Tomorrow at sunset is the beginning of the most solemn holy day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, practicing Jews abstain from food, water, sexual relations, anointing the body and wearing leather. These things are signs of life and enjoyment, and on the day of Yom Kippur, we are pleading with the Eternal to remember us for life and to inscribe us in the book of life for the coming year. It is a time to consider our ways, to return to the ways that give us life, and to make atonement for our sins against the Eternal. For the sins we have committed against others, the fast of Yom Kippur does not atone. For we must go to those we have wronged and ask their forgiveness, which we hope to receive. And we must give forgiveness to those who ask for it, for none of us is able to stand before G-d and claim that we have not also done wrong.
The process of Jewish repentence is three-fold. A person needs to acknowledge that they have done wrong, and acknowledge exactly what the wrong is. No defensiveness, no justifications. Then she must resolve to right the wrong and to not travel down that path again. This may require restitution or some other action that can make things right. Then, and only then, can one go to the person(s) wronged and ask forgiveness. The person asked forgiveness may or may not grant it. If it is not granted, then one must humbly go back to them three times, while otherwise actively righting the wrong in whatever way is possible. If the person wronged does not forgive at the third time, and you has done all of the repentence possible, then you move on, because you cannot force someone to forgive you. Forgiveness in Jewish thought does not mean that you are excused from the consequences of your wrong action, whether legal or otherwise.
Yet for all of this, Yom Kippur is not a sad fast. It is known as the great white fast, for on that day we dress ourselves in white, as did the high priest on the day of Yom Kippur of old. On Yom Kippur, we are hopeful. By this time during the high holy days, we have made amends with those we love and received their forgiveness. And we have given it as well. And that, especially within the very close relationships, is often a tender and sweet time. And now, as we begin the fast, we know we have been given another day of life to once again return to the paths of life and receive forgiveness for all of the ways in which we have not yet become the people that we were created to be.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, we eat a good meal, for it is commanded to end the ten days of repentence with a feast. Traditionally, since we this is a pre-fast meal, the foods are not spicy or rich. I use a Greek Chicken recipe with potatoes. We drink water rather than wine. Then by 5 PM, we will clear the table and place a white cloth on it, and holy books, to signify that prayer and learning will be our sustenance over the holy day.
Then we go to the Kol Nidre service. Kol Nidre is the ancient prayer that is chanted in the synagogue three times. It is sung to a haunting melody and many think of it as the most beautiful, moving moment in the Jewish year. (I have included a link to Kol Nidre at the My Jewish Learning site. I have also tried to upload a really first class You Tube version, but, alas, I don't know how to get it into my post. Here is the link).
The origins of Kol Nidre are mysterious. The name Kol Nidre simply means all vows, and it is not a prayer, but rather a legal formula. On Yom Kippur, all Jews, whether righteous or not, pray together. The plea for forgiveness is communal. We do not say "I have sinned" but rather, "we have sinned." In the Vidui (confession), we acknowledge all possible sins from the beginning to the end of the alef-bet, whether each one has done each sin or not, because they affect us all. So it is thought that the Kol Nidre might have been written for Jews who were forced into conversion to Christianity in the medieval times. Even they would be welcome in the synagogue on Kol Nidre night.
The UAHC publication Gates of Repentence, the Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book of the Reform movement says this about Kol Nidre: