Recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre is not actually a prayer, but rather a legal statement declared by the prayer leader on behalf of the community annulling all vows from the past year. This annulment symbolizes a fresh start for the relationship between us and the Divine—setting the tone for the work of repair and renewal that is at the core of the Yom Kippur liturgy to come.
Composed in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, this statement dates back to the late first century CE. While there are multiple theories as to its origins, many scholars believe that it was composed during a time of intense persecution when many Jews were forced to take vows at risk of death—and thus, this statement allowed for the wiping away of those vows at the start of the new year.
Traditionally, this iconic statement is recited three times by the prayer leader, each time with increased intensity of volume and expression, and key.
The origins of the famous melody itself are unknown, but it dates back possibly as early as the eleventh to the fourteenth century. Romantic-era composer Max Bruch composed an adaptation of it for cello and orchestra, which has become well-known and used in many synagogues around the world.