What Is Kol Nidrei?

The Meaning and Origin of the Yom Kippur Service

Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur by Mayurycy Gottlieb.
Mayurycy Gottlieb

Kol Nidrei is the name given to the opening prayer and the evening service that begins the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur

Meaning and Origins

Kol Nidrei (כל נדרי, pronounced kol-knee-dray), also spelled Kol Nidre or Kol Nidrey, is Aramaic for "all vows," which are the first words of the recitation. The term "Kol Nidrei" is used generally to refer to the entirety of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Although not strictly considered a prayer, the verses ask God to annul vows made (to God) during the coming year, either innocently or under duress. The Torah takes very seriously the making of vows:

"When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, having made the promise with your own mouth" (Deuteronomy 23:22–24).

Kol Nidrei is believed to have originated at some point during 589–1038 C.E. when the Jews were persecuted and forcibly converted to other religions. The Kol Nidrei prayer gave these individuals a chance to nullify their vow of conversion. 

Although the annulment of vows was originally part of the Rosh haShanah service ("Who wished to cancel his vows of a whole year should arise on Rosh Hashanah and announce, 'All vows that I will pledge in the coming year shall be annulled'" [Talmud, Nedarim 23b]), it eventually was moved to the Yom Kippur service, possibly because of the solemnity of the day.

 

Later on, in the 12th century, the language was changed from "from the last Day of Atonement until this one" to "from this Day of Atonement until the next." This textual alteration was accepted and adopted by Ashkenazic Jewish communities (German, French, Polish), but not by Sephardim (Spanish, Roman).

To this day, the older language is used in many communities. 

When To Recite Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei must be said before sunset on Yom Kippur because it is technically a legal formula releasing individuals from vows in the coming year. Legal matters cannot be attended to on Shabbat or during a festival holiday like Yom Kippur, both of which begin at sunset. 

The English reads as such:

All vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and consecrations, and konams and konasi and any synonymous terms, that we may vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves, from this Day of Atonement until the [next] Day of Atonement (or, from the previous Day of Atonement until this Day of Atonement and) that will come for our benefit. Regarding all of them, we repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null, and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

It is said three times so that latecomers to the service will have an opportunity to hear the prayer. It is also recited three times according to the custom of ancient Jewish courts, which would say "You are released" three times when someone was released from a legally binding vow.

The Significance of Vows

A vow, in Hebrew, is known as a neder. Throughout the years, Jews will frequently use the phrase  bli neder, meaning "without a vow." Because of how seriously Judaism takes vows, Jews will use the phrase to avoid making any unintentional vows that they know they might not be able to keep or fulfill.

An example would be if you ask your husband to promise to take out the garbage, he might respond "I promise to take out the garbage, bli neder" so that he is not technically making a vow to take out the trash.