Viddui: The Public Confession of Sins on Yom Kippur

By Rabbi Richard Sarason

The most central liturgy of Yom Kippur is also perhaps, for moderns, the most problematic. How do we understand the words “sin” and atonement” that lie at the heart of the act of viddui, the public confession of sins that immediately follows the Amidah during each of the Yom Kippur services? Perhaps some historical perspective will help us to better appreciate and negotiate this liturgy.

In the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, kapparah – “expiation,” “atonement,” “making amends” for improper behavior toward God (and, presumably, toward one’s fellows as well, since the latter misdeeds are deemed to be breaking faith with God) – is effected by the High Priest through sacrificial ritual in the sanctuary on behalf of himself and his household, the priestly caste, and the entire Israelite people (Lev. 16:17). He also must make a verbal declaration/confession (viddui) of the iniquities/wrongdoings (avonot), transgressions (p’sha’im) and sins/failures (chata’im) of the people while these are being physically transferred, through the laying-on of the High Priest’s hands, to the head of the goat that will be sent out to Azazel in the wilderness, where it will perish (Lev. 16:21). The Rabbis, in their account – or re-imagination – of this ritual as it was observed during the late Second Temple period, insist that all three of these sacrificial rites be preceded in each case by a verbal declaration by the High Priest, while placing both of his hands on the head of the several sacrificial animals to whom his sins, those of the priestly caste, and those of the Israelite people are to be transferred for obliteration.

The third confession, on behalf of the Israelite people (the only one mentioned in the narrative of Leviticus), is envisioned by the Rabbis as follows:

Please, O YHVH!1 Your people the household of Israel have done wrong (ivu), have transgressed/rebelled (pash’u), and have sinned against/failed (chat’u) You.

Please, O YHVH! Expiate/atone for the wrongdoings (avonot), transgressions (p’sha’im), and sins (chata’im) that Your people the household of Israel have committed, transgressed, and sinned against You – as has been written in the Torah of Moses Your servant, For on this day shall atonement be made for you to purify/cleanse you; from all of your sins against Adonai you shall be purified (Lev. 16:30). (Mishnah Yoma 6:2)

The mishnaic texts of these priestly confessions are included as well in the rabbinic Seder Ha’avodah liturgy on Yom Kippur, which verbally reenacts, through retelling, the Temple rites of atonement that can no longer be performed.

But in place of these Temple rites, the Rabbis additionally enacted that each individual must now make a verbal confession of sins, as must the congregation as a whole: the verbal rite takes the place of the inoperative sacrificial one (Tosefta Kippurim 4:14-15;Yerushalmi Yoma 8:6; Bavli Yoma 87b). Notwithstanding the residual magical elements here, the underlying psychological reality (certainly familiar to Freud and still operative today) is the need to verbalize something – to call it by a name and externalize it – in order to fully recognize, understand, and gain mastery over it. The Rabbis also recognized that, in the case of wrongdoing between one person and another, the aggrieved party needed to be pacified, and restitution made, before any of the verbal, performative rites of Yom Kippur could have any efficacy (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:2-3) captures all of this particularly well. He writes:

If a person has violated any of the precepts of the Torah, either willfully or in error, and repents and turns away from his wrongdoing, he must confess before God, as it is said, When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with God, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done [and make restitution] (Numbers 5:6-7) – this means confess in words . . .The fuller and more detailed the confession one makes, the more praiseworthy is he. . .

What is repentance? It consists in this, that the wrongdoer abandon his misdeed, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it. . .It is also necessary that he make oral confession and utter the resolutions that he made in his heart. He who confesses in words and has not resolved in his heart to forsake his misdeeds is like one who purifies himself while holding in his hand a dead creeping thing {=a major source of impurity]. Moreover, it is necessary to specify the sin.

The vocabulary of the High Priest’s confession in Lev. 21, as rendered in Mishnah Yoma, becomes the liturgical vocabulary of confession: chatanuavinupasha’nu – “We have sinned, we have committed wrongdoing, we have transgressed.” Indeed, one opinion in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 87b) holds that all one need say is aval anachnu chatanu (“We surely have sinned”), and that suffices for the required declaration. But Jewish liturgical and poetic creativity tends to be more prolix, preferring that everything be spelled out in detail. Various poetic catalogues of sins were created, partly as an aesthetic act of verbal acuity, by generations of liturgical poets.

Two of these comprise the standard confessions now found in the traditional prayer book. The so-called “Short Viddui,” Ashamnu, is an alphabetical acrostic in which each word, following the order of the Hebrew alphabet, articulates a different transgression:  Ashamnu,BagadnuGazalnuDibarnu Dofi . . . (“We have sinned, we have acted treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander . . .”).2 The “Long Viddui,” Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha, is a double acrostic in which every two lines articulate two sins beginning with the same letter: b’ones uv’ratson / b’imuts halev . . . (” . . .under duress or willingly, through hardness of heart”), and every line begins with the same phrase: Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha (“For the sin that we have sinned against You”). The acrostic lines periodically are punctuated with the refrain, V’al kulam . . . (“For all of these, O Forgiving God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement”). Additionally, several prose texts – Tavo l’fanecha t’filateinu (“May our prayer come before You”), Sarnu mimitsvotecha (“We have forsaken Your commandments”), S’lach um’chal la’avonoteinu (“Forgive and pardon our iniquities”), Mah nomar l’fanecha (“What can we say before You?”), and Attah yode’a razei olam (“You know every hidden thing since the world began”) – frame each of these poetic confessions

Reform prayer books historically have abbreviated the Viddui, for reasons both of length/ duplication and theology. The penitential style of these texts – one of extreme abjectness and self-blame (“We have little or no merit,” as also in the Selichot, which we shall discuss in coming weeks) – was and remains difficult for moderns. Additionally, the English vocabulary, which of course derives from Christianity, often conjures up Christian notions of sin that do not sit well with Jews. While early Reform prayer books mostly keep the Short Viddui unaltered,3 they all drastically abbreviate the long Viddui, often thereby obliterating its acrostic.4 Except for Isaac Mayer Wise’s Minhag America, all of the North American Reform High Holiday prayer books before Gates of Repentance additionally omit the Short Viddui, replacing it (following Leo Merzbacher’s 1855 prayer book for Temple Emanuel, New York) with the brief phrase, chatanu, avinu, pasha’nu (“We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have done perversely”). Only David Einhorn’s 1858 Olat Tamiddeletes the Viddui in its entirety. The first Union Prayer Book II (1894) introduces a private, silent confession in English before the communal recitation in the morning service. This custom is expanded in the two revisions of UPB II (1922, 1945) to include as well a variety of private confessional meditations geared to the status of the individual reciter (prayers for the aged, for women, for young people, for children). In the UPB, the recitation of theViddui is confined to the evening and morning services only. In GOR, it appears in all services, but with textual variations. Those draft services of the new CCAR Machzor,Mishkan HaNefesh, that are currently available (Ne’ilah has not yet been released) follow the custom of GOR, including the Viddui in every service but varying the textual forms.

Returning to where we started: Hopefully we can perceive the value of publicly giving voice to our faults and failures, together with those of our fellow worshippers and those of our community and society. We may not be able to identify with all of the misdeeds catalogued in the traditional liturgy, or even in its modern adaptations – but we can surely identify with a good number of them. All of us strive to do better next time. For all of us, naming something is the first step to dealing with it.

For further reading:
Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2012)

  1. In this instance, the proper name of God was pronounced.
  2. Recall Chaim Stern’s poetic English rendering in Gates of Repentance: “The sins ofarrogance, bigotry, and cynicism; of deceit and egotism, flattery and greed, [hubris?}, injustice and jealousy . . .”
  3. Interestingly, Isaac M. Wise’s 1866 Minhag America, vol. 2, substitutes the wordgadafnu (“We have spoken insolently/blasphemed”) for the traditional gazalnu (“We have stolen/robbed”). Perhaps the latter was deemed too coarse.
  4. Only Abraham Geiger, both in 1854 and 1870, abbreviates by maintaining a single (as opposed to the traditional double) acrostic.

Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.

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