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Encyclopedia Judaica:
Confession of Sins


Jewish Concepts: Table of Contents | Honor | Soul


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CONFESSION OF SINS (Heb. וִדּוּי, viddui).

Biblical Literature

In the Bible, the confession of sin committed either individually or collectively is an essential prerequisite for expiation and atonement. Such confession is often followed by divine pardon. Thus the Lord mitigates His rebuke of Cain when the latter admits his sin (Gen. 4:13). David, censured by the prophet Nathan, confesses his iniquity in connection with Uriah and Bath-Sheba and is forgiven by God. David's confession and God's mercy are the subject of Psalms 32, 41, 51, and 69 in which God's righteousness is extolled. Other instances of individuals confessing their sins are Judah publicly acknowledging his inadvertent transgression with Tamar (Gen. 38:26; Sot. 7b); Achan, who had stolen from the forbidden spoils of Jericho, at the exhortation of Joshua avowing his sin (Josh. 7:19–21); and Saul asking forgiveness for having contravened God's commandment and permitted the people to retain Amalekite booty (I Sam. 15:24–25). Examples of biblical confessions for the nation, made by the leaders of the people, are Moses after the worship of the golden calf (Ex. 32:31), the high priest's confession on the Day of *Atonement (Lev. 16:6, 11, 21), and Ezra's (9:6, 7, 15) and Nehemiah's (1:6, 7; 9:2, 33–35).

The various sin and guilt offerings prescribed by the sacrificial ritual had to be preceded by confession. The sacrifice was brought to the altar by the offender who confessed his transgressions while placing both hands upon the head of the sacrificial animal (Lev. 1:4; Maim. Yad, Ma'aseh ha-Korbanot 3:6, 14–15). No formula for the exact wording of these confessions is given in the Bible; the Mishnah, however, records the confession of the high priest on the Day of Atonement: "O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before Thee, I and my house. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before Thee, I and my house, as it is written in the Law of Thy servant Moses, 'For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord'" (Lev. 16:30; Yoma 3:8).

Rabbinic Literature and Synagogue Ritual

Maimonides, basing his views on biblical and rabbinic traditions, ruled that it is a positive injunction to confess one's sins before seeking atonement: "Whether it is a positive or negative commandment which the individual has disobeyed, either willingly or inadvertently, it is a positive precept for him to confess the sin when desirous of repenting.…" (Maim. Yad, Teshuvah 1:1). Confession of sin became an integral part of the synagogue ritual. It is especially characteristic of the Day of Atonement where the supplication for forgiveness of sin forms the focal point of the service. Although, according to the Talmud, the simple statement "Truly, we have sinned" (Yoma 87b) is sufficient for confession, elaborate formulas have gradually evolved, the earliest dating back to the third century C.E. One such formula composed for the eve of the Day of Atonement reads, "I confess all the evil I have done before Thee; I stood in the way of evil; and as for all (the evil) I have done, I shall no more do the like; may it be Thy will, O Lord my God, that Thou shouldst pardon me for all my iniquities, and forgive me for all my transgressions, and grant me atonement for all my sins" (Lev. R. 3:3); while another states: "My God, before I was formed, I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed, it is as if I had not been formed. I am dust in my life, how much more in my death. Behold I am before Thee like a vessel full of shame and reproach. May it be Thy will that I sin no more, and what I have sinned wipe away in Thy mercy, but not through suffering" (Yoma 87b).

*Ashamnu ("We have incurred guilt"), a confession of sin listing sins in alphabetical order known as Viddui Katan ("Small Confession"), and *Al Ḥet ("For the sin which we have committed before Thee"), known as Viddui Gadol ("Great Confession"), are first mentioned in geonic liturgy. To the sins enumerated, additions have gradually been made to include all possible transgressions, since the repentant individual may have forgotten some of the sins which he is required to mention explicitly. Confessions, being formulated as communal prayers, are thus recited in the first person plural, "We have sinned, transgressed, and rebelled," and a worshiper may confess all the sins stated even when certain that he did not commit some of them (Isserles to Sh. Ar., OḤ 607:2). These confessional prayers are not only recited on the Day of Atonement, they also form part of the *Selihot services during the weeks preceding the Day of Atonement. Under the influence of the Kabbalah, Ashamnu was introduced into the daily service; in the Sephardi-Oriental, the Italian, and the Yemenite rites it is recited on Mondays and Thursdays only, and in the hasidic rite daily. The former custom is observed in most Israeli synagogues. Conservative and Reform rites have retained the confession-of-sins prayers, particularly as part of the High Holidays services.

Individual Confessions

Confession of sins also extends beyond the synagogal sphere and can be said by individuals during silent prayer and on diverse occasions. Confession, whether collective or individual, is always made directly to God and never through an intermediary, but some 16th-century kabbalist ascetics confessed sins to each other. The most important occasion for individual confession is on the deathbed. The Talmud advises that a person who is seriously ill should be exhorted to confess his sins (Shab. 32a), and a criminal about to be executed is also urged to confess. If he is unable to compose his own confession, he is prompted to say, "May my death be an expiation for all my sins" (Sanh. 6:2), and when he is too weak to recite the confession, it should be read to him (Shab. 32a). While no special form of deathbed confession existed in ancient times, a formula has become customary (see *Death ). The dying person, if he is still conscious and has the strength to do so, recites the Day of Atonement confession in the singular. A brief confession, formulated in the 13th century but which is of much earlier origin, is also recited (Hertz, Prayer, 1064). It is also customary for a bridegroom to recite the Day of Atonement confession at the afternoon service before his wedding, with the wedding day being considered a sort of judgment day for the bride and groom.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Baer, Seder, 415–21; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 149–51; Idelsohn, Liturgy, 111f., 228f.; E. Levy Yesodot ha-Tefillah (19522), 12–17; E. Munk, The World of Prayer, 2 (1963), 239–50; ET, 11 (1965), 412–55.


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

 

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