Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, begins this Friday evening.
Although, every Shabbat is a holy day, yet, Yom Kippur has a special holiness associated with the day. It was the only day in the year when the High Priest (the Kohen Gadol) would enter into the holy of holies in the Temple, to pray for the Jewish people.
The prayer which begins the Yom Kippur service is Kol Nidrei, recited in a unique melody, expressing the special mode of this holy Day of Atonement. The Cantor repeats the Kol Nidrei three times.
Q. What is the significance of the Kol Nidrei prayer and why is it written in Aramaic?
A. Kol Nidrei is a prayer in which we declare our vows null and void. It was created in Aramaic, rather than Hebrew, because it was the spoken language of the Jews in Babylon at the time.
Kol Nidrei gained much significance during the Spanish Inquisition. Then, many Jews, known as "Marranos", vowed to renounce their religion under the threat of death, yet in their heart remained loyal to Judaism.
They would gather on Yom Kippur in secrecy and use Kol Nidrei to renounce their vows to the religion that was forced upon them. The Kol Nidrei melody chanted today has its roots in the events of that time.
Q. Why is the Kol Nidrei repeated three times?
A. According to the Talmud, important announcements used to be repeated three times. The repetition of the Kol Nidrei emphasizes its importance. On a more practical level, we repeat it so that those who came late to the synagogue should not miss Kol Nidrei.
Q. Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?
A. Being the day of atonement we spend the time with spiritual matters and not physical appetites.
Another reason: The Torah tells us that at the time of the Giving of the Torah, the people of Israel, "Beheld G-d while they were eating and drinking. This excessive feasting showed a lack of respect to G-d and eventually led to worshiping the Golden Calf which resulted in the breaking of the Tablets. Yom Kippur was the day in which G-d forgave Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf and also the day when Moshe returned with the Second Tablets. Since their excessive eating and drinking was a factor in the breaking of the First Tablets, we correct this sin by avoiding food and drink on Yom Kippur, the day when Moshe descended with the Second Tablets.