Lengthy Selichos accompanied by fasting make erev Rosh HaShanah a day of
teshuvah. So too, as Yom Kippur enters, everyone's mind is set on the
upcoming day's avodah: repentance. As part of this teshuvah process,
hataras nedarim (annulment of vows) is performed both on erev Rosh HaShanah
and on erev Yom Kippur. Why do we choose to focus specifically on the
transgression of vows at this crucial time?
HaShem's Torah contains 613 mitzvos, each one a separate path which leads
to the strengthening of our relationship with Him. Anyone who walks
straight along these paths can be sure that he will reach Olam Haba, the
world to come. However, creating new paths will almost inevitably take a
person away from his sought-after destination.
Although all transgressions divert us from Olam Haba, there is an aspect of
nedarim that makes it worse than other aveiros. Falling prey to any other
aveirah represents a stumbling, but since we are on the right road we can
get up, brush ourselves off, and continue walking. When making a vow, a
person accepts upon himself an obligation that the Torah does not require
of him, thus creating a new path. Following this road will seriously
disrupt his journey.
On very rare occasions, it may be appropriate to make a vow in order to
inspire oneself to improvement via the discipline of a neder. As a general
rule, however, vows are viewed as undesirable. HaShem's Torah takes us
straight to our destination; any human additions run the risk of diverting
us from our goal.
During these critical days, we attempt to clear the path to righteousness
of any obstacles by annulling all our nedarim. In doing so, we hope that
our fulfillment of HaShem's Torah, exactly as He commanded it, will find
pleasure in His eyes and arouse Divine mercy during this time of judgment
(based on the commentary of Vilna Gaon, Mishlei 20: 25).
"Someone who made a neder and regrets it should go to a chacham mumcheh
with breadth and depth of Torah knowledge ... and he will annul the vow by
himself" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 228: 1). What is considered "breadth
and depth of Torah knowledge"? The Gemara cites Rav Nachman as an example
of such a talmid chacham (Bechoros 36b). Since in our times there is no
one who even comes close to this level, it is understood that a yachid (one
individual) cannot perform hataras nedarim (Shulchan Aruch, ibid.).
"If there is no individual who is that great in Torah available, one should
go to three common folk ... and they will annul the neder for you"
(Shulchan Aruch, ibid.). Who are these "ordinary people"? Although they do
not need to be talmidei chachamim themselves, they must be able to
comprehend halachos taught by others (Shach and Taz, ibid.). Normally, a
beis din must consist of at least one talmid chacham, but since hataras
nedarim does not have the same status as other judicial proceedings, this
requirement is waived (Shach, ibid.).
The three individuals who perform hataras nedarim can be related to each
other, and the person whose vow is being rescinded can also be related to
them (Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 3). Once again, the halachah differentiates
between a normal beis din, in which relatives are disqualified, and a beis
din for hataras nedarim. However some similarities still exist between
hataras nedarim and other cases. Children under the age of bar mitzvah and
women of all ages may not serve as one of the three individuals who annul a
vow (Rav Akiva Eiger, ibid.).
Women and Children
Since women cannot be part of the beis din for hataras nedarim, should they
do hataras nedarim for themselves altogether? Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach
would not require women to do hataras nedarim on erev Rosh HaShanah, but
would rather have them rely on the annulment that is done during Kol
Nidrei, at the beginning of the Yom Kippur services (Halichos Shlomo 1: 10).
In order for the hataras nedarim of Kol Nidrei to be effective, a person
must be present in shul and say the words together with the chazan (Mishnah
Berurah 619: 2). If a woman's hectic routine does not allow her to be in
shul, her husband can act as an agent to terminate her vows (Shulchan
Aruch, Yoreh Deah 234: 56). Even though one normally cannot appoint a
shaliach to cancel a neder, based on the principle "ishto kegufo" (a man's
wife is like himself), a special exception is made (Shach, ibid., 70).
The halachah describes a concept termed "muflah samuch le'ish" (a minor who
makes a neder right before he becomes an adult). When a child who is one
year shy of the age of bar or bas mitzvah (i.e. a twelve year old boy and
an eleven year old girl) makes a vow, we check to see if the child realized
what he or she was doing. If we see that the child does understand what a
neder is about, then the vow is halachically binding (Bamidbar Rabbah 10: 20).
Should hataras nedarim be done for children who fit in this category? The
poskim differentiate between making a neder and annulling one. Even though
the vows of these children are considered valid, this validity does not
automatically mean that they are granted the opportunity to rescind them.
Since it is not clear whether the option of terminating a vow was given to
children, if they wish to do hataras nedarim they must wait until their bar
or bas mitzvah. Therefore, they do not perform hataras nedarim (Sha'arim
HaMitzuyanim Behalachah 128: 24).
This ruling creates a tremendous responsibility for children in the year
before they become bar or bat mitzvah, for any vow they make could be
binding. In this vein, when the grandchildren of Rav Shlomo Zalman reached
this age, he cautioned them to be vigilant to always say "bli neder." Aside
from the practical benefit of eliminating vows, this practice trains
children to "guard their tongues" for the rest of their lives (as cited in
Halichos Shlomo 1 ).
Dressed in White
A person who awaits a decision from the high court as to whether he will be
sentenced to life or death is usually in a state of extreme trepidation
until the pronouncement of the final verdict. Only after the decision has
been issued will he have the peace of mind to concern himself with his
outer appearance. One would think, therefore, that on erev Rosh HaShanah,
as we are hovering on the threshold of life and death, personal cleanliness
should be the last thing on our minds.
Not so. The Jewish people go out of their way to cleanse themselves and
their garments, take a haircut and put on fine, white clothing on erev Rosh
HaShanah. By putting aside our emotional fears for the sake of honoring the
Yom Tov, we show complete confidence that HaShem will perform a miracle for
the Jewish nation as a whole, and pronounce us innocent in judgment
(Medrash cited by Tur 581).
On another level, wearing white reflects the dual nature of the day. This
color represents repentance while simultaneously reminding us of the
shrouds that we will wear on the day of death (Maharal as cited in Bach
What should one do if he finds himself on erev Rosh HaShanah in a place
where the custom is not to dress in white? Although he should certainly put
on fine clothing, it is preferable not to wear his normal Yom Tov attire.
Clothes that are elegant but not overly lavish help to maintain a balance
between rejoicing in Yom Tov and remembering the serious nature of Rosh
HaShanah (Mishnah Berurah 581: 25).
In general we do not fast on erev Yom Tov so that we will be able to usher
in the holiday in a pleasant state of mind. What about erev Rosh HaShanah?
How can a person possibly think of food when in a few hours he will be
standing before HaShem, facing a life or death judgment? In order to strike
a compromise, the custom is to fast only part of the day on erev Rosh HaShanah.
The poskim differ as to the appropriate time to break the fast. Some fast
exactly half a day until chatzos, midday (She'ilas Yavetz 2: 147), while
others eat only after having recited Mincha (Machatzis HaShekel 562: 1). A
final opinion rules that those who have the strength to continue fasting
should refrain from eating until plag haMincha, an hour and a quarter
before sundown (Mishnah Berurah 562: 10). The sefarim caution that if
fasting will adversely affect a person's davening or the way he treats
others, he is better off eating (Ya'aros Devash).
The Rishonim write that some people would refrain from fasting before Rosh
HaShanah since it was the custom of non-Jews to do so. For this reason, the
Rema writes, many have the minhag to eat before Alos HaShachar (halachic
dawn) on erev Rosh HaShanah in order to show that they are not following
the ways of the non-Jews (581: 2). However, kabbalistic writings warn
against eating before dawn (Zohar as cited in Elef LeMagen 581: 92). Some
resolve this conflict by drinking coffee or tea before Alos HaShachar,
since it is permitted to drink before tefillah and drinking is not included
in the restriction of the Zohar (Elef LeMagen, ibid.).
The Problem of Toys
In the tefillos of the Yamim Nora'im, we mention that one of the reasons
why we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is to commemorate Akeidas Yitzchak.
The medrash reveals that this awe-inspiring event almost did not take
place. As Yitzchak was on his way to the akeida, the Satan came to him with
all sorts of ploys to obstruct him. Finally when all else had failed, the
Satan told Yitzchak that if he died, all the toys that Sarah had made for
him would go to Yishmael. At that point Yitzchak got very nervous and
almost turned around to go home (Bereishis Rabbah 56: 4).
These words of Chazal provide a powerful insight into understanding
ourselves. All of the "toys" that we grew up with are imbedded deep within
us. At times, we are willing to sacrifice everything for HaShem, but the
thought of giving up these toys eats away at our inner essence.
A number of years ago, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg made a kiddush in the
yeshiva for no apparent reason. When asked what the occasion was, he
replied that he had heard that the Yankees won the World Series, and he had
not gotten excited over it. Overjoyed that after so many years he was
finally able to get the baseball of his youth out of his system, he decided
to host a kiddush.
Some people think to themselves, "If only I had been brought up in a
different environment I would really be able to serve HaShem properly."
This is a mistake. HaShem gives each person specific toys in their youth in
order that they rise above them in their adulthood. Avraham Avinu and the
four Imahos - Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah - all grew up in the homes of
idol worshipers. Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest person to ever walk the face
of the earth, was raised in the palace of Pharaoh. There is a special
Divine Glory that can only shine forth if a person is raised in such an
environment, and then consciously abandons it to serve HaShem.
On erev Rosh HaShanah, as we stand at the edge of the Day of Judgment, we
rid ourselves of our nedarim, fast half a day (if we can), and wash and
dress in fine clothing. All these actions are steps toward revealing our
true inner identity. After we have reached that point, we can present
ourselves on Rosh HaShanah as we would really like to be: free of our
In the merit of preparing for Rosh HaShanah, may we all be signed
immediately into the book of life, health, happiness, and prosperity, both
in physical and spiritual matters, for the upcoming year.