My uncle, Dr. Len Nadler, asked about why we say (or hear) “Kol Nidre” on the eve of Yom Kippur?
Here’s a good online article about it:
In Torah, we’re actually not supposed to make vows, because our fulfillment of them isn’t guaranteed. Not keeping vows is something that the modern world takes lightly, but Torah takes it with deep seriousness. Therefore, we “nullify” our vows in advance, so as not to be held responsible for not fulfilling them!
I’ve also heard the explanation that during the Middle Ages, when Jews were often forced to convert, the recitation of “Kol Nidre” invalidated the conversion in advance, by saying in so many words, “Any vow I make is nullified.” But the text of “Kol Nidre” predates that period, so that couldn’t have been the original intention.
Nor was it ever meant to say, “I promised to pay you the money that I owe you, but because I recited ‘Kol Nidre,’ I’m now free of the obligation!”
An interesting anecdote: I learned to chant “Kol Nidre” from a specific text. I was once auditioning to do High Holiday services at a synagogue. They gave me a copy of the machzor (High Holiday prayer book) that they used on YK, to do “Kol Nidre.” As I started, I realized that the text varied from the one that I was most familiar with (some different words; some words in different order), and for which I knew a specific melody for each word. I stopped and explained the problem to the president of the synagogue, and asked if they had a “Birnbaum” machzor, which would have the text as I knew it. When he brought it to me, I showed him the differences. He said “I never knew that!”
These days, I doubt that anyone thinks of the literal meaning of “Kol Nidre.” Rather, it introduces the solemn emotional tone that will pervade the next 25 hours. It’s the melody, more than the words themselves, that people respond to. In this sense, it’s like Wagner’s “Wedding March.” As has often been pointed out, Wagner’s “Wedding March” appears after the wedding ceremony in the opera “Lohengrin” as the bride departs, whereas in popular culture, it’s typically played as the bride enters. Hence the mental image that people have of what will be playing as they “walk down the aisle” is based on its cultural or “applied” meaning, rather than its originally intended one. Chopin’s “Funeral March” could be another example. It’s not the only “funeral march” that was ever composed; it’s simply the one that has become the most widely associated with funerals.
So, I think that the melody of “Kol Nidre” (and the way that it’s sung 3 times) sets people up for the Yom Kippur frame of mind, more than the text does (these days; in other times and places, it might not be the case).
I realize that when I’m doing “Kol Nidre,” in my mind, I’m imploring G-d that the vows against us (by G-d or even by other people) should be nullified!
This is obviously not the literal meaning of the words.
But it fits in with the Talmudic and Kabbalistic principle that G-d responds in kind to our own actions (e.g. “midah k’neged midah”). Therefore, by nullifying our vows (especially our vows to seek redress or even revenge for wrongs done to us), G-d responds in kind by nullifying Divine “vows” against us for wrongs we’ve done.
It’s not the literal meaning or original intention of the text itself. But many Biblical or Talmudic texts and quotations come to have different meanings in popular usage and custom.
To hear “Kol Nidre,” go to: http://virtualcantor.com/kolNidre.html.
Tracks 586-589 (tracks 586 and 587 are the “introduction;” 588 and 589 are “Kol Nidre” itself)
 picture from”The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. Online image from: museumoffamilyhistory.com at mfh/synagogue/yoelson/kol–nidre