Confession (Vidui)

A first step toward repairing a wrong

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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."

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.