The Yom Kippur prayers begin with the removal of two Torah scrolls from the ark. Two prominent members of the congregation carry the scrolls to the bima. The ḥazan stands between them and declares, “With the agreement of God and of the community, in the heavenly council, and in the council of man, we permit praying with transgressors.” Some congregations take out only one Torah scroll, while others take out more than two. There are also slight variations in the formulation of the declaration. Each congregation should follow its custom (SA 619:1 and commentaries).
This opening declaration expresses a theme of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the holy soul within each Jew is manifest. Even people who act sinfully all year long – pariahs in the eyes of both heaven and earth, with whom it is inappropriate to pray – are invited to join the congregation. Just as we judge these sinners favorably and treat them with benevolence and love, so we hope that God judges us favorably and showers us with His love and benevolence.
The Sages state, “Any fast in which the sinners of Israel do not participate is not deemed a fast. For though galbanum smells bad, it is nonetheless listed by Scripture as one of the spices of the incense” (Keritot 6b). Every Jew has his own divine spark, so if even one Jew is missing, the entire nation is lacking. Therefore, when sinners join the prayers, sanctifying God’s name, the Jewish people are united and become rooted in the land.
Following the declaration, Kol Nidrei is recited. It releases us from the chains of vows or obligations that we were unable to fulfill and ensures that they will not impede our repentance on Yom Kippur.
We then recite verses about forgiveness, expressing the theme of the day. This is followed by She-heḥeyanu and the return of the Torah scrolls to the ark.
When the Torah scrolls are carried, first to the bima and later back to the ark, many people lovingly kiss them, intending this to serve as a request for forgiveness and atonement for any disrespect they may have shown to the holy Torah or its mitzvot.
In many congregations, the rabbi delivers a Kol Nidrei sermon before Ma’ariv that focuses on character development, inspiration, and repentance (Mateh Ephraim 619:9).
Even though normally a talit is not worn at Ma’ariv, on Yom Kippur it is customarily worn by all who wear a talit for Shaḥarit daily. When putting on the talit, one should focus on remembering all the mitzvot through the tzitzit, on how they shield every part of our souls from external evils, and on how God will spread divine peace upon us. The talit should be put on before shki’a so that the berakha may be recited over it. One who puts on a talit after shki’a should not recite the berakha (SA and Rema 18:1; MB ad loc. 7).
It is proper to study Torah after Ma’ariv. There is a special mitzva to learn Torah on every holiday, and certainly on Yom Kippur. People should make every effort to set aside time to study then. Since the vast majority of the day is dedicated to prayer, the best time to study is after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:5-6; MB 619:16).
We will not go into detail here about the different prayer formulations, as these can be easily found in the maḥzorim of the various communities. We will focus on prayer laws and customs which express the meaning of the day.