If he cannot easily find a group of ten, he may request an annulment before three, as one normally does for vows (Rema ad loc.).
Women effectively annul their vows with the recitation of Kol Nidrei. For this reason, they make sure to attend services on the night of Yom Kippur. A married woman can appoint her husband as her agent to annul her vows when he annuls his own. Since the two of them are like one unit, when he stands before the “court,” it is as if she is with him. However, an unmarried woman cannot appoint an agent (male or female) to act on her behalf and annul her vows (SA YD 234:56; Taz ad loc. 46; Rav Pe’alim OḤ 4:34).
- Shlomo Kluger writes that the nullification works through the mechanism of ḥarata (regret). True, a petaḥ (loophole) is normally required as well. However, since the person had stated on the previous Erev Rosh Ha-shana that he was nullifying upcoming vows (as we explain in the next section), ḥarata on its own is enough. Maḥaneh Ephraim (Nedarim §16) suggests that the annulment qualifies as a petaḥ as well, for had the person known that he would regret the vow, he would not have made it (Kol Nidrei 78:7).
. However, one who does not recall making a vow in a dream need not seek release in the presence of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. Nevertheless, some are careful to annul their vows before a panel of ten on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, in case they made a vow in a dream and subsequently forgot (Da’at Torah 619:1).