Keith Hunt - Judaism and the Feast of Atonement - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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Judaism and the Feast of Atonement #2

The community confession of Sin!


From the book "Festivals of the Jewish Year" by Gaster, written
in 1952/53.

(Remember Judaism is a mixture of truth, error, and adoptions and
adaptions of traditions - Keith Hunt)


     When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., and sacrifices
came to an end, the traditional Day off Purgation necessarily
underwent a profound change. The taint and corruption which were
anciently removed, from year to year, by the almost mechanical
ritual of the scapegoat and the sin-offering, had now to be
purged by a process of personal catharsis, involving the
successive stages of contrition, confession, reform and
absolution. At the same time, the collective character of the
institution remained paramount. When the community declared in
the statutory confessions of the day, "we have robbed, we have
slandered, we have committed adultery," it was their collective
conscience that was speaking, and what they were acknowledging
were not merely individual misdeeds, but collective defilement of
their character as an "holy nation and a kingdom of priests."
     In this there was no inconsistency, for Israel never
elevated the collective to the status of an independent,
transcendental entity. It was but the aggregate of individuals.
The taint which had to be removed might be one that infected the
entire community, but it was entailed and occasioned by
individual misdeeds and could be removed only by individual
regeneration. This conception has endured to the present day. The
Jew who attends the synagogal services on Yom Kippur is not
merely attending a public exercise but actively participating in
a collective effort; and it is upon such individual participation
that the success of the collective enterprise depends.
     The Day of Atonement is described in the Bible as "a sab-
bath of sabbaths" (Lev. 16:3 1). It is marked by a rigorous
fast--an interpretation of the Biblical command to "afflict your
souls" (ibid.)--and by abstention from all work and normal
occupations from sunset to sunset. The fast may be broken, and
the abstention from work infringed, only in case of serious
illness or where life is imperilled. The preceding evening and
the whole of the day are devoted to religious services in the
synagogue, and more religions Jews even spend the intervening
night reciting psalms, meditation, or studying the treatise of
the Talmud relating to the holy day.

     In most communities - though, curiously enough, not in
Jerusalem--the prayer-shawl (tallith), which is normally worn
only in the morning, is also worn at the afternoon and evening
devotions, and it is a common custom for the rabbi, cantor and
married men of the congregation to don the long white robe of
purity (kittel) which eventually serves also as their shroud. The
latter may not be embellished with any form of ornament,
especially not with a golden neckband, for this would recall the
idolatry of the Golden Calf. It is likewise customary to cloak
the scrolls of the Law in white mantles, to deck with a white
curtain the "ark" or closet in which they are contained, and to
spread white cloths over the cantor's reading desk and the
pulpit. For this reason the day is sometimes known as "the White
Fast," in contrast with "the Black Fast" of the Ninth of Ab, when
the synagogue is draped in mourning.
     Pious Jews remove their shoes, or wear felt slippers, and
remain standing from the beginning until the end of the services.

     Throughout the day, the ark of the Law is kept open and the
cantor is flanked by two honorary assistants (seganim) ready to
lead the prayers, should he fall sick or falter.
     The devotions begin, a few minutes before sunset, with a
solemn declaration pronounced from the rostrum by the rabbi and
two of the more learned members of the congregation, each holding
a scroll of the Law in his arms and each covering his head with
the prayer-shawl. Constituting themselves an ad hoc rabbinical
tribunal, they announce that "with the consent of the Court on
High and with the consent of the court below, with the knowledge
of God and with the knowledge of the congregation, we declare it
permissible to pray alongside of transgressors." The formula is
repeated three times, the three men uttering it in unison. Its
purpose is to invite even the most recalcitrant Jew to return to
the fold on this sacred day and at the same time to absolve his
brethren from the normal duty of keeping him at arm's length. It
is believed to have originated at the time of the Spanish
Inquisition, and to have been designed to permit forced converts
to rejoin their brethren, albeit clandestinely, on this sacred
     All but one of the scrolls of the Law are then removed from
the ark (for the ark may never be left entirely empty) and
carried in procession to the rostrum. When they are all
assembled, the cantor begins the service proper with the
chanting, to a traditional South German melody of the sixteenth
century, of an Aramaic formula called from its opening words Kol
Nidrei ("All vows"). This is simply a more elaborate form of the
abjuration made during the preceding afternoon (see above, p.
133). It has come down to us in two versions. The older version,
adopted by the Sephardim, is retroactive, referring to all vows
contracted from the previous to the present Day of Atonement; the
more modern, adopted by the Ashkenazim, is prospective, referring
to all vows which may be contracted between the present Day of
Atonement and the next. The formula is recited three times:
first, in a whisper; then in a somewhat louder voice, and
finally, in clear, resonant tones, symbolizing the initial
trepidation and gradually developing confidence of the suppliant
who approaches the throne of God. The recitation must begin while
the sun is still on the horizon, and must be timed to end when it
has finally sunk.

     The formal abjuration of vows (Kol Nidrei) appears to have
originated in the Orient at some time between the sixth and tenth
centuries, but the recital of it was consistently opposed by the
highest rabbinic authorities and was not permitted in the seats
of the leading academies on the grounds that it might encourage
the charge that Jews forswear their obligations in advance or
subsequently revoke them. Because anti-Semites have indeed used
it to bolster such an accusation, the recital of it has now been
discontinued by modern Reform congregations. At the same time,
those who defend the custom have repeatedly pointed out that the
formula refers only to vows which have been forgotten, since,
according to the express statement of the Mishnah, those which
are indeed remembered cannot be annulled even by the Day of
Atonement but, once made, must be faithfully fulfilled.
     When the scrolls have been returned to the ark, the regular
evening service begins. In this case, however, it is expanded by
the inclusion of special penitential prayers (Selihoth, see
above, p.125) and by the recital, first privately and then
publicly, of the great confession of sins.

     The Confession (Yiddui) is the primary feature of the
Atonement liturgy, and is included in each of the services of the
day. It consists in an alphabetical catalogue of sins coupled
with prayers for pardon. The Confession is essentially
collective, and is couched throughout in the first person plural,
e.g. "We have trespassed, we have erred," etc.
     There are two forms. The one, known as "the Minor
Confession" (Yiddui ze'ira), contains, as a rule, but one Hebrew
word for each letter of the alphabet, e.g., we have aggressed,
betrayed, cheated, defamed, erred ... intrigued, lied, mocked,
etc. It is first recited silently, then repeated aloud and in
concert; and it is customary to cover the head with the
prayer-shawl and to beat the breast as each of the sins is named.
     The other form, called "the Major Confession" (Vid-dui
rabbd), contains two complete sentences for each letter of the
alphabet. Each sentence is introduced by the phrase: "For the sin
which we have sinned in Thy presence," and the whole is
punctuated at regular intervals by the refrain:

For all of these, O Thou forgiving God, 
Pardon us, and shrive us, and forgive!

     The scheme may be best conveyed by the following excerpts:

For the sins which we have sinned in Thy presence through
blindness of judgment, through blasphemy of tongue; through
carnal concupiscence, clandestinely or clearly; designedly,
deliberately, through open declaration; through exploitation of
others; through encitement of lust; through impurity of mouth,   
through incontinence of speech; knowingly, unknowingly,     
through kneeling to base instinct; through lying and deceiving;  
through laying hands on bribes; through mockery and malison;     
through malice and malevolence; through venomous vendettas, 
through voiding vows ... For all of these, O thou forgiving God,
Pardon us, and shrive us, and forgive!

     This catalogue is followed in turn by a further listing of
sins according to the traditionally prescribed punishments, e.g.,
presentation of a guilt-offering, burnt-offering, or
sin-offering; submission to forty stripes; extirpation;
extirpation and death; death from God; and death at the hands of
an earthly tribunal. The key to this list is to be found in the
Law of Moses and in two special treatises of the Talmud dealing
respectively with the penalty of stripes (Makkoth) and of
extirpation (Keritoth). Thus, according to Leviticus 19:21, a
guilt-offering is due in certain cases of rape, and, according to
Numbers 6:12, when a nazirite breaks his vow and partakes of
strong drink. Similarly, according to the Mishnah, forty stripes
are prescribed for such crimes as incest, sacrilege, entering the
temple in a state of impurity, eating leavened food on Passover,
working on the Day of Atonement, and tattooing upon one's person
the symbol of a heathen god; while extirpation is decreed for
gross immorality (Lev. 18:29), use of force (Num. I5:30),
dedicating one's seed to Moloch (Lev. 20:5), practicing sorcery
(Lev. 20:6), desecrating the sabbath (Exod. 31 :14), and
neglecting the duty of circumcision (Gen. 17:14).

     Of special interest is the comprehensive reference to
sins committed "knowingly or unknowingly," for this formula is
characteristic of liturgical confessions everywhere. Thus, in the
penitential psalms of the ancient Babylonians, the suppliant not
infrequently asks pardon for "the sin which I know and the sin
which I know not"; while in one of the hymns of the ancient Indic
Rig Veda, the god Varuna is entreated to "cancel all those sins
which we have committed as if in jest, knowingly and
unknowingly," and similar expressions occur both in Greek
inscriptions from Asia Minor and in the norito or formal
recitation which accompanies the Japanese expiation ceremony of

     Ashkenazic Jews recite the entire list of offenses literally
from A to Z. The Sephardim, however, reduce it to a few
sentences, not even arranged alphabetically; and it would seem
that there was also an ancient version consisting of but eight
     Neither the Minor nor the Major Confession is attested
before the Gaonic Age, which began in the seventh century C.E.,
but there is reason to believe that they were in fact composed
during the preceding epoch of the Amoraim (fifth century). Even
then, however, they hark back to a more remote antiquity, for we
have protoypes of them in the Bible. Isaiah 59:12 ff., for
example, is probably to be read as a quotation from a liturgical
catalogue of sins:

Our transgressions abounded before Thee, 
and our sins bore witness against us. 
Verily, our transgressions were ever with us,
and as for our iniquities-they were our familiars: 
transgression and deception against Jehovah, 
backsliding from our God,
giving utterance to oppression and rebellion;
conceiving and emitting from our hearts words of falsehood.

     Similarly, the afflicted job, protesting his innocence
before God, recites a kind of "negative confession" (Job 31)
which would appear to reproduce (with poetic elaboration) a
contemporary ritual formula:

I made a covenant with mine eyes
that I would not think upon a virgin.
I have not consorted with vanity,
neither hath my foot hasted to deceit.
My step hath not swerved from the path, nor my heart followed
mine eyes, nor corruption clung to my palms.
I have not been enticed by a woman,
nor lain in wait at my neighbor's door.
I have not refused justice to my servant
nor to my handmaid, when they contended with me.
I have not withheld the poor from their need, nor beclouded the
eyes of the widow.
I have seen no wanderer without clothing, no beggar without
but that his loins have blessed me,
and he hath been warmed with the fleece of my sheep.
I have not looked on the sun when it shone, 
or the moon walking in brightness, 
and allowed my heart to be secretly enticed 
to blow kisses thereto,
and thereby commit a penal sin
by denying the God Who is above....
No stranger was left to sleep the night outdoors; 
I opened my doors to the traveller.

     Such "negative confessions," it may be added, appear to been
well known in the Near East from earliest times. Egyptian texts
dating back as far as the sixteenth century B.C.E. contain a form
of protestation believed to have been uttered by the deceased
before the tribunal of the netherworld, and the offenses of which
he claims to be innocent are, in many cases, precisely those
specified in the Viddui. e.g., "I have not blasphemed . . .
injured . . . stolen . . . caused perversity . . . lied . . .
trespassed . . . practised usury . . . spoken scandal . . .

     Modern worshipers often find the whole conception of
punishment underlying the Confession somewhat crude and
distasteful. Thus, the prescription of "forty stripes" for
immorality or for working on the Day of Atonement seems at once
futile and barbarous, while extirpation for sorcery or, in fact,
for many of the offenses listed, appears, to say the least,
unnecessarily harsh and drastic. It must be remembered,
therefore, that in the primitive mind those things tend to be
represented in concrete form which, in more advanced
civilizations, can be apprehended as abstracts. The flaying of
conscience assumes the form of a physical, corporal castigation;
while the sense of separation and ostracism which accompanies (or
follows) any violation of common custom or accepted mores is
represented by legal and physical extirpation. In historical
perspective, therefore, the drastic penalties imposed in ancient
Hebrew law are merely a more primitive and more concrete
expression of what to us are but the psychological consequences
of sin. Once again, it is only the formulation that is primitive,
not the underlying concept.

(The confessions of sins by various cultures and nations to their
gods, would indicate once more, that the formula of God's true
religion for his people, had been somewhat retained, at least in
part (even before the days of Moses) and was carried forth with
the nations as they migrated from the cradle of original
civilization, and also after the mighty flood of the days of
Noah. But as Noah's flood was local rather than worldwide (proved
in other studies on this Website), the nations had already be
scattered abroad at the tower of Babel, and so would have
retained some parts (though now greatly perverted at times to
their gods) of the true worship and rites to the true God - a
community cofession of sins being one of them - Keith Hunt)

     The Kol Nidrei service is, as it were, the first movement of
a devotional symphony which increases in momentum from minute to
minute throughout the day. The dominant note of this service is
one of nervous trepidation, tempered by confidence in the mercy
and understanding of God, i.e. (in modern terms), in the
inevitability of evoking the Divine, once a sincere effort is
made. This twofold mood is reflected especially in the special
poems (piyyutim) interspersed throughout the regular prayers and
usually chanted to haunting traditional melodies. The note of
hesitant approach, for example, is sounded, as if in a tremulous
whisper, in the medieval and anonymous Ya'adeh, which is recited
antiphonally by cantor and congregation in the Ashkenazic
rituals. In the original, this is an alphabetical acrostic, but
its spirit may be best conveyed in the late Nina Salaman's famous
rendering, which forgoes this literary virtuosity for the sake of
inner intensity: 3

O let our prayer ascend from eventime,
And may our cry come in to Thee from dawn, 
And let our song be clear till eventime.
O let our voice ascend from eventime,
And may our merit come to Thee from dawn, 
And our redemption be at eventime.
Let our remembrance rise from eventime,
Let our assembly plead to Thee from dawn, 
In glory visible till eventime.
Thus at Thy door we knock from eventime,
O let our joy come forth for us from dawn, 
And may our quest appear till eventime.

3 Adler-Davis, Atonement, i, 31.

     More resonant, on the other hand, is the demand for
forgiveness-(in modern terms) for the power of inner regeneration
- in the famous poem, "Omnam Ken," composed by Jacob of Orleans,
one of the martyrs of the riot at York which followed the
accession of Richard Coeur de Lion to the throne of England in 
1189. The following is an excerpt from Israel Zangwill's
celebrated rendering:

A y, 'tis thus Evil us hath in bond;
B y Thy grace guilt efface and respond,

C ast scorn o'er and abhor th' informer's word;
D ear God, deign this refrain to make heard,

R aise to Thee this my plea, take my prayer;
S in unmake for Thy sake and declare,

T ears, regret, witness set in sin's place;
U plift trust from the dust to Thy face

V oice that sighs, tear-filled eyes, do not spurn
W eigh and pause, plead my cause, and return

     By the time the morning service comes around the worshiper
has already begun to feel the stirrings of the Divine working
within him. But he has not yet reached that point in the process
of atonement where he can feel confident of its outcome. He has
attained only to a sense of wonderment and gratitude that the
Divine is, after all, so readily accessible - that there is, in
the final analysis, no real contrast between the cosmic power
that animates the universe and the indwelling spirit which
informs his own being.


To be continued

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