Yom Kippur begins with one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Jewish calendar – the Kol Nidre service which must actually be completed before Yom Kippur begins; that is, before sundown! The technical purpose of Kol Nidre (all vows) is to request the annulment of vows and since one may not attend to legal matter on a holiday, the service is held prior to the actual beginning of this sacred day. How ironic that – or perhaps because this emotional moment is based on a banal and technical procedure it has moved us spiritually and with a sense of holiness.
As the traditional Kol Nidre melody is chanted, we “ghostly” feel the presence of ancestors and countless generations of Jews who were moved t=by these words and these melodies. To accentuate the holiness of the moment, we wear a tallit. This is the only time that a tallit is worn in the evening!
The dating of Kol Nidre is uncertain but some look to the reign of a Visigoth king (end of 6th century) in Spain who was known to have persecuted Jews. Unfortunately, persecutions such as the Crusaders and the Spanish Inquisition have similarly occurred since the Visigoth period. Whatever it origins, Kol Nidre became so popular because time and time again, Jews were forced by others to say and do things that they did not believe. Kol Nidre served as a religious antidote to these oppressions.
It is essential to note that Kol Nidre only has the power to annual vows between God and the individual. Kol Nidre does not refer to vows, promises or commitments made to other people. These can only be nullified by a mutual agreement!
The Evening Yom Kippur Service
The Maariv (מעריב) Evening Service is similar to the regular service but the traditional melodies chanted are different but identical to the Rosh Hashana chanting. One difference is that the 2nd line of the Shma (שמע) is read aloud!. This reading reminds us of the role of the High Priest’s central role in the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.
Two confessional prayers are added: The shorter Ashamnu (אשמנו) and the longer Al Het (על חטא) are repeated over and over throughout the Yom Kippur day. It is customary to tap on one’s heart with his/her right hand symbolically “taking these prayers to heart”.
At the end of maariv, Avinu Malkeinu (אבינו מלכנו) is recited When leaving the synagogue, one greets fellow worshipers with the words Hatima Tova (חתימה טובה) conveying the wish that the person you are greeting will be inscribed in the Book of Life.