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While confessing sins and making amends are possible at any time, Yom Kippur focuses on confession. Known by the Hebrew word vidui, the Yom Kippur confession is a public and communal act, recited in the plural. Forgiveness is asked for horrendous sins that the vast majority of individuals did not commit. There are two forms of confession on Yom Kippur; the long confession called the “al chet” (for the sin) and the short alphabetic confession known simply as the vidui (confession). 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.
The Hasidic master Elimelech of Lizansk (1717‑87) writes, in his list of spiritual counsels:
"A man should tell his mentor who teaches him God’s way, or even a trustworthy friend, all the evil thoughts he has which are in opposition to our holy Torah, which the evil inclination brings into his head and heart, whether while he is studying the Torah or offering his prayers or when he lies on his bed or at any time during the day. He should conceal nothing out of shame. The result of speaking of these matters, thus actualizing the potential, will be to break the hold over him of the evil inclination so that it will possess less power to entice him on future occasions, quite apart from the sound spiritual guidance, which is the way of the Lord, he will receive from his friend. This is a marvelous antidote to the evil inclination."
Another Hasidic master, Nahman of Bratslav (1772‑1811), in his anthology of spiritual maxims, Sefer Ha‑Middot, writes: "Good thoughts are the result of confession of sin to scholars."
Confession of sin is an integral part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. At various stages during the service of this great Day of Atonement, a standard confession is repeated by the cantor and the congregation, in some congregations accompanied by a joyous melody. As the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidic Judaism] is reported to have put it: "The charlady who cleanses from their dirt the floors of the king’s palace, sings sweetly as she works."
Originally the form of the Yom Kippur confession was not stereotyped, it being left to the individual to give expression in his own way to his inner hurt. But eventually a formal confession was introduced in which a variety of sins are mentioned in alphabetical order. This alphabetical acrostic form has been a source of puzzlement to many authors. Does it not frustrate the whole purpose of confession when it is turned into a purely mechanical act devoid of inwardness? One answer is that, before the days of printed prayer books, the alphabetical form was an aid to memory. Another reason given for the stereotype formula is that, when the whole congregation adopts the same form of confession, the individual is spared the embarrassment he might have suffered if his particular listing of his sins were to be overheard. In this connection the Talmudic saying is quoted that, in Temple times, the sin‑offering was slaughtered in the same place as the burnt offering in order not to expose the sinner to public shame. The individual is encouraged, however, to think of his particular sins while reciting the standard confession with the congregation.
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