Confessing Sins You Didn’t Commit
Sin, Guilt, and Confessions in the Bible
In the yearly ritual for cleansing the temple on Yom Kippur, before the priest sends off the goat to Azazel in the wilderness, he confesses Israel’s sins upon it:
ויקרא טז:כא וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי (ידו) [יָדָיו] עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כָּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר...
Lev 16:21 Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat…
Confession also accompanies certain guilt offerings:
ויקרא ה:ה וְהָיָה כִי יֶאְשַׁם לְאַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה וְהִתְוַדָּה אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עָלֶיהָ.
Lev 5:5 When he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned.
במדבר ה:ו ...אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּי־הוָה וְאָשְׁמָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא. ה:ז וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ...
Num 5:6 When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with YHWH, and that person realizes his guilt, 5:7 he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount…
While the Torah does not relate the content of this confession, it presumably involved expressing regret for the specific transgression committed.
Quoted Confessions in the Bible
The few cases where the Bible quotes a confession are typified by overlapping terms for sin. For instance, in his long prayer upon completion of the temple, Solomon notes that exiled Israelites will be able to turn to the temple and confess their sins,
מלכים א ח:מז וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶל לִבָּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבּוּ שָׁם וְשָׁבוּ וְהִתְחַנְּנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְּאֶרֶץ שֹׁבֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר חָטָאנוּ וְהֶעֱוִינוּ רָשָׁעְנוּ.
1 Kgs 8:47 and then they take it to heart in the land to which they have been carried off, and they repent and make supplication to You in the land of their captors, saying: “We have sinned, we have committed iniquities, we have acted wickedly.”
This tripling appears once in Psalms as well:
תהלים קו:ו חָטָאנוּ עִם אֲבוֹתֵינוּ הֶעֱוִינוּ הִרְשָׁעְנוּ.
Ps 106:6 We have sinned with our fathers, we have committed iniquities, we have been wicked.
While it is possible to distinguish the etymological meanings of these different terms, it seems more likely that their use in these texts is intended to cover the full range of sins, not to reflect a precise sense.
Toward the beginning of Nehemiah’s prayer for the people of Yehud, he adds a general confession. While he includes a self-accusation along with the general statement about Israel’s sins, the specific sins are again of a general nature, expressed with much repetition:
נחמיה א:ו ... וּמִתְוַדֶּה עַל חַטֹּאות בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר חָטָאנוּ לָךְ וַאֲנִי וּבֵית אָבִי חָטָאנוּ. א:ז חֲבֹל חָבַלְנוּ לָךְ וְלֹא שָׁמַרְנוּ אֶת הַמִּצְוֹת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ.
Neh 1:6 …confessing the sins that we Israelites have committed against You, sins that I and my father's house have committed. 1:7 We have offended You by not keeping the commandments, the laws, and the rules that You gave to Your servant Moses.
Daniel too offers a long multi-verse confession; this too shows the same type of extensive repetition:
דניאל ט:ה חָטָאנוּ וְעָוִינוּ (והרשענו) [הִרְשַׁעְנוּ] וּמָרָדְנוּ וְסוֹר מִמִּצְוֹתֶךָ וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ. ט:ו וְלֹא שָׁמַעְנוּ אֶל עֲבָדֶיךָ הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבְּרוּ בְּשִׁמְךָ אֶל מְלָכֵינוּ שָׂרֵינוּ וַאֲבֹתֵינוּ וְאֶל כָּל עַם הָאָרֶץ.
Dan 9:5 We have sinned; we have been iniquitous; we have acted wickedly; we have been rebellious and have deviated from Your commandments and Your rules, 9:6 and have not obeyed Your servants the prophets who spoke in Your name to our kings, our officers, our fathers, and all the people of the land.
In short, these biblical confessions all make use of the same use of general terms for sin in repetitive style. This influenced how the (later) rabbis imagined the Yom Kippur confession of the high priest.
Guilt-Terms in Rabbinic Confessions
Mishnah Yoma 3:8 offers the following personal confession for the High Priest over his bull:
וְכָךְ הָיָה אוֹמֵר: אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, עָוִיתִי, פָּשַׁעְתִּי, חָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ, אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי. אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, כַּפֵּר נָא לָעֲוֹנוֹת לַפְּשָׁעִים וְלַחֲטָאִים, שֶׁעָוִיתִי, שֶׁפָּשַׁעְתִּי, וְשֶׁחָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ, אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי...
This is what he says: “Please God, I have committed iniquities, I have transgressed, I have sinned before you, I and my household. Please God, atone for the iniquities, transgressions, and sins that I have committed, and transgressed, and sinned before you, I and my household…”
While the tripling remains, the verb הרשע “I have acted wickedly” found in the biblical confessions has been replaced by פשע “I have transgressed.” The latter verb is probably imported here from the high priest’s confession in Leviticus 16:21.
In the Tosefta (Yoma 2:1), the sages dispute the order of the three terms for sin as recorded in the Mishnah because, in their interpretation of the terms, iniquities (עון) are purposeful, transgressions (פשע) are acts of rebellion, but sins (חטא) are unintentional. It is anticlimactic, they argue, to confess the unintentional ones last. Thus, they suggest switching the order to חטאתי עויתי פשעתי “I have sinned, I have committed iniquities, I have transgressed,” which is the text now recited in the Seder Avodah prayer on Yom Kippur.
The Tosefta’s interpretation of the terms as having three distinct meanings, fits with rabbinic thinking about the significance of every word-choice in the Bible. It is unclear, however, that this reading reflects the meaning of the terms in the Bible. More importantly, it is difficult to interpret the biblical style of piling on words with the general meaning of “sin” as an attempt to differentiate types of sin in a categorical fashion.
Instead, the terms are being used because they are overlapping, and convey a feeling of overwhelming sinfulness. This, at least, seems to be how the poets (paytanim) of late antiquity understood the style, as the confessions they wrote for the Yom Kippur service took this style and ran with it.
The Yom Kippur Confessional Liturgy: Repetitive and Specific
The two main confessions in the Yom Kippur liturgy are:
אָשַׁמְנוּ (Ashamnu) “We are Guilty,” which lists 24 sins of which we are collectively guilty, one sin per word;
עַל חֵטְא (Al Chet) “For the Sin,” which lists 44 such sins, with a sentence dedicated to each.
The length of these two lists is based on their poetic structure: alphabetic acrostics that cover from Aleph to Tav. In addition to finding more ways to say “we have sinned,” such as זַדְנוּ “we have acted purposefully,” or תָּעִינוּ “we have strayed,” the poets highlight specific body-parts that have sinned, using such phrases as עַזּוּת מֶֽצַח “brazen foreheads” to רִיצַת רַגְלַֽיִם לְהָרַע “feet running to do evil.” Thus, the sins are doubly complete: They reflect every letter of the alphabet, and the body, from head to toe (foot).
In contrast with the vague biblical confessions discussed above, these lists cover specific sins as well, such as sins committed with מַאֲכָל וּמִשְׁתֶּה “eating and drinking,” וְעִידַת זְנוּת “promiscuous meetings,” and מַשָּׂא וּמַתָּן “business dealings.” They also mention things like, גָּזַֽלְנוּ “we have robbed,” הוֹנָֽאַת רֵעַ “wronging a neighbor,” זִלְזוּל הוֹרִים וּמוֹרִים “contempt for parents and teachers,” כַפַּת שֹׁחַד “taking bribes,” and רְכִילוּת “gossip.”
The poems are relentless in their self-blame, and while they are phrased in the plural, the experience of each person reciting the entire list in the private prayers, and clopping themselves on the chest for each, gives them a personal element as well. Even so, while it is conceivable that any given individual has committed some of these sins unwittingly, the confessions do not seem to be concerned about whether the person reciting them has actually committed the sins or not. To understand why, we can look to a similar style of confession found in ancient Near Eastern texts.
Ancient Near Eastern Confessions
Like the biblical Israelites, other cultures in the ancient Near East had the practice of confessing their sins. Some of these extra-biblical confessions are similar to those in the Bible: They employ general, overlapping terms for transgression. This pattern is evident, for example, in the following “My god, I did not know” ilī ul īdi prayer requesting forgiveness for unintentional misdeeds:
In respect of offense, iniquity (arnu), transgression (gillatu) and sin (ḫīṭītu), I have offended (ēgi) against my god, sinned (aḫṭi) against my goddess, transgressed (ugallil).
The biblical authors were working with this ancient Near Eastern model, offering only general terms. But other ancient Near Eastern confessions contain lists of specific transgressions, like what we find in the Yom Kippur confessions. Of particular interest is a genre of rituals, attested already in the second millennium B.C.E., featuring incantations involving the confession of hypothetical sins.
An outstanding example is the 1st millennium B.C.E. Assyrian incantation series called Shurpu (“burning”), which was performed with the purpose of healing a severely ill patient. It included items such as:
Who has eaten what is taboo to his god, who has eaten what is taboo to his goddess
Who said “no” for “yes,” who said “yes” for “no”…
He scorned the god, despised the goddess,
His sins are against his god, his crimes are against his goddess.
He is full of contempt against his father, full of hatred against his elder brother.
He despised his parents, offended the elder sister…
He entered his neighbor’s house,
Had intercourse with his neighbor’s wife,
Shed his neighbor’s blood. (Tablet 2, lines 5–6, 33–49)
It is hard to imagine that the patient for whom this was written could have committed all of these moral violations. Here too, we see someone taking responsibility for sins that he had surely never committed. Why?
Suffering as a Sign of Guilt
Suffering was widely viewed as a sign of guilt throughout the ancient Near East. A similar belief can be found in the Bible as well, which uses various metaphors to describe culpability, including those of debt, burden, and stain, all of which are based on a common presumption that the effects of transgressions are real and necessarily bring retribution on the perpetrator.
Along these lines, it seems likely that the sin offering ritual for an unknown sin in Leviticus 4 was carried out in cases of sickness, leading to a suspicion of some hidden guilt. Likewise, the sin offering of a woman who has given birth (Leviticus 12) may have originated from women’s anxiety before confronting the dangers of childbirth, which may have encouraged them to clean their slate of any unknown sins as a precaution.
Moreover, the behavior need not have been committed by the person confessing, since the ancients believed that an individual could be punished for left-over sins of parents and other relatives, a concept familiar from some biblical texts (e.g., Exod 34:7). In Mesopotamian prayers of the ilī ul īdi (“My god, I did not know”) type, this point is made explicitly:
Drive out from my body illness from known and unknown iniquity, the iniquity of my father, my grandfather, my mother, [my] grandmother, the iniquity of my elder brother and elder sister, the iniquity of clan, kith and kin.
The causal link between sin and suffering provided the impetus for rites to expiate one’s own sins, including those that one might not even know about. The idea that punishment for the sins of family members was possible added motivation for confessing every conceivable sin an individual or their family may have committed to anger the gods.
Confessions as Preventative Medicine
The combination of repetitive overlapping terms for sin with specific accusations found in the Yom Kippur confessions is a continuation of these ancient Near Eastern confessions. This combination functions as a way of showing the person’s desire to cover any possible sin—whether of the person’s own or of the person’s family—that may be causing the suffering now being experienced.
Similarly, the solemn Kol Nidrei (“all oaths”) service that opens the Yom Kippur ceremonies can be traced back to a similar type of thought. This recitation is meant to annul any vow that a person may have made but forgotten about or found impossible to fulfill. Similar to the confessions, this recitation stems from the concern that sort of vow lies over one’s head and can be responsible for a punishment in the coming year. Here too, these notions find an ancient Near Eastern precedent in the Shurpu incantations, which devote considerable space to various types of unknown – and hence unfulfilled – oaths that may threaten the patient.
As a result, rather surprisingly, medieval Jewish traditions of confessing sins find their closest precedent not in biblical or rabbinic traditions but in Mesopotamian incantations. In the latter context, the confessions served to heal the illness of the supplicant.
Yom Kippur, in contrast, is commemorated on a single day by all Jews, whether they are suffering or not, although from biblical times suffering and self-affliction are mandated on that day. It is viewed as the day that God is judging every supplicant, so it is best to confess every conceivable sin carried out by every conceivable relation—including all fellow Jews. The purpose is not to heal an existing malady but rather to avoid future punishment and thereby guarantee good fortune and blessing for the upcoming year.
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September 15, 2021
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Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His most recent book, Purity and Pollution in the Hebrew Bible: From Embodied Experience to Moral Metaphor (Cambridge University Press, 2021), examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.
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