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Wikipedia describes Kol Nidrei:

Though not a prayer, this dry legal formula and its ceremonial accompaniment have been charged with emotional undertones since the medieval period, creating a dramatic introduction to Yom Kippur on what is often dubbed "Kol Nidrei night".

Why is this so? What meaning behind annuling oaths evokes such emotions? Why is this one of the highlights of the High Holiday prayer; one of the times almost all Jews regardless of background come to Shul?

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The haunting tune. –  Double AA Sep 24 '12 at 2:52
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It's the start of the atonement (you can see it as an atonement of vows) –  b a Sep 24 '12 at 2:54
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And more than anything else, it's the liturgical statement that indicates Yom Kippur is here. –  Charles Koppelman Sep 24 '12 at 2:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Based on the ArtScroll Machzor's introduction to Kol Nidrei:

When Rabbah bar bar Chanah arrived at the site of Har Sinai, he heard a Divine voice proclaim: "Woe is me that I have sworn! But now that I have sworn, who will annul my oath?" (Bava Basra 74a) The Rashbam comments that HaShem looks for grounds to annul his oath not to end the exile (ibid.).

The Tikkunei Zohar contains a mystical passage describing HaShem's oath that the Divine Presence will remain in exile. In it, Rabbi Shimon provides kabbalistic grounds for annulling the oath and ending the exile of the Shechinah and the Jewish people (תיקון ה' ליום ל"ז). Many siddurim include this passage as a prologue to Kol Nidrei.

By reciting Kol Nidrei we as a community annul all vows and oaths. We demonstrate that HaShem, too, may be free of his burdensome oath, and He may finally redeem the Shechinah with his people, ויעשו כלנו אגודה אחת לעשות רצונו בלבב שלם.

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What about Hataras Nedarim? –  Shmuel Brin Sep 13 '13 at 18:49
    
@ShmuelBrin I suppose the distinction is that Kol Nidrei is done communally, while Hataras N'darim is oriented to the individual. –  Fred Sep 13 '13 at 18:53

One explanation I heard was that Kol Nidre took on additional layers of emotional meaning for European Jews because of the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity during the Middle Ages.

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+1. Where'd you hear this? –  msh210 Sep 24 '12 at 4:04
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@msh210 - To be honest, it's something that I first heard of so long ago that I forgot where. Most likely, it was from the rabbi of the Sephardic congregation my family belonged to in Colombia in the late 1950s. (Forced conversion is a particularly emotional issue to Jews of Spanish descent because of the intensity of the Inquisition in Spain.) It's mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Kol Nidre. –  Ted Hopp Sep 24 '12 at 4:36
    
The bit relevant to the conversos is this: "By the authority of the Court on High and by authority of the court down here, by the permission of One Who Is Everywhere and by the permission of this congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with sinners," and not the Kol Nidrei text. –  Avrohom Yitzchok Sep 24 '12 at 12:22
    
@AvrohomYitzchok - My understanding is that the Kol Nidre text is also quite relevant. When Spanish Jews were given the choice of exile, conversion, or death, many chose conversion. The Marranos understood the Kol Nidre formula ("All personal vows...let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established....") as a release from those forced vows. –  Ted Hopp Sep 24 '12 at 16:37

Other answers have addressed the meaning in the text and historical associations, but I think DoubleAA's comment is critical: it's the music. I've been told this by many members of my congregation, including both scholars and "regular Jews". For them, just reading the text would be empty, but hearing it sung connects them with the day, its themes, and its history.

A professor lecturing on music in worship (at HUC) told me that Kol Nidrei is one of the "mi Sinai" melodies, one that is strongly associated with Yom Kippur for the listener. Even listeners who don't know what the words mean seem to be moved by this melody in its context. (They might not be, and might even find it odd, if they heard this melody in a concert hall in April.)

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This is interesting. I've heard many people claim that the Kol Nidre melody is derived from Gregorian chant. However, Hugo Leichtentritt (Music of the Western Nations) and other musicologists present evidence and argue (convincingly, to me) that the opposite holds: medieval church musical forms--especially alleluia, graduale, and tractus of Gregorian chant--are derived directly from ancient Jewish psalmody and the Temple service. –  Ted Hopp Sep 24 '12 at 16:32
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There's no denying that it's a powerful melody. But are you going to tell me this haunting tune was randomly placed on some legal banter that has to be done Yom Kippur night for whatever technical reason, and suddenly it's the highlight of a Jew's year? –  Michoel Sep 24 '12 at 16:34
    
@Michoel, I didn't say random. I would imagine that it was quite intentionally done to emphasize the text that ushers in the day of atonement. But I thought your question was "why is this so powerful?", not "how did it get there?". That would be an interesting question too. –  Monica Cellio Sep 24 '12 at 17:15
    
@MonicaCellio My question was what meaning behind the service invokes such emotion. Sure it is plausible that just commencing the Day of Atonement with an appropriate melody can create such feeling, but that explanation feels quite superficial to me. –  Michoel Sep 24 '12 at 18:19

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