We begin our prayers on Yom Kippur eve with perhaps one of the more famous pieces of liturgy, Kol Nidre (or Kol Nidrei), usually sung in its classic haunting melody.

The recital of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur is an ancient custom mentioned in the Zohar,1 and the text can be found in prayer books dating as far back as the Geonic period (589–1038 CE). Some2 are of the opinion that it was actually instituted by the Anshe Knesset Hagedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) at the beginning of the Second Temple era, making it well over 2,300 years old.3

Contrary to what one may expect, Kol Nidre is neither flowery nor inspiring (at first blush). Rather, it is a legalistic text, in which we declare in the presence of the beth din (rabbinical court) that our unknown vows should be null and void.

Why was this dry text selected to be the overture of the Yom Kippur service?

Forgotten Vows

Throughout the year, we make vows to do one thing or another, but we often forget all about them and don’t even come to annul them, causing us to unintentionally transgress our vows. Therefore, right at the onset of Yom Kippur, when we clean our proverbial slates, we ask forgiveness and annul our vows so that we don’t further forget about them and accidentally transgress them.4

Vows That Yom Kippur Does Not Atone For

Others explain5 that, according to the Talmud, when we do teshuvah on Yom Kippur we atone for all sins, except for the sin of one who obligated himself to do something positive and didn’t do it. For example, if one promised to give charity, Yom Kippur does not atone until the person fulfills his vow and actually gives the charity.

The problem is that there are many promises and vows that we may not even remember making. Therefore, as we enter Yom Kippur, a day on which we ask forgiveness for all of our other sins, it is appropriate to first annul our vows and ask forgiveness for them, which Yom Kippur itself doesn’t do.

A Biblical Hint

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon, expounds upon the verse6 describing what happens when an adolescent girl makes a vow: “But if her father restrained her on the day he hears it, all her vows and her prohibitions that she has imposed upon herself shall not stand. The L‑rd will forgive her . . .” Taken allegorically, this tells us that one annuls vows on the day that was set aside by G‑d for forgiveness, Yom Kippur.7

Why Before and Not on Yom Kippur

Why is this done before Yom Kippur, and not on Yom Kippur itself? Unless vows specifically pertain to Shabbat or the holiday, we only annul them on a weekday. Thus, it makes sense that Kol Nidre be recited right before the onset of Yom Kippur, since it pertains to other vows as well.

But how did this legal procedure become one of the most solemn and hallowed prayers of the year?

Negative Decrees

Aside from the legalistic reasons for starting off Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre, there are more mystical and deeper reasons for this solemn and holy “prayer” as well.

The Zohar8 explains that on Yom Kippur we pray that any negative decrees or harsh punishments that Heaven may have vowed to afflict us with be annulled. Thus, while we recite the text for the annulment of our earthly vows, we are essentially praying that these negative vows be annulled (even if we may be undeserving). The text of Kol Nidre reads, All shall be hereby absolved, remitted, canceled, declared null and void, not in force or effect,” alluding to these negative avowed decrees.

The Final Redemption

Others explain that with the recital of Kol Nidre, we are asking G‑d, and in a sense “reminding” Him, that in case He made a vow not to bring about the final redemption until a specific time, according to Jewish law, one can annul his vows. Thus, with our annulment we pray that G‑d act in a reciprocal fashion and annul that vow, bringing about the final redemption and the coming of the Moshiach.9

Essentially, just as the Yom Kippur prayers conclude with a prayer for the final redemption, so do they start it off with one. For, ultimately, that is what we are all praying for.

May we all merit the sweetest of years with the coming of the Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple!