By Rabbi Alan Garber, Emeritus Rabbi, Shenley United Jewish Community

The confession (viduy) is the central prayer of the Yom Kippur service. It is recited ten times, twice in each of the five services, corresponding to the ten times the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) would say the Tetragrammaton Name of G-d during the Temple service on Yom Kippur.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides d. 1204), viduy is a mitzvah de’oraita – a commandment specified explicitly in the Torah – which consists of three steps:

  1. Regret for having transgressed.
  2. The specific confession of the mistake in words.
  3. The resolve never to repeat it.

There are two sections to the viduy prayers:

The shorter viduy consists of a list of 24 words and phrases referring to various ways in which transgressions occur, for example through stubborness (kishinu oref) or through mockery (latznu).

The longer viduy – this is the “Al Chet” list of 44 confessional sentences which specifies typical sins that people may make. Each sentence starts with the formula “on the sin that we have committed before You regarding…”

When one looks at the list of transgressions in the viduy, one may find several sins that one may not have committed. So how can we recite these? The Rambam explains that each transgression listed is a heading that contains many offshoots and derivatives. For example, the general heading of “deceit” includes not just deliberate misleading, but even failing to keep promises. Furthermore, the confession is said in the plural as the Jewish people are considered one entity, responsible for each other’s actions.

Many machzorim have excellent commentaries on the viduy prayers, with suggested thoughts and ideas that we should have in mind whilst reciting the viduy. It is worth spending some time studying these commentaries before or on Yom Kippur, in order that the confession becomes a genuine exercise which stirs us to think deeply about our thoughts and behaviour.

Unless one is unwell or unable, one should stand throughout the viduy prayer in a slightly bent over position. There is a tradition to lightly tap one’s heart at each of the 24 phrases of the short viduy and on each of the long sentences, at the word “she’chatanu ” – ‘that we have sinned’. This is to symbolise that our heart, the seat of our emotions, has caused us to go astray.

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