Before a wedding, the confession enables a person to enter a new chapter of life with a clear conscience. The confession before death recognises that life and death are in the hands of God; if it is death that has been decreed, one prays that it may be an atonement for all their sins.
Both confessions apply to sins against God; where other people have been harmed, steps should have been taken before this to secure their pardon, which must not be stubbornly withheld.
The Yom Kippur confession ritual was originally accompanied by sacrifices. Without a Temple we have confession without sacrifice. The confession is made directly to God; Rabbi Akiva remarked, “How fortunate you are, O Israel. Before whom do you cleanse yourselves, and who grants you cleansing? Your Father in heaven!” (Yoma 8:9).
The confession box in which a person reveals sins to a priest and asks for forgiveness has no place in normative Judaism (B’rachot 34b), which does not authorise a human being to grant forgiveness to another for sins against God.
Yet there were movements that had other ideas. The Zadokites encouraged confession before a kohen. The pietists of medieval Germany believed in making confession before a mentor (moreh), who would often prescribe acts of mortification. Some 16th century kabbalists confessed to one another.
Chassidic teachers believed that revealing one’s sins to a tzaddik helped to break the power of the evil inclination. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov urged his followers to open up their souls to a sage and ask him how to repent.
But the powers of the spiritual guide are limited: forgiveness is up to God. How widespread these confessions were is not certain, but it did become a practice in some Chassidic groups to bring all one’s problems to the rebbe.
In modern Jewish life, people do sometimes come to a rabbi to lay their conscience bare. “I have to tell someone,” is what is often said. There is however no automatic clergy privilege in Judaism. The halachah does not automatically allow the rabbi to keep the information to himself, especially if it involves an offence against the law.
What about a person who tells the rabbi about a sin committed against God? Here the rabbi will encourage the person to open his or her conscience directly to God, though there are ways in which the rabbi can help this along.
Back to Yom Kippur. Some people find it paradoxical that the best tunes are reserved for the Viddu’i. Ashamnu, bagadnu: “We have sinned, we have transgressed!” – with what gusto the words are sung.
It has been likened to the cleaner in the royal palace. She sings as she wields her mop and broom. She gets such pleasure out of making the palace shine. And so it is with us. We are remorseful, but we are glad to be able to make a fresh start.