Ritualised Confession

Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy discusses two offerings that are to be brought to the Temple by farmers and landowners.  One was an annual event: each year villagers would stream into Jerusalem in a colourful and noisy procession, bearing the first fruits of their crop. Fruits which they had marked out on the plant as soon as they had appeared by tying a ribbon around them.

Those who were close would bring dates and grapes and those from afar would bring dried figs and raisins. A bull would go before them and its horns would be plated with gold and it would have an olive crown around its head. The flute would play before them until they drew near to Jerusalem. (Mishnah Bikkurim 3,3)

When they reached the Temple they handed the fruit in a basket to a priest and recited a declaration, the first part of which is familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah.

My father was a wandering Syrian. He went down to Egypt, few in number, dwelt there and became a great mighty and populous nation. But the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us; they subjected us to heavy labour. And we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our labour, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm and great power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold, I bring the first fruits of the land…

Immediately after this passage, the Torah introduces another declaration, to be recited in the third and sixth years of every seven year cycle. In these years the poor of the land were to be given a tithe of all agricultural produce. Once the tithe had been given the farmer was to recite:

I have removed the sanctified produce from the house and also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, according to all your commandments that you have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments and I have not forgotten. I have not eaten it in mourning, I have not removed it in uncleanness and I have not given of it to the dead; I have listened to the voice of Lord my God, I have done all that you have commanded me. Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised our ancestors; a land flowing with milk and honey.

These two declarations are the earliest examples of fixed Jewish prayer.

When the Mishnah refers to these two declarations, the one to be read over first fruits and the other to be read over the second tithe, it calls them by the name viddui (M. Bikkurim 2,2; M. Ma’aser Sheni 5,10). It is a word that does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Usually translated as confession, the word comes from the grammatical root ydh; the same root as the verb to thank or acknowledge. In these two instances the viddui is probably best understood as an expression of gratitude for divine bounty, for the harvest commemorated in these two rituals.

But the root ydh is also commonly used in the Torah to signify a confession. It is used to designate the confession that is recited when someone brings a sin offering, and the confession over sins that the High Priest makes on behalf of the whole nation on Yom Kippur. In neither of these cases does the Torah prescribe the words that are to be used; these confessions are to be framed according to circumstances. The Mishnah also calls these confessions viddui (M. Megillah 2,5) .

So it appears that as far as the the Mishnah is concerened the word viddui can mean both a formal liturgical declaration and an unspecified confession.

By the time of the Talmud however, the word viddui has taken on a third meaning. The Talmud (Berachot 17a) lists a series of confessional formulae that different rabbis composed for their personal use. The confession that Rav Hamnuna borrowed from Rava (which we still recite today) is described as a viddui:

After his prayer, Rava said the following: My God, before I was created I was not worthy, and now that I have been created it is as if I had not been created. I am dust in my life, all the more so in my death. Behold I am before You like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation. Therefore, may it be your will, Lord my God, that I will sin no more, and those sins I have committed before you, cleanse in your great mercy but not by by means of suffering and illness. This is the confession of Rav Hamnuna Zuti on Yom Kippur.

The confession that we recite on Yom Kippur, ashamnu, bagadenu, gazalnu etc., is also described as a viddui.  It is a formal, confession using a prescribed form of words, different to that of Rav Hamnuna but because it is recited communally.

The fixed, public viddui  is post-Talmudic and underscores a significant shift in our Jewish conception of confession. The confessions listed in Berachot 17a were statements from the hearts. They were almost certainly not intended to become formulae for public recitation. But as halacha became formalised, personal compositions gave way to prescribed formulae. Because the Mishnah had used the word viddui to designate both the practice of confession and those formulae set out in over Deuteronomy 26, it was logical to refer to the fixed confession formula by the same name.

Confession became ritualised. It shifted from being a personal matter, in which each worshipper reflected on their own wrongdoings and composed confessions from the heart, to a public event, in which all possible categories of offences were recited by everyone. The challenge today is to relate the formula we recite to the things that we know in our heart we didn’t get right and need to improve.




© 2020 Harry Freedman Books