Prayer Services for Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement contains more services than any other observance in Judaism

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Liberal movements that do not have a Musaf (additional) service include elements of the Musaf service either in the morning or in the afternoon service. Some liberal communities have also designed creative Avodah services, rather than acting out rituals that were done in the ancient Temple. The Torah readings may also vary by movement.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls nine days after Rosh Hashanah and concludes the Ten Days of Awe (Yamim Nora'im). Yom Kippur is a solemn day of prayer and fasting, on which Jews pray for spiritual purification from past transgressions. 

Kol Nidre

The first communal prayer service of Yom Kippur actually takes place immediately prior to sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur. This service is called Kol Nidrei ("All Vows"). These are the first words of a special legal formula that is recited at the beginning of this service and is chanted three times. This legal ritual is believed to have developed in early medieval times as a result of persecutions against the Jews. At various times in Jewish history, Jews were forced to convert to either Christianity or Islam upon pain of death.

However, after the danger had passed, many of these forced converts wanted to return to the Jewish community. However, this was complicated by the fact that they had been forced to swear vows of fealty to another religion. Because of the seriousness with which the Jewish tradition views verbal promises, the Kol Nidrei legal formula was developed precisely in order to enable those forced converts to return and pray with the Jewish community, absolving them of the vows that they made under duress.

This ancient ceremony found a special place in the hearts of the Jewish people and has been maintained for centuries as an especially solemn and moving introduction to the holiday evening service of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidrei has no effect upon vows or promises that we make and break with other people. They still remain valid and, if broken, forgiveness and absolution must be sought from the people affected--and not from God. As the Talmud teachers, "Yom Kippur does not forgive transgressions between a man and his fellow--until (or unless) he seeks forgiveness from him (directly)" (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

Erev [the evening of] Yom Kippur is the only night of the entire Jewish calendar when a tallit (prayer shawl) is worn in the evening. As a matter of fact, it is traditional to wear a tallit or a white garment for the whole of the holiday, the color white symbolizing both our spiritual purity and our withdrawal from the vanities of this world. [A white robe, called a kittel is worn by traditonally observant men over their holiday clothes. Liberally observant individuals may choose to wear a white item of clothing, or dress completely in white.]

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.