Why don’t we confess on Rosh Hashanah?

“Mirror, signal, manouvre”.

These three words, which are the mantra of all driving instructors, succinctly express the idea that before travelling forward in a vehicle you need to look back and indicate that you are about to move.

In a similar vein, I have always understood Rosh Hashanah as the start of a new spiritual journey, requiring us to begin the New Year by reviewing the past year.

We would therefore expect to find the viduy – the confession – within the Rosh Hashanah tefillot so that we could repent[1] for our past actions and plead for a favourable judgement. However, the viduy is not recited on Rosh Hashanah.

In this article I would like to explain why we omit the viduy on Rosh Hashanah[2] and as a consequence, consider how we should approach this awesome day.

Recalling sins on Rosh Hashanah

There are[3] two conflicting statements in the Zohar that discuss whether we should recall our sins on Rosh Hashanah. One opinion[4] states that sin should not be mentioned on Rosh Hashanah. However, the other states that we should confess on Rosh Hashanah and list all the sins we have committed.

This first opinion is evident in the ruling of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) in his Beit Yosef commentary[5] where he writes:

נוהגין בקצת מקומות לומר בראש השנה אחר התפלה ‘אבינו מלכנו חטאנו לפניך’ וכתב הכל בו (סי’ סד כח ע”ד) שהטעם משום דגרסינן בפרק ג’ דתעניות (כה:) שפעם אחת גזרו תעניות ולא נענו וירד רבי עקיבא לפני התיבה ואמר ‘אבינו מלכנו חטאנו לפניך’ ומיד נענה וכשראו הדור שנענה באותה תפלה הוסיפו עליו דברי בקשות ותחנונים וקבעום לעשרת ימי תשובה עכ”ל: ונראה לי דשאר בקשות שאומרים באבינו מלכנו אומרים בראש השנה אבל חטאנו לפניך וכן כיוצא בו דבר שיש בו הודאת חטא אין אומרים מהטעם שאין אומרים וידוי בראש השנה:

It is the custom in a few places to recite ‘Our Father Our King (Avinu Malkeinu) we have sinned before You’ after the Amidah on Rosh Hashanah. The Kol Bo[6] has written that the reason for this can be found in Gemara Ta’anit 25b where we are told that once, (during a long period of drought), fast days were decreed but no rains fell. However, when Rabbi Akiva stood before the Ark and said, ‘Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You’ he was immediately an­swered. When that generation saw how this prayer was answered, they added to it further requests and petitions and established that it should be recited during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah. And it would appear to me that most of the requests found in Avinu Malkeinu should be said on Rosh Hashanah, but (the statement of) ‘we have sinned before you’ and similar statements which include an admission of sin should not be recited for the reason that we do not recite the viduy on Rosh Hashanah.

From here we learn that some people do not recite the first line of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer on Rosh Hashanah, and we also find the first expression of the custom not to recite viduy on Rosh Hashanah.

However, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), representing the Ashkenazic custom, writes in his Darchei Moshe[7] ואין המנהג כדבריו – And the custom is not as he has said. This is elaborated on in Rabbi Isserles’ gloss on the Shulchan Aruch[8] where he states: ונוהגין לומר אבינו מלכנו על הסדר – It is our custom to say the Avinu Malkeinu in order.

From here it is evident that Rabbi Karo and Rabbi Isserles concur that we do not recite the viduy on Rosh Hashanah. However, they disagree regarding the recitation of the first line of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer.

Don’t give Satan an opportunity

The most oft-quoted reason to defend the omission of ‘Our father our king we have sinned before You’[9] as well as the viduy on Rosh Hashanah[10] is that we wish to avoid providing an opportunity for the satan to accuse us (שלא ליתן פתחון פה לשטן).

However, according to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933)[11], this reason does not apply to the first line of the Avinu Malkeinu which, according to many[12], does not refer to the sins of the individual, but instead, to the sins of their ancestors.

When to recite viduy on Rosh Hashanah

So far, we have considered the first opinion in the Zohar which states that we should not recall our sins on Rosh Hashanah. However, we also noted a conflicting position in the Zohar which states that we should confess on Rosh Hashanah and list all the sins we have committed. How can this be done?

Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (1633-1683)[13], quoting Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), explains that the concern ofלשטן  שלא ליתן פתחון פה only applies during prayer time and only if sin is admitted without specification. As such, those who wish to fulfil this second statement of the Zohar should either recite the viduy outside of the prayer context of Rosh Hashanah, or alternatively, and unlike the generic viduy that we recite, they should specify the sins they committed. He therefore advises בשעת התקיעות בלחש[14] בין סדר לסדר להתודות נכון – It is correct to recite viduy around the time of the shofar blasts, in silence, between each set of blasts. This is because during the Shofar blasts the satan is already confused[15] and is therefore unable to accuse. This was the practice of the great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572)[16] and it is codified by Rabbi Yosef Chaim (1832-1909)[17].

However, for some authorities[18] such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef[19]  this solution creates the halakhic problem of hefsek (interrupting) the Shofar blasts[20]. Furthermore, he argues[21] that the essence of Teshuvah occurs in the heart rather than through the viduy. As such, he suggests that those who do wish to recite the viduy between the shofar blasts should do so in their heart but without verbal expression.

Rosh Hashanah as the start of Teshuvah

Aside from great kabbalists, the common practice is to omit the viduy on Rosh Hashanah. Yet for all of us, it is the Yom HaDin. As such, how can we begin the New Year without reviewing the past?

HaRav Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999) explains[22]: ‘Shakespeare may assert ‘All’s well that ends well’; Judaism maintains all is well that begins well[23]’. ‘For this reason, there is no recital of confession of sins on Rosh Hashanah. Sin has no part in the resolutions for the year ahead. The New Year is not a review; it is, rather, a preview’[24].

Perhaps we have misunderstood Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah does not seek to look back at our past with a mirror. Instead, it seeks to mirror the positive sentiments of the day on the future. Consequently, the omission of the viduy on Rosh Hashanah is the greatest indicator in our Teshuvah journey. We begin the year as we wish it to continue – without sin.

NOTES

[1] That viduy is integral to the Teshuvah process is explicit in Rambam, Teshuvah 1:1 where he writes:

כל מצות שבתורה בין עשה בין לא תעשה אם עבר אדם על אחת מהן בין בזדון בין בשגגה כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות לפני האל ברוך הוא שנאמר איש או אשה כי יעשו וגו’ והתודו את חטאתם אשר עשו זה וידוי דברים. וידוי זה מצות עשה…

If a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command – whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents, and returns from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be, He as [Numbers 5:6-7] states: “If a man or a woman commit any of the sins of man… they must confess the sin that they committed.” This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.

[2] Much of the source material for this article has been taken from Harav Immanuel Jakobovits’ article  titled       בעינן ווידוי ותשובה בראש השנה in קובץ מעדני מלך:Lubavitch Foundation of Great Britian, 1982, pgs. 41-45 and subsequently republished in משנת השר: מוסד הרב קוק, 1998.

[3] See Kaf HaChayim, Orach Chaim 584 note 6

[4] Quoted by the Beit Yosef. See note below.

[5] Beit Yosef on Tur, Orach Chaim 584. See notes in Artscroll Rosh Hashanah Machzor p. 384.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kol_Bo

[7] Tur, Orach Chaim 584.

[8] Orach Chaim 584:1

[9] See for example OC 594 Mishna Berura seif kattan 3

[10] Other reasons offered include the fact that the recitation of viduy may undermine the sanctity of Shabbat and Yom Tov (Birkei Yosef, OC 581:2) and because we are confident in the mercy of G-d that we will merit a positive judgement (Levush OC 581:4). Based on this first consideration the Beit Yosef (ibid.) also addresses the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat. A comprehensive survey of opinions on this topic can be found in Yechaveh Da’at 1:54.

[11] Ibid.

[12] This explanation is found in a commentary on the Machzor (see for example Siddur Bet Yaakov Hashalem: Lemberg, 5664 p. 147) and is initially cited in the Magen Avraham note 2. It should also be noted that basis for the need to confess on account of the sins of ancestors can be found in Vayikra 26:40. However, the Kaf HaChayim (note 5) explains that the statement of ‘Machol Vesalach’ remains problematic.

[13] Magen Avraham ibid.

[14] This would mean verbally but not audibly. Contrast this with the position of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef below.

[15] See Rosh Hashanah 16b

[16] Sha’ar Hakavanot 90a and quoted in the Kaf HaChayim ibid.

[17] Ben Ish Chai,Year 1, Nitzavim 13. He then adds that: ובסידור רבנו הרש”ש ז”ל מסדר נסח ודוי להתודות בין הסדרים הנזכרים. A beautiful description of this is found in the Kaf HaChayim where he writes: “my teacher had the custom to confess his sins in silence so that even he could not hear himself. He would do so given he said that the first statement in the Zohar only forbade confessing aloud and not in silence. However, even when he confessed in silence, he only did so during the shofar blasts that are heard when sitting given that during this time the satan is already confused and is therefore unable to accuse. At such a moment, the words of the viduy rise in union with the voice of the shofar’.”

[18] It should be noted that all those who view the recitation of Viduy within the shofar blasts argue that where the Zohar contradicts Talmudic law, we follow the Talmud absolutely. According to the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 34a), the reason for blowing both תר’ת (Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah) and תש’ת (Tekiah-Shevarim-Tekiah) is due to a doubt about which of these is correct. As such, reciting the Viduy between these two sets of blasts may be viewed as an interruption. However, according to the Zohar (Pinchas p. 231b) both types are valid and necessary. This is explored in Yechave Da’at 1:55. Regarding Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s approach to the relationship between Talmudic Law and the Zohar, see Lau, Benny: Mimaran Ad Maran, Yediot Acharonot, 2005

[19] See Yechave Da’at 1:55 and Halichot Olam 2 p. 239

[20] In a fascinating comment in Halichot Olam (ibid.), Rabbi Yosef addresses the question as to whether the viduy is, in fact, a hefsek. He bases this question on Gemara Brachot 40a which teaches us that one may interrupt between washing hands and eating bread in order to ensure that the animals have been fed. This is because such a comment directly relates to the mitzvah of eating. As such, given that the function of the shofar is to stir the heart to perform teshuvah, surely the recitation of viduy which is part of the teshuvah process complements, rather than interrupts, the shofar blasts. In response to such a suggestion, Rabbi Yosef notes that despite us believing that the reason for the shofar is for this purpose, the true reasons for mitzvot are only known to G-d.

[21] Basing himself on Kiddushin 49b, Midrash Shocher Tov (45) and Rambam, Teshuvah 2:2

[22] Regarding how HaRav Jakobovits harmonises these sentiments with the Rambam (see endnote 1), see the fulltext of his article (endnote 2)

[23] Jakobovits, HaRav Immanuel: Companion to the High Holydays Prayer book, Vallentine Mitchell 2002, p.4

[24] Ibid. p. 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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