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Since Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day of communal prayer and self-deprivation, the observance of the holiday is centered within the community. The first prayer service of Yom Kippur actually takes place immediately prior to sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur. This service is called “Kol Nidrei,” which means “all vows.” These are the first words of a legal formula that is recited at the beginning of this service and chanted three times.
The origins of Kol Nidrei can be traced to the fact that at various times in Jewish history Jews were forced to convert to other religions on pain of death. However, after the danger had passed, many of these forced converts would want to return to the Jewish community, in spite of their forced oaths of loyalty to other faiths. Because of the seriousness with which the Jewish tradition holds words and promises, the Kol Nidrei formula was developed in order to enable forced converts to return and pray with the Jewish community, absolving them of their vows made under duress. This ancient ceremony is an especially solemn and moving introduction to the holiday evening service of Yom Kippur. Even those most estranged from the Jewish community will return on this one evening a year in order to hear the age-old chant.
Symbolizing the spiritual purity toward which we strive, it is traditional to wear white clothes on Yom Kippur, and many people wear a white robe-like garment called a kittel. In addition, Yom Kippur is the only day of the year when one wears one’s tallit (prayer shawl) all day, rather than just in the morning.
Yom Kippur prayer services are characterized by their emphasis on the two major themes of forgiveness from sin and of teshuvah, or repentance. Sin is not viewed as a permanent state in Judaism. On the contrary, it means that we are challenged to repent and improve ourselves. God forgives us for the sins against the divine. In order to stand before God on Yom Kippur ready for true repentance, we must have first apologized and sought forgiveness from those whom we have hurt over the course of the previous year. Only then are we truly prepared to repent before God on Yom Kippur.
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