Confession (Vidui)

A first step toward repairing a wrong

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The following article addresses the general Jewish view on confession and can be applied to the Yom Kippur confessions as well. It is reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

In Judaism, a penitent sinner must give verbal expression to his remorse: He must confess his sin before God pardons him. Strictly speaking, the confession is acceptable even in the bare formulation: “I have sinned,” but more elaborate forms have been compiled and used. Maimonides (Teshuvah, ch.1‑2) holds that the more the sinner confesses at length the better, but gives as the basic form: “O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before Thee by doing such‑and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.”

 Although Jewish apologists have affirmed that in Judaism confession is to God alone not to a priest, as in Catholicism, and although it is true that, on the whole, the Jewish teachers frown on public confession as brazen (on this there is a discussion in the Talmud, Berakhot 34b), it is incorrect to say that confession of sin addressed to another human being is entirely unknown in any version of the religion.

In the circle of the 13th‑century German pietists who produced the Sefer Hasidim, the idea is found of confessing sins to a spiritual mentor, a ‘father confessor,’ who would give the sinner a penance to perform. The Sefer Hasidim is fullyaware that the Talmud does frown on confession to others, but holds that this does not apply where the confession is made to a discreet sage who can be relied upon not to publish the sin abroad and who can instruct the sinner how to do penance for his particular sins so that he may inherit eternal life. There may well be a Christian influence in all this, although it is cast in a Jewish form. In some versions of Hasidism, too, confession to a mentor, in this case the Hasidic master, the Zaddik, is advocated.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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