The opening of the Yom Kippur services is highlighted by the special Kol Nidre prayer. This is one of the most holy, sacred prayers of the holidays and is chanted by the Chazzan (the prayer leader) three times. The first time he says it softly as a person afraid to speak, the second time with a normal voice, and the third time with a raised voice to emphasize the importance of its inherent statement. It is the prayer that all remember as the distinctive service of the day.
The Yom Kippur evening service begins first with the intonement of the blessing of "shehechiyanu" in which we thank G-d that we have reached this special time of year; special because G-d in his kindness has given us this day to have our sins forgiven. Before the Kol Nidre prayer, the Chazzan intones three verses that invoke the authority of the Heavenly court as well as the earthly court, together with the authority of G-d Himself, which permits us to pray with sinners.
These three lines were first inserted in the thirteenth century by Rabbi Meir of Rothenbug, one of the greatest rabbis of his time. It is based on the Talmudic statement that says that a public fast in which transgressors do not participate is not a proper fast, comparing it to the smell of galbanum, which is unpleasant, nevertheless is included among the fragrant spices for the incense offering. From this we learn that all public fast days should include those who have sinned – they are part of the Jewish people too.
The Kol Nidre prayer is basically written in Aramaic, the language of the majority of the people who lived in Babylonia. The prayer is well over a thousand years old. It refers to vows that an individual took upon himself and do not have any bearing on vows between other people. It relates both to personal vows of the past and to the future, that they should not be binding.
During the persecutions and inquisitions in Spain this prayer acquired a deep significance since hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to accept Christianity or face death, torture or both. By coming to the synagogue at the possible cost of their lives to hear this prayer, they publicly showed their renunciation of the forced conversions.
The words of the Kol Nidre are loosely translated as follows:
All personal vows that we are likely to make, all prohibitions, oaths, pledges, restrictions, limitations, or other equivalent expressions that we are like to vow, swear or proscribe for ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, which shall come to us for good, we publicly renounce all of them. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths, be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.