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    Confession of sins – a liturgical commentary

    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 show 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).

    In the Temple, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, made confession on Yom Kippur for himself and his household, for the kohanim, and for 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.

    The Talmud records confession formulae originally used by Talmudic sages in their private devotions (Yoma 87b). Most of these were adopted for general use and entered the liturgy.

    Our viddui today 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 if one said 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 eighth 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 Yose ben Yose (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 eighth or ninth 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”.

    THE SHORT & LONG CONFESSIONS

    The two main confessions are Ashamnu and Al Chet. The fact that both are arranged in alphabetical order seems strange, at least at first sight. Can thoughts and words really be sincere and spontaneous if they have to be accommodated in a set literary framework? Yet such is the skill of the authors that one is not really conscious of the artificiality of the device they have used.

    The reason behind the reliance on the order of the alef-bet, a feature characteristic of the High Holyday liturgy, is quite prosaic. It was simply that authors and editors had to provide an easy aid to memory in days long before printing, when very few worshippers would have had prayer books.

    Other explanations, homiletical but instructive, have also been advanced. Some saw in the use of the alphabet a suggestion that Israel had violated the Law from alef to tav, from beginning to end. The mystics took this idea further when they advised the worshipper, “Make the alef-bet your advocate; let its letters help in formulating your pleas before the Divine Judge”.

    IS IT EFFECTIVE?

    Since God is, by definition, all-knowing, we naturally ask, why recite a confession when He is obviously aware of our sins?

    The answer may be that viddui is valuable to man, more than to God. It is we ourselves who need to be reminded of our lapses. Our memory is fallible, not God’s. The point is made by the Midrash: “From the moment a man is willing to see himself as he is, and to make the admission, ‘I have sinned’, the powers of evil lose their control over him.”

    Further, as Louis Jacobs puts it, in the process of confession “we discover not alone that in some respects we are worse than we fondly imagined ourselves to be, but we discover too, our potentialities for good, that we are in God’s hands, that he knows our nature and does not make impossible demands on us… In the jargon of our day we have to live with ourselves. To be sure, this involves that we try hard to become better than we are, but it also means that we give up trying to be better than we can be.”

    I & NO MESSENGER

    We confess our shortcomings to God alone: “from all your sins, before the Lord shall you be clean” (Lev. 16:30). For Judaism, no other being may mediate between man and God, or claim a share in the forgiveness of sins.

    Admittedly, there were some Jewish sects which advised confession before a kohen and the medieval mystics knew of confession to a trusted friend; Nachman of Breslov recommended asking a spiritual guide for a prescription for penitence. But normative Judaism believes in confession only to God. To adapt a phrase from the Haggadah, the source of Divine help, says God, is “I, not an angel; I, not a seraph; I not a messenger; I, and no other”.

    Every human being has thus the privilege – and duty – of direct communication with God, a thought which filled Rabbi Akiva with joy bordering on ecstasy, as he exclaimed: “Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you made clean, and who makes you clean? Your Father in Heaven!”

    CATEGORIES OF SIN

    What categories of sin are included in the confessions? They are not errors in belief or ritual. They are moral failures: callousness; disrespect towards others, contentiousness, insolence, causeless hatred; and violence; dishonesty, deception, breach of trust, slander; envy, levity, obscenity; and above all, sins committed with the tongue.

    They are not specific sins committed on given dates against particular individuals. For these one has to seek the forgiveness of the person concerned, in line with the teaching in the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) that Yom Kippur brings atonement only for transgressions against God; for sins against man, “Yom Kippur does not bring atonement until one has made peace with his fellow”.

    In this connection Yehudah ben Tema stated: “If you have done your fellow a slight wrong, let it be a great wrong in your eyes, and go and rectify it. If you have done him much good, let it be little in your eyes. If he has done you a great wrong, let it be a little thing in your eyes” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 41).

    The viddui deals with sins arising out of wrong attitudes and because they are sins against your better self, they are sins against your Master. For these Yom Kippur can effect atonement – provided you sincerely resolve to avoid the same sin again. Otherwise, as the Talmud puts it, you are like a person who immerses himself in water to become clean but comes up still clutching the object which was the source of his uncleanness.

    BEATING OF BREAST

    Some worshippers beat the breast with hand or fist while reciting the confession. The Midrash traces this to a verse in Kohelet (7:2): “And the living will lay to his heart”.

    Said Rabbi Meir, “the heart is the seat and source of sin”. Carrying the thought further, it has been suggested that the heart plots the sin and the hand carries it out, and both must guiltily rebuke each other.

    THE MELODY

    Paradoxically, many people chant the confessions with enjoyment; the greatest gusto, strangely, accompanies ve’al chata’im, which enumerates the misdeeds which in ancient times involved four kinds of death penalty – stoning, burning, beheading and strangling!

    The cynic might attribute the glee to masochism. The Baal Shem Tov, who was no cynic, had a more charitable view. He said it is like the cleaner who has the privilege of working for the king and who sings for joy as she mops up the dirt in the royal palace.

    SINGULAR & PLURAL

    Another paradox of the viddui is that it is both private and communal. Couched in the plural (“we have sinned”), it includes sins of which we as individuals may be completely innocent.

    Yet it is no mere formality or play-acting to recite the list in unedited form. Jewish confession is made primarily as a member of society. It is an act of mutual responsibility. Somewhere in our society, every sin listed in the viddui has appeared during the past year. Society has been weakened thereby and we each bear a share of responsibility for failing to prevent others from succumbing to the power of evil.

    The Talmud illustrates the point vividly. In a boat at sea, one of the men begins to bore a hole under his seat. On being remonstrated with, he replies: “But it is my seat under which I am making a hole!” “Yes,” say his comrades; “but when the sea rushes in we shall all be drowned with you”. So it is with society anywhere. Its welfare is in the hands of every one of its members.

    A modern prayer puts it this way:

    “We acknowledge our social responsibility not only for our immediate kin and for our own folk, but for all mankind. As long as nation is arrayed against nation and class against class; as long as oppression and injustice weigh down the lives of any of our fellow men; as long as there is anywhere to be found poverty, disease, ignorance, crime and war, our conscience cannot be at ease.

    “For who is there so self-righteous as to say, I have never, even in the smallest degree, contributed to these evils but have ever done all in my power to combat them? Who can be sure that he has none of the plunder of the poor in his house, and that the bread he eats has not been watered by the tears of those who reap the grain but go hungry?

    “Who can be sure that his words have never helped fan the flame of angry passion that has sent hosts to war, or sown the distrust that makes them amass a burden of armaments in the time of peace…?”

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