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Bible Encyclopedias
Confession of Sin

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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—Biblical Data:

The Scriptures repeatedly prescribe confession of sin as a means to expiation and atonement. "It shall be that when he is guilty of any one of these things, he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing" (Leviticus 5:5). "Aaron shall . . . confess over him [the scapegoat] all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins" (ib. 16:21). "When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit . . . they shall confess their sin which they have done" (Numbers 5:6,7).

Its Effect.

The effect of confession is remission. Thus the Bible states, "And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die" (2 Samuel 12:13). Elihu says, "God looketh upon men, and if any say, I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not [or, "I have not been requited"]: He will deliver his soul from going to the pit, and his life shall see the light" (Job 33:27,28); and Jeremiah declares, "The Lord said to me . . . go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger for ever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God" (Jeremiah 3:11-13). Elsewhere the prophet says, "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously. . . . I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely" (Hosea 14:2 et seq.; see see ATONEMENT).

Confession may be individual, that of a person repenting backslidings; or it may be national, when the public at large humble themselves before God. As examples of the former may be cited the confession of Cain (Genesis 4:13), of Jacob (ib. 9), and of David (2 Samuel 24:10; Psalms 41:4, 51:3, 69:5); of the latter, that of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 14:40); in the dispersion (Leviticus 26:40); at Mizpah, when admonished by Samuel (1 Samuel 7:6), and again at Gilgal, after choosing their first king (ib. 12:10). National confessions are sometimes made through national representatives, as by Moses, after the Israelites worshiped the golden calf (Ex.32:31), by the high priest on Atonement Day (Leviticus 16:21), by Ezra (9:6,7,15), and by Nehemiah (1:6,7; 9:2,33-35).

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Here repentance is likened to a door which, if man opens only as much as the eye of a needle, God opens as wide as a gateway (Cant. R. to 5:2), for whoso is willing to cleanse himself is assisted from above (Shab. 104a; Yoma 38b); and confession may be said to be the opening wedge, or the hinge on which repentance turns. Accordingly the Rabbis teach that Samuel, interceding for Israel (1 Samuel 7:5 et seq.), addressed to God the following argument in favor of his people's salvation: "Lord of the universe! Dost Thou ever require of man more than that he utter, 'I have sinned'? Now, the Israelites do plead, 'We have sinned' [ib. 6]: forgive them" (Midr. Sam. to 7:6; Yer. Ta'an. 2:65d). Elsewhere this doctrine is presented in another form (Yalḳ., Ps. c. 1; Pesiḳ. 25:159a). Citing the Scriptural verse (Proverbs 28:13), "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy," the Rabbis remark, when a man is charged of crime before a human tribunal, as long as he denies his guilt he has a chance for escape, but when he admits his guilt he receives punishment; not so before God; unless man confesses, he receives punishment, but when he confesses, he receives remission, provided he confesses with the determination to forsake his sins. According to another Midrash, even Balaam knew of the insuperable power of repentance and confession when he said (Numbers 22:34), "I have sinned." He knew that nothing may avert heavenly visitation except repentance, and that over one who has sinned and then says, "I have sinned," the messenger of retribution has no power (Tan., Balaḳ, 10). Hence, although Solomon declares, "Evil pursueth sinners" (Proverbs 13:21); and Ezekiel (18:4,20) says, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die," rabbinical lore (with reference to Psalms 25:8 and Amos 5:4) teaches that God Himself says, "Let him repent and he shall be pardoned" (Yer. Mak. 2:31d; Pesiḳ. 25:158b; compare Soṭah 7b; Sanh. 43b).

Formula in the Talmud.

No formal confession is prescribed in the Scriptures; time and circumstances suggested the penitent's thoughts or utterances (compare " Yad," Tefillah, 1:1; Kesef Mishneh ad loc.). Post-Biblical literature, however, contains some formulas. Of these, that embodying the phrase "I have sinned, transgressed, and rebelled" , seems to be the oldest, having formed part of the high priest's confession in the course of the Temple service on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 3:8, 4:2; Tosef., Yoma, 2:1; Sifra, Aḥare, 1:2). It is based on similar expressions used in Biblical times (1 Kings 8:47; Psalms 106:6; Daniel 9:5), and is considered the principal of all confessions (Sifra, c.; "Yad," Teshubah, 1:1; compare Pesiḳ. R. 35, 160b). A rabbi of the fourth century recommends the following to be recited on the eve of the Day of Atonement: "I confess all the wrong I have done before Thee. I have indeed stood on the way of evil; but as I have done I shall do no more. May it please Thee, O Lord my God! to forgive all my errors, to remit all my offenses, and to pardon all my transgressions" (Lev. R. 3:3; compare Yer. Yoma 8:45c). A formula somewhat older, used by some daily, and by others only on the Day of Atonement, is the following: "My God! Before I was formed I was worthless, and now that I am formed I am as if not formed: I am dust while I live; how much more so shall I be when dead. Behold, I am before Thee as a vessel full of shame and disgrace. May it be Thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers! that I shall sin no more, and what I have sinned before Thee blot outin Thy abundant mercy, but not through sufferings and serious diseases" (Ber. 17a; Yoma 87b).

Later Formulas.

The alphabetic confessions ("We have incurred guilt"; ASHAMNU) and ("For the sin which we have committed before Thee") are first mentioned in the literary productions of geonim of the eighth century, the former by Simon Kahira ("Halakot Gedolot," ed. Berlin, 1888, "Hilkot Yom ha-Kippurim," missing in ed. Warsaw, 1874), the latter by Aḥai of Shabḥa ("She'iltot," ). The Talmud, however, explicitly says (Yoma 87b), "When one utters the simple expression, 'Verily we have sinned,' he need say no more"; and this is also the opinion of the casuists ("Hal. Gedol." c.; "Yad," Teshubah, 2:8; Ṭur Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 607). One nearing death, or even when first taken ill, should be exhorted to make confession (Shab. 32a; Sanh. 6:2,43a et seq.), as were all those about to be executed for crime (see ATONEMENT; see CAPITAL PUNISHMENT). If one is unable himself to frame a confession, he is prompted to say, "May my death prove an atonement for all my sins" (Sanh. c.).

  • Maimonides, Yad, Seder Tefillot Kol ha-Shanah;
  • Moses of Coucy, Semag, precept 16;
  • Isaac Aboab, Menorat ha-Maor, Ner , part , 4;
  • Abu Darham, Tefillat Yom ha-Kippurim;
  • Löwe b. Bezalel, Netibot 'Olam, Teshubah,;
  • L. Landshut, Heggon Leb, pp. 489 et seq.;
  • Baer, 'Abodat Yisrael, pp. 414 et seq.;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. 2:1139 et seq.;
  • Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home, pp. 165. et seq.

E. C.
S. M.

—In Hellenistic Literature and in the Liturgy:

Ever since the return from the Exile (see Ezra 9; Daniel 9:4-20), confession of sins has formed an integral part of prayer, and verses selected from such passages as the penitential Psalms, , , , were used in the liturgy. An example of elaborate confession of sins, composed in the second century B.C., is presented in the Apoc rypha under the name of "The Prayer of Manasseh," and in all probability it formed originally a part of a Midrashic addition to 2 Chronicles 33:19 (as may be learned from Apostolical Constitutions, 2:22; DIDASCALIA). A characteristic feature of this confession is the reiteration of certain formulas: "I have sinned, O Lord; I have sinned"; "Forgive me, O Lord, forgive me." Another example of a confession of sin is contained in the prayer of Asenath, (see Jew. Encyc. 2:173):

"I take refuge with Thee, Lord, my God, from now; to Thee I cry, O Lord, and before Thee I confess my sins. Spare me, O Lord, spare me! for I have greatly sinned; I have transgressed and done evil. I have spoken harsh words before Thee that should not be spoken. . . . I have sinned before Thee. O Lord; I have sinned, knowingly and unknowingly."

With these words Asenath begins her prayer while repenting of her idolatrous life, thus offering to proselytes an example of due preparation for admission into the Jewish fold. Confession of sins preceded baptism (Mark 1:5; compare Soṭah 12b) and was made the condition of admission into the Christian Church, as may be learned from Didache 4:14, 14:1 (compare James 5:16).

The common formulas for confession of sins in the Christian Church being in the main exactly like those of the Synagogue, the conclusion is to be drawn that they go back to pre-Talmudic times. The words "Forgive, remit, pardon, O God, our offenses, voluntary and involuntary, committed knowingly or in ignorance, by transgression or through omission," in the closing prayer of propitiation in the liturgy of James (Hammond, "Eastern and Western Liturgies," p. 54), as well as the formula still found in the common prayer of the Episcopal Church: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done," are nearly identical with the closing words of the Atonement-Day confession: "O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission . . . for the violation of mandatory and for the violation of prohibitive precepts, for sins known or unknown to us."

In the time of Rab and Samuel in Babylonia and R. Johanan in Palestine the confessions of sin in the Day of Atonement liturgy was fixed by tradition, as is proved by the fact that these amoraim of the beginning of the third century refer to the liturgical portions containing these confessions as familiar and known by their initial words (Yoma 87b). The quotation of the confession of sins in Pesiḳ. R. (ed. Friedmann, 35:160b; see note) also shows that the whole portion of the "Widdui" was known and familiar to all, and was included in the Talmudical reference in Yoma, See LITURGY.

The alphabetical enumeration of sins in ASHAMNU and ''Al Ḥeṭ may also be traced to pre-Talmudic times, as the catalogue of sins in Romans 1:29, with its number of twenty-two, seems to be based upon an alphabetical confession of sins used in Paul's time (see J. Rendel Harris, "The Teaching of the Apostles," Baltimore, 1887, who refers to Shab. 55a: "They that observe the Law from Aleph to Taw").

The confession of sins is recited during bathing in preparation for the Day of Atonement, by the bridegroom before his wedding, and by the sick who prepares for the approaching end. For a still larger catalogue of sins, see "Kiẓẓur Shene Luḥot ha-Berit, Seder Widdui," pp. 126b, 127, Amsterdam, 1683.

Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Confession of Sin'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​c/confession-of-sin.html. 1901.
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