Confession (Vidui)

A first step toward repairing a wrong

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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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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.