Though the author and the date of the Kol Nidre are unknown, the prayer was in use as early as the Gaonic period in the eighth century. In ancient times, as in our day, vows unto the Lord were often rashly made. In the precarious eras in which our forefathers lived, circumstances beyond their control frequently denied them the opportunity of fulfilling their vows. Because of the unusual stress and exigencies of their lives, these vows at times were forgotten and thus violated. Recognizing that the broken word profaned the soul, they developed the earnest desire to have such vows nullified on the Day of Atonement, when men yearned to be at peace with God and their fellowmen. The legal formula, known as the Kol Nidre, was the result. In those lands where Jews, under duress, made vows to accept another faith, the recital of the Kol Nidre often brought relief to their tormented consciences.
Judaism always recognized and taught that the Kol Nidre cannot release anyone from a juridical oath or from any promise, contract or obligation between man and man. It applies only to those vows which an individual makes to his God and in which no other persons are involved. Sins between man and man are not forgiven until amends have been made for the wrong. This is evident from the following selection of the Mishna, the authoritative code of law which antedates the Kol Nidre by at least five hundred years. Only willful enemies of the truth persist in distorting the meaning of the Kol Nidre. "For transgressions between man and God, repentance on Yom Kippur brings atonement. For transgressions between man and man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement, until the injured party is appeased." (Mishna Yoma, Chapter 8)
The underlying motives of the Kol Nidre prayer, the sincere longing for a clear conscience, the release from the feeling of guilt, the recognition of the sacredness of the plighted word, and the desire to be absolved from vows which could not be carried out or which would make for enmity and rancor, still possess significance for us today.
As famous as the legal formula, is the appealing melody which grew up around the words. Through the words and the melody of Kol Nidre, the Jew expressed his deepest feelings and emotions. Altogether apart from the meaning of the words and their significance, the plaintive chant has captivated and charmed the heart of the Jew to this day.
The full text of Kol Nidre, which is in Aramaic, the vernacular of the time, rather than Hebrew, in transliterated form, is as follows:
Kol Nidrey, ve-esarey, va-kha-ramey, v'kona-mey, v'khinu-yey, v'kinusey, u-sh'vuot, di-n'darna, u-d'ish-t'vana, u-d'akh'rimna, v'di-asarna al naf-sha-tana, mi-yom kipurim zeh ad yom kipurim ha-ba aleynu l'tovah, kol-hon ikh-ratna v'hon, kol-hon y'hon sharan. Sh'vikin, sh'vitin, b'teylin u-m'vutalin, la sh'ri-rin v'la ka-yamin. Nidrana la nidrey, ve-esarana la esarey, u-sh'vua-tana la sh'vuot.
Following along with Jolson's rendition, you can see the edited portion he performs.
The English translation of the text is:
All vows, bonds, promises, obligations, and oaths [to God] wherewith we have vowed, sworn and bound ourselves from this Day of Atonement unto the next Day of Atonement, may it come unto us for good; lo, of all these, we repent us in them. They shall be absolved, released, annulled, made void, and of none effect; they shall not be binding nor shall they have any power. Our vows [to God] shall not be vows; our bonds shall not be bonds; and our oaths shall not be oaths.
Listen to Kol Nidre from the Lux Radio Theatre presentation of The Jazz Singer, 1947