The Dimensions of Repentance

How repentance and confession are related

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Note carefully that only the first half of the formula of confession which Maimonides sets forth as obligatory is identical with the formula employed by the High Priest in the Temple on the Day of Atonement ("I beseech Thee, 0 Lord! I have sinned …;" cf. Mishnah Yoma 3:8). In place of the second half ("I am contrite and ashamed ... I will never do this again"), the High Priest used to offer a prayer and say: "I beseech Thee, 0 Lord, acquit me of the iniquities and the transgressions and the sins which I have committed before Thee!" Maimonides deleted the prayer portion from the formula of remorse ("I am contrite and ashamed and resolution for the future ("I will never do this again").

Elsewhere in the Mishnah Torah (Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, Chapter 3, Section 14), Maimonides ruled that every sacrifice must be accompanied by confession. "Whoever brings a burnt‑offering, confesses; a sin‑offering, confesses; a trespass‑offering, confesses …" What is the formula of confession to be used by one who sins in error and is obligated to bring a sin­ offering? The answer to this question seems, at first, to belong to the Laws of Repentance, in which is found the formula for confession quoted above. However, in the Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, Maimonides sets forth another formula of confession (Chapter 3, Section 15).

"How does one confess? One says, 'I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed, and have done thus and thus and I have come back in repentance before Thee and this is my acquittal.'"

If we compare the two formulae of confession, the following significant differences can be discerned between them. The first one that is in the Laws of Repentance has the phrase "before Thee" appear immediately after "I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed;" while in the second formula, in the Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, it appears later, in the phrase "I have come back in repentance before Thee." At the same time, in the second formula, the element of resolution for the future ("I will never do this again") has been dropped; instead, there appears the phrase "and this is my acquittal," whose meaning is far from clear.

In light of this, it may be said that the concept of confession has more than one dimension. It is not an act that has an independent existence, nor is it something that stands on its own. It is, rather, the finale, the conclusion of another act--that of "repentance."

As we have already explained on several occasions, repentance is not a sudden occurrence. It does not begin at nightfall of the eve of the Day of Atonement, just moments before the recitation of confession. Repentance sprouts forth and grows in the course of a long and drawn‑out process typified by doubt and speculation, soul-searching and spiritual reckoning. First comes the inner stirring which generates actual repentance. A great gap often intercedes between the idea and the act, for crystallized thinking is the end product of intuitive, undefined thoughts. They take hold of one in the darkness of the night, they emerge from the innermost recesses of the secret self, and man tries to fend off some of them and hide them from himself, not to mention, from others. The road that leads from these first stirrings until the actual contemplation of repentance is long, indeed and even then, after the rational idea is clearly formed in thought, it must be reborn and translated into action.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.