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    The Yom Kippur confessions – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Who compiled the Yom Kippur confessions?

    A. The confession, viddui, did not originally follow any set form of words. Cain said merely: “My punishment is heavier that I can bear” (Gen. 4:13). Jacob declared: “I am not worthy of all the true and steadfast love which Thou hast shown to Thy servant” (Gen. 32:9). David confessed, “I have done a very wicked thing… I have been very foolish” (II Sam. 24:10).

    Gradually certain phrases like these became more or less standard: “We have sinned and acted perversely and wickedly” (I Kings 8:47); “we have sinned like our forefathers, we have erred and done wrong” (Psalm 106.6); “we have sinned, we have done what was wrong and wicked; we have rebelled, we have turned our backs on Thy commandments and Thy decrees” (Dan. 9:5).

    The High Priest made confession on Yom Kippur for himself and his household, the priests, and the people (he placed himself first, in accordance with the principle that only he who is pure can plead for others). He used the phrase chatati aviti pashati, “I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed”. The three verbs encompass chata’im, careless sins; avonot, conscious iniquities; and pesha’im, rebellious transgressions (Yoma 3:8). On this precedent is based the terminology we utilise today.

    Our viddui comprises the following elements:

    1. An introductory paragraph, leading up to the words, aval anachnu chatanu, “indeed, we have sinned”. This phrase, according to the Talmud, is the essential part of the confession; Mar Zutra declared (Yoma 87b) that after aval anachnu chatanu, nothing more is really necessary.

    2. Ashamnu, the brief confession listing sins in alphabetical order. This goes back to at least the 8th century and probably even earlier.

    3. The viddui of Rav: “Thou knowest the secrets of eternity and the most hidden mysteries of all living… Naught is concealed from Thee, or hidden from Thine eyes. May it then be Thy will… to forgive us for all our sins”.

    4. Al Chet, a long alphabetical confession which began to develop at the time of Jose ben Jose (about 600 CE). The modern Ashkenazi version has 44 lines, whilst the Sephardim have a shorter form. The difference between the two may reflect an ancient dispute (Yoma 86b) as to whether it is necessary to specify sins in detail.

    5. Ve’al Chata’im, eight lines listing sacrifices which were once imposed when sins had been committed. This passage dates from the 8th or 9th century.

    6. The viddui of R. Hamnuna: “O 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… before Thee I am 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.”

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