Confession — with understanding

Confession may be good for the soul, as a Scottish proverb had it, but on Yom Kippur, it is the order of the day. Says the Psalmist:

“As long as I said nothing, my limbs wasted away from my anguished roaring all day long….Then I acknowledged my sin to You…; I resolved, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” (See Psalms 32:3-5.)

On Yom Kippur, we recite two confessionals 10 times over the course of those 25 hours — the Lesser (the Ashamnu), and the Greater (the Al Chet, “For the sin of”).

Do we understand what it is we are confessing, however? Do we really know what the words mean, and how these words apply to us?

Confession is serious business. The point is not merely to confess our sins, but to understand how we sinned and resolve to change our behavior. That is true teshuvah, true repentance.

Yet Ashamnu usually goes by quickly and, in many synagogues, it is chanted with a somewhat incongruous melody. We sing it, rather than recite it, and little attention is actually paid to the words themselves. Al Chet, too, is rushed through each of its sections, so we can sing the haunting refrain, “For all these sins.”

No time at all, it seems, is given to reflecting on the meaning of the two confessionals.

What follows is a look at the Ashamnu, known also as the Vidui Zotah (the Lesser Confessional). A caveat: This is a teaching text I use, and it is culled from a variety of sources. I apologize in advance if I use words others may have written before me.

Ashamnu, we have been guilty. We are guilty both of demeaning others, and demeaning ourselves by doing so.

Bagadnu, we have betrayed. We betray when we reveal a confidence. We also betray, however, when someone does us a favor, but we do not return that favor. (It does not matter that the one who did that favor did not expect one in return.)

Gazalnu, we have robbed. Robbery takes many forms. It does not include just actually stealing something tangible. It also includes such things as trespassing on the rights of others, or “stealing” someone’s dignity.

Dibarnu dofi, we have spoken basely. In this category belongs every kind of sin of speech—lashon hara. This is the easiest sin to commit and the most difficult one to avoid. (Only about five percent of the Torah’s 613 commandments involve the sin of speech, yet nearly 25 percent of the Al Chet litany involves such sins.) It also involves enabling others to commit such sins by listening to what they have to say, but not reproving them. This leads us to the next sin …

Heh-eh-vee-nu, we have caused iniquity. Not challenging someone who does wrong enables that person to keep doing it. This leads to …

V’hirshanu, and we have caused wickedness. More than just passively enabling others to behave badly towards others, we actively encourage them to do so.

Zaradnu, we have acted wantonly. Knowing something is morally, ethically, or legally wrong, but still doing it is to act wantonly.

Chamasnu, we have extorted. Most people would object to being labeled as extortionists, but when we “guilt-trip” someone, or threaten someone to act against his or her wishes, that is extortion.

Tafalnu sheker, we have falsely accused. When we divert blame onto others for things we did, or when we spread misinformation about what others did, this sin applies.

Ya-atznu, we have given bad advice. This does not need explanation.

Kizavnu, we have lied. More than lying is meant. Causing others to act on our lie also in included.

Li-atznu, we have acted frivolously. Actions have consequences. When we do not think these through, we act frivolously.

Maradnu, we have rebelled. We do this in so many ways, from jay-walking, to ignoring the Torah’s injunctions to care for the less fortunate.

Niatznu, we have angered. Yes, anger is a sin. When we are angry, we sin. When we cause someone else to be angry, both of us sin.

Sararnu, we have strayed. The Torah urges us to “walk in [God’s] ways and revere Him” by adhering to the moral and ethical path He laid out. We stray when we fail to follow the moral and ethical path as He defines it.

Avinu, we have committed iniquity. We do so by acting immorally or unfairly.

Pashanu, we have willfully sinned. This is akin to zaradnu and maradnu above; we know what we are doing is wrong, but we do it anyway.

Tzararnu, we have oppressed. As with chamasnu above, most people would deny they ever oppress others, but when we harass someone else, that is oppression. When we lose patience with someone else (a counter clerk at a supermarket, say, or department store), that is oppression.

Kishinu oref, we have been obstinate. We are all stubborn once in a while, including such acts as arguing a point when we ourselves are unsure of the facts.

Rashanu, we have been wicked. Any time we harm someone else, however that is done, is being wicked.

Shichatnu, we have corrupted. This is another “who me?” instance. When we bribe a child to do something, that is not just bribery, but it is corruptive, because we are teaching that child to do the same to others.

Tiavnu, ta-eenu, titanu, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes. This is an “eye of the beholder” category, and each of us must search our souls to see where we fit in — and what we must do about it.

In fact, we must search our souls regarding all these categories, and all of the Al Chet litany, as well.

Teshuvah is not achieved by reciting confessions. It is only achieved by understanding the confessions we recite, seeing how we fit in to each, and then deciding how to change.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
Related Topics
Related Posts