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The Confession of Sins on Yom Kippur
Responsa in a Moment: Volume 6, Issue No. 1, September 2011

High Holidays
Responsa by David Golinkin

In memory of my grandmother,
Esther Perlberg z”l,
who exemplified the simple piety
of Eastern Europe,
on her 36th yahrzeit.

Question: What are the sources for the viduy or confession of sins  (Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York, 1950, p. 140, note 11, says that the original meaning of viduy is “declaration”). on Yom Kippur?  Must we recite the very long confession of sins which is found in the Mahzor?

Responsum:

I) Introduction

As Rabbi Hayyim Kieval has explained (pp. 258-259) on the basis of George Foot Moore and Solomon Schechter,

The Pharisaic authorities set a high value on the act of confession. “The cardinal doctrine of Judaism [is] that the forgiveness of God is bestowed upon the sinner who seeks it of Him in penitence with confession”. “God asks nothing more of man but that he shall say before Him, ‘I have sinned’… But when man says ‘I have sinned’, no angel [of destruction] can touch him”. Similar passages abound. Solomon Schechter sums up the essence of the Rabbinic view: “Confession thus becomes an essential feature of repentance, preceding the various kinds of atonements, at the same time expressive of the determination of man to leave off sinning”.

The main passage about the confession of sins on Yom Kippur is found in a baraita, a teaching of the Tannaim from the time of the Mishnah:

Our Sages have taught: The mitzvah of viduy is on Erev Yom Kippur at dusk, but the Sages said: let him confess before he eats and drinks lest he become inebriated during the meal [before the fast since it was customary to eat and drink a lot – see Yoma 81b and parallels] (For a variant reading “lest he choke”, see the Rif to Yoma 87b and Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:7). And even though he confessed before he ate and drank, he confesses after he eats and drinks… and even though he confessed during arvit – let him confess during shaharitshaharit – let him confess during musaphmusaph – let him confess during minhah,minhah – let him confess during neilah. And where does he recite it [each time]? An individual after his tefillah [=theAmidah] and the sheliah tzibbur recites it in the middle [of theAmidah].” (Yoma 87b; cf. Tosefta Kippurim 4:14, ed. Lieberman, p. 254 and Yerushalmi Kippurim, Chapter 8, fol. 45c). This baraita was later codified by the major codes of Jewish law (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:7; Tur Orah Hayyim607; and cf. Shulhan Arukh, ibid., 607:1).

Surprisingly, even though this baraita says that reciting the viduy is a mitzvah and that it must be recited 11 times, Tannatic literature does not preserve any versions of the viduy recited by Jews in their prayers on Yom Kippur. Therefore, to sketch the history of theviduy, we must examine texts both before and after the Tannaim.

II)  The Biblical Period  (For other Biblical confessions, see Kieval, note 17 andEncyclopaedia Judaica, col. 878).

The kernel of the viduy is found in the Bible. These biblical verses are not connected to Yom Kippur, but the Tannaim mentioned the following three verses as the model for the viduy of the High Priest on Yom Kippur (see Tosefta Kippurim 2:1, ed. Lieberman, pp. 229-230):

  1. “When they sin against You… and You are angry with them and deliver them to the enemy…and they repent and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying:  חטאנו והעוינו רשענו – we have sinned, we have acted perversely, done evil.”  I Kings 8:46-47 in King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the first Temple. (cf. II Chronicles 6:36-37).
  2. חטאנו עם אבותינו העוינו הרשענו “We have sinned like our forefathers, we have acted perversely, done evil” (Psalms 106:6) in a Psalm which describes the Exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the desert.
  3.  חטאנו ועוינו הרשענו ומרדנו וסור ממצוותיך וממשפטיך”We have sinned and acted perversely, we have done evil and we have rebelled and we have deviated from Your commandments and Your laws” (Daniel 9:5). This is part of a lengthy speech in which Daniel asks God to have mercy on Jerusalem and on the sanctuary and return the people from Exile.

III) The Dead Sea Scrolls

Since Solomon Schechter discovered the Damasacus Document in the Cairo Genizah (Solomon Schechter, Documents of Jewish Sectaries I, Cambridge, 1910) and especially since the discoveries at Qumran beginning in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have vastly enriched our knowledge about the Second Temple period and served as a bridge between biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, ritual and theology. The following two confessions are clearly based on the biblical models and serve as a bridge to the viduy formulae of the Sages:

  1. “And the Levites tell/recite the iniquities of the Children of Israel and all the transgressions of their guilt and their sins in the kingdom of Beliyaal, and all those who pass through the covenant confess after them, saying: נעוינו פשענו חטאנו הרשענו אנו ואבותינו לפנינו ‘We have acted perversely, we have transgressed, we have sinned, we have done evil, we and our forefathers before us, by remaining hostile to the covenant of truth and justice, and the Lord of salvation did His justice against us and our forefathers and He rewarded us with the mercy of His grace forever and ever.” Megillat Hasserahim 1:22-1:2, ed. Haberman, Megillot Midbar Yehudah, Tel Aviv, 1959, p. 61; ed. Licht, Jerusalem, 1965, pp. 67-68; Megillot Midbar Yehudah, ed. Kimron, Jerusalem, 2010, pp. 213-214)
  2. A similar confession of sins is found in Megillat Berit Damesek, the Damascus Document (8:50-53, ed. Haberman, p. 83; ed. Chaim Rabin, The Zadokite Documents, second edition, Oxford, 1958, 20:27-30, p. 43; ed. Kimron, p. 21)

    IV) The Confession of Sins of the High Priest on Yom Kippur

Even though the Tannaitic sources do not contain any viduy texts recited by individuals on Yom Kippur, the Mishnah and other Tannaitic sources do contain various versions of the viduy which the High Priest recited in the Temple on Yom Kippur. We have learned, for example, in Mishnah Yoma 3:8:  (I have utilized Ms. Kaufmann A50 of this mishnah. This viduyappears in various forms in Mishnah Yoma 4:2, 6:2; Tosefta Kippurim 2:1, ed. Lieberman, pp. 229-230; Sifra, Aharey Mot, parashah 2, halakhah 4, ed. Weiss fol. 80d; Yerushalmi Kippurim3:7, fol. 40d; Yoma 36b).

אנא השם עויתי פשעתי חטאתי לפניך אני וביתי.
אנא השם כפר נא לעוונות לפשעים ולחטאים שעויתי שפשעתי ושחטאתי לפניך אני וביתי.

O God, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, I and my household. O God, please atone for the iniquities, for the transgressions, and for the sins which I have acted perversely, which I have transgressed, and which I have sinned before You, I and my household, as it is written in the Torah of your servant Moses, saying (Leviticus 16:30): “For on this day [He shall atone you to purify you from all your sins before the Lord shall you be purified.]”

This is the first ancient viduy which is associated exclusively with Yom Kippur, but there is no question that it is a continuation of the above-mentioned confessions and the model for the Amoraic confessions which we shall quote below

V) The Confessions of the Amoraim in Midrashim from Eretz Yisrael

As mentioned above, Tannaitic literature does not contain any versions of the viduy recited by Jews in their prayers on Yom Kippur. Two midrashim written in Eretz Yisrael in the period of theAmoraim (ca. 200-400 c.e.) have preserved two versions of this type of viduy:

  1. “Rabbi Ba bar Avina said: How should a person confess on Erev Yom Kippur? A person must say: מודע כל מה שעשיתי, בדרך רע הייתי עומד, וכל מה שעשיתי עוד איני עושה כמוהו. יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלוהי שתמחל לי על כל עוונותיי ותסלח לי על כל פשעי ותכפר לי על כל חטאי.

“May everything I have done be known, I stood in a bad path, and everything I did I will no longer do the same. May it be will before You God my Lord that you forgive me for all my iniquities, and forgive me for all my transgressions, and atone me for all my sins” (Leviticus Rabbah 3:3, ed. Margaliot, pp. 61-62; and cf. Yerushalmi Yoma 8:9, fol. 45c).

  1. “And they [=the Jewish people] say in this language: But we have sinned, acted perversely, done evil, transgressed, rebelled, disobeyed, and deviated from Your commandments and Your laws and it has not been worth it to us ‘and You are the righteous with regard to all that has come upon us, for You acted truthfully and we have done evil’ (Nehemiah 9:33).” (Pesikta RabbatiPiska 35, ed. Ish-Shalom, fol. 160b).

VI) The Confessions of the Amoraim in the Babylonian Talmud

Seven different confessions for Yom Kippur are quoted or hinted at in the Babylonian Talmud, and they all appear in one passage immediately after the viduy requirement quoted above (Yoma 87b):

  1. “Rav said: Atah yodea razei olam“, which refers to a prayer found in all versions of the mahzor:

You know the mysteries of the world, and the secrets of all living beings.
You search all the chambers of the belly, you discern kidneys and the heart,
Nothing is hidden from You, and nothing is hidden from Your eyes.
(Rabbi Morris Silverman, ed., High Holiday Prayer Book, p. 240; Rabbi Jules Harlow, ed., Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 406; Rabbi Edward Feld, ed., Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 236).

  1. “and Samuel said: meemaamakey halev“. This viduy was lost for centuries until it was published by Israel Abrahams from a Genizah fragment (HUCA I [1924], pp. 377-385):

You know the depths of the heart, and the secrets of kidneys you know.
The inclinations of creatures are revealed to you, and his thoughts from You are not concealed.
Forgiver of iniquity and transgression You were called.
You are our Lord our God who knows that our end is the worm.
Our iniquities we confess before You Oh Lord our God,
bend Your ear to our request.”

  1. “and Levi said: ‘and in Your Torah it is written saying’ “. This sentence is difficult to fathom because Levi does not quote a verse! Rashi says that the missing verse is Leviticus 16:30 which we have seen above in the Mishnah: “For on this day He shall atone you to purify you from all your sins before the Lord shall you be purified”. Indeed, one manuscript of Yoma and four medieval rabbis had this verse in their versions of the Talmud (See R.N.N Rabinowitz, Dikdukey Soferim to Yoma, Munich, 1872, p. 309, note 3). On the other hand, it could be that in Levi’s opinion it is enough to say this phrase without quoting a verse, as Rav states about Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot in Rosh Hashanah 35a.
  2. “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Ribon haolamim‘ “. He is apparently referring to a prayer found today in the early morning

blessings:  (See Sefer Yerei’im Hashalem, Vilna, 1892, paragraph 263, p. 240 who had this reading in the Talmud). Sovereign of all worlds!
Not because of our righteousness do we lay our supplication before You,
but because of Your great mercies.
What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? What our righteousness?  What our help? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before You, Oh Lord our God and God of our fathers?…

  1. “Rav Yehudah said: ‘for our sins are too numerous to count, and our sins are too mighty to count.’ ” This viduy has been preserved in different forms in different sources (See Dikdukey Soferim, p. 309, end of note 4; Ormann, pp. 6-7, 27; Goldschmidt, p. 10, end of note 11; Entziklopedia Talmudit, col. 434, note 285). Here, for example, is theviduy for Neilah in the Siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon (Jerusalem, 1941, p. 262):

What shall we say before You who sits on high, and what shall we tell before You who dwells in the heavens?
For our iniquities are too numerous to count and our sins are too mighty to count.
“For You Lord are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon You” (Psalms 86:5).

6.Rav Hamnuna said: Elohay ad shelo notzarti eini kedai.

Oh Lord, before I was formed I had no worth,
and now that I have been formed, I am as though I had not been formed.
Dust am in my life, yea even more so in my death.
Behold I am before thee like a vessel filled with shame and confusion.
May it be Your will, O Lord my God and the God of my fathers. that I sin no more,
and as for the sins I have committed before You,
purge them away in your abundant mercy but not by means of affliction and suffering.

This viduy, which is quoted in Yoma 87b, is found in most versions of the mahzor until today. Interestingly enough, this very same prayer appears in Berakhot 17a as the private prayer of Rava which he recited at the end of the Amidah every day of the year.

  1. “Mar Zutra said: ‘if he said “aval hatanu – but we have sinned” that is sufficient.’” (The printed editions read: “aval anahnu hatanu” – “for we have sinned” but anahnu is missing in many versions – see Dikdukey Soferim, p. 309, note 7 and Goldschmidt, p. 11, notes 16-17). The Talmud then reports that the Amora Samuel used to stand when the Cantor reached these words and his pupil Bar Hamdudey therefore concluded: “this is the ikar viduy[=the gist of the viduy]”.

VII) The Viduy in Medieval Prayer Books

In the post-talmudic period, the Geonim began to edit the prayers in siddurim such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon and Siddur Rav Saadia. They added a number of lengthy sections to the viduyincluding the alphabetic acrostic Ashamnu, also called viduy zuta – the small viduy, and Al Het, also known as viduy rabbah – the largeviduy. This latter section was originally quite short but now contains 44 lines in the standard Ashkenazic mahzorim (See Landshuth, pp. 496-499; Baer, p. 417; Elbogen, pp. 113-114; Davidson, letter Ayin, No. 505; Goldschmidt, p. 11, note 14).

VIII) The Viduy in the Major Codes of Jewish Law

The major codes of Jewish law ruled according to the opinion of Mar Zutra in Yoma 87b, that if one says “aval hatanu – but we have sinned” one has fulfilled the obligation of viduy (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:8; Tur and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 607:3). Rabbi Yosef Karo (ibid., 607:2) quotes various opinions as to whether a person needs to list his sins. Rabbi Moshe Isserles adds that “reciting Al Het according to the order of the Alef Bet is not considered listing your sins since everyone says it together, but rather it is like a formula of prayer”.

  1. IX) What can we learn from this survey about the viduy?

This survey of ancient texts teaches us that the confession of sins on Yom Kippur is modeled on Biblical and Second Temple formulae which were not recited on Yom Kippur. These confessions were all in Hebrew and couched in the plural since “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – “all Jews are responsible for one another” (see Shevuot39a; but cf. Kieval, note 29 for viduy prayers in the singular). The basic premise of the viduy is that we ourselves are entirely to blame for our own sins, a theme which appears in rabbinic literature in stories such as that about Eleazar bar Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a). The viduy texts also state that God discerns all of our secrets, but He is merciful and willing to forgive.

We have also learned from this survey that even though theTannaim required Jews to recite the viduy 11 times on Yom Kippur, they did not provide any specific text to recite. The Amoraim inEretz Yisrael and Babylon mention or quote nine different versions of the viduy which proves that there was no standard text. This is why Mar Zutra and the codes of Jewish law say that it is enough to recite “aval hatanu” – “but we have sinned”.

I would like to conclude with a beautiful story told by a professor of Jewish thought at JTS about Rabbi Simon Greenberg (1901-1993), who was Vice Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years.

[The professor] came back one year after officiating at a synagogue during the High Holy Days and said to his teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg: “Professor Greenberg, I simply can’t take the Al Het anymore! Forty-four sins repeated [many] times – it’s just too much!” And Dr. Greenberg said to him: “Of course it is. I haven’t said them all for years.”
My friend was taken aback. Could it be that his teacher, who was such a genuinely pious person, hadn’t recited the Al Hetin years? “What do you mean?” he asked.
“It’s very simple,” said Dr. Greenberg. “What I do each time is I choose one of the sins on the list, one that applies to me. And I think about its implications and meditate on how and why I committed it – and by the time I am finished thinking about that one sin, the rest of the people have finished reciting the whole list.” (Rabbi Jack Riemer, The World of the High Holy Days, Miami, 1991, p. 301)

Rabbi Greenberg z”l understood that the purpose of the viduy is not to recite a lengthy list of sins by rote, but to actually confessour own sins. May we all recite the viduy this year in that spirit.

David Golinkin
18 Elul 5771
Jerusalem


Bibliography

Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, 1963, pp. 215-221

Joseph Baumgarten, Studies in Qumran Law, Leiden, 1977, pp. 54-56

Yitzhak Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael, Rodelheim, 1868, pp. 414-421

Israel Davidson, Otzar Hashirah Vihapiyyut, second edition, New York, 1970

Yitzhak Ismar Elbogen, Hatefillah Beyisrael B’hitpathutah Hahistorit, Tel Aviv, 1972

Ismar Elbogen, Studien zur Geschichte des Judischen Gottesdienstes, Berlin, 1907

Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 5, cols. 878-880, s.v. Confession of Sins

Entziklopedia Talmudit, Volume 11, Jerusalem, 1974, s.v. Viduy, cols. 412-455

Daniel Goldschmidt, Mahzor Leyamim Noraim, Vol. II: Yom Kippur, Jerusalem, 1970

Herman Hayyim Kieval, The High Holy Days, second expanded edition, Jerusalem, 2004, Book 2, Chapter 3

Eliezer Landshut, Siddur Hegyon Lev, Konigsburg, 1845

Arthur Marmorstein, “The Confession of Sins for the Day of Atonement”, in Essays in Honor of J. H. Hertz, London, 1942, pp. 293-305

  1. Marmorstein, “L’eilu ‘Itmar Nami’ Batalmud“, Tarbitz 17 (5706), pp. 68-71

Gustav Ormann, Das Sundenbekentniss des Versohnungstages, Frankfurt am Main, 1934


All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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