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Confession in Judaism

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In Judaism, confession (Hebrew וידוי, Viddui) is a step in the process of atonement during which a Jew admits to committing a sin before God. In sins between a Jew and God, the confession must be done without others present (The Talmud calls confession in front of another a show of disrespect). On the other hand, confession pertaining to sins done to another Jew are permitted to be done publicly, and in fact Maimonides calls such confession "immensely praiseworthy".

The confession of a sin in itself does not bring immediate forgiveness, but rather it marks a point in time after which a person's demonstration of the recognition and avoidance of similar future transgressions show whether he or she has truly recovered from the sin and therefore whether he or she deserves forgiveness for it.

The Structure of a Confession

Maimonides, in his book Mishneh Torah writes in Hebrew:

כיצד מתודין? אומר: 'אנא ה' חטאתי עויתי פשעתי לפניך ועשיתי כך וכך הרי נחמתי ובושתי במעשי ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה' וזהו עיקרו של וידוי וכל המרבה להתוודות ומאריך בענין זה הרי זה משובח
--Mishneh Torah: Hil. Teshuvah Chapter 1, Law 2


How does one confess? [He or she] says: 'Please God! I have intentionally sinned, I have sinned out of lust and emotion, and I have sinned unintentionally. I have done [such-and-such] and I regret it, and I am ashamed of my deeds, and I shall never return to such a deed.' That is the essence of confession, and all who are frequent in confessing and take great value in this matter, indeed is praiseworthy.

For an explanation of the three types of sins recognized by Jewish theology, see halacha.

In Prayer

In addition to each person's own personal confessions, a form of confession has been added to the daily prayer. There are two accepted structures of confession, the abbreviated confession (וידוי הקטן) and the elongated confession (וידוי הגדול), with both including a list of sins that a person confesses to in the order of the Alephbet; the abbreviated confession lists one sin per letter and the elongated lists two.

The abbreviated confession is said as a portion of Tachanun (daily supplications) immediately following the Amidah. It is recited standing and quietly except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when it is customary to recite it aloud. In many congregations, (mainly Ashkenazic ones) it is even customarily sung on these dates.

This formula begins "We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely, etc.", ("אשמנו, בגדנו, גזלנו, דיברנו דופי, וכו"). An early form of this confession is found most directly in Daniel 9:5-19; see especially verses 5, 9, 18-19, where the supplicant acknowledges himself merit-less, and entreats for God's forgiveness based only on God's own merit, and that God's name should not be tarnished among the nations.

With each confessed sin, a person touches his fist to his chest opposite his heart. The elongated confession is said only on Yom Kippur.

Deathbed Confession

The Talmud[1] teaches that “if one falls sick and his life is in danger, he is told: “Make confession, for all who are sentenced to death make confession.”” Masechet Semachot[2] adds that “When someone is approaching death, we tell him to confess before he dies, adding that on the one hand, many people confessed and did not die, whilst on the other, there are many who did not confess and died, and there are many who walk in the street and confess; because on the merit of confession you will live.” Similar language is employed in the Shulchan Aruch’s codification where it is ruled that the following text should be recited to the terminally ill: “Many have confessed but have not died; and many who have not confessed died. And many who are walking outside in the marketplace confess. By the merit of your confession, you shall live. And all who confess have a place in the World-to-Come.”[3]

The patient is then to recite the deathbed Viduy. There is an abbreviated form[4] intended for those in a severely weakened state and an elongated form[5], “obviously if the sick person wishes to add more to his confession – even the Viduy of Yom Kippur – he is permitted to do so”[6]. Afterwards it is also encouraged for the patient to recite the Shema, enunciate acceptance of the Thirteen Principles of Faith and to donate some money to charity.

Notes & References

  1. BT Shabbos 32a
  2. Semachot lit. means “Joyous Occasions” and is used euphemistically to refer to mourning. Semachot is one of the “Smaller Tractates” that records Amoraic and Tannaic statements that were not included in the canon of the Talmud
  3. Shulchan Aruch YD 338:1
  4. Tur and Shulchan Aruch YD 338 in the name of Ramban
  5. Ma’avar Yabok 1:10
  6. Aruch HaShulchan 338


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