On Tuesday night, September 25th, Jews the world over (including many who go to synagogue only once per year) will gather in synagogues for the opening evening service of Yom Kippur, a service commonly known by the name of the declaration that begins it: Kol Nidrei, "All Vows..." This liturgical climax of the Jewish year is known for its haunting and beautiful melody.
As a 1924 article from the American Jewish Year Book explains, however, the declaration of Kol Nidrei (it really isn't even a prayer) has a history of confusion and controversy.
From the J-Vault: Kol Nidre (1924)
Kol Nidrei, Professor Israel Davidson explains,
takes its name from the opening words and is recited at the beginning of the evening service of the Day of Atonement, has come down to us in two versions, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic... [T]he Hebrew version, which contains a reference to the vows contracted during the year that has passed... presents a legal difficulty. For, according to law, vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states what these vows were and makes his statement before a board of three, and none of these conditions is required in connection with Kol Nidre. To overcome these difficulties, R. Meir b. Samuel, the son-in-law of Rashi, changed the text of Kol Nidre and made it to read as we have it now in the Aramaic version: "from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement"...
Kol Nidre presents a number of other difficulties. Why, for instance, is this prayer placed before the beginning of the services? What connection is there between the absolution of vows and the verse from Numbers 15:26, with which it concludes? If it is a prayer for forgiveness, why should the sin of non-fulfilment of vows be singled out from other transgressions for which the Day of Atonement is supposed to atone? How is it that this particular composition has come down to us in two languages?
Professor Davidson goes on to offer numerous theories and explanations related to these questions. He also discusses rabbinic objections to Kol Nidrei at many points during Jewish history, from an array of religious leaders--from medieval sages to the Reform Movement's early leaders (who completely altered the text, retaining only the popular melody). Yet, he notes, Kol Nidrei has endured:
Historic Judaism, however, still braves the storm of accusations, safe in the consciousness of its integrity, and mindful of the wise adage not to indulge in too many explanations, because friends do not need them and enemies would not believe them.
Bonus: for anyone interested in a contemporary religious explanation of Kol Nidrei's history and purpose, I can't resist embedding this video lecture from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (click here if you can't see the embedded video player):