Yom Kippur begins this evening before sunset with the recitation of Kol Nidrei, which is actually the prelude to the evening service.
Kol Nidre, which literally means “All Vows,” is a declaration that any oaths or vows that a person made to God during the previous year should be cancelled, null and void. (Of course, not fulfilling one’s oath or vow is considered a grave sin.)
The purpose of Kol Nidre is not, of course, to absolve an individual of debts owed or a promises made to one’s neighbor. The vows nullified by the Kol Nidre service are only those vows made, or possibly made, with God. Indeed, the origin of the declaration is that the rabbis feared that people, in their overwhelming desire to have their repentance accepted, made vows that they would never be able to keep. You know the type:
“God, if you’ll just forgive me for lying, I promise I will give $1 to charity every day.”
“Lord, if you could just look the other way at that nasty outburst that the other day, I promise never to lose my temper again.”
Because vows may not be cancelled at night, the Kol Nidre service begins a few minutes before sunset. In Ashkenazi communities, the prayer leader begins the service in a soft voice that grows increasingly louder as the prayer is repeated three times. In this way, the haunting, dramatic tune of Kol Nidre sets a tone for the day and helps the congregation focus its concentration. In many Sephardi communities, Kol Nidre is recited by the entire congregation.
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