Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 25 September 2004 / 10 Tishri 5765

Who Did It?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Marcus in Delaware

Dear Rabbi,

On Yom Kippur there is a very long list of transgressions that we are supposed to confess about. But I dont understand why Im being dictated what Ive done wrong. Anyway, most of those things dont even apply to me. Ive never stolen, had an affair or killed anyone. Forgive me for saying this, but isnt this taking things a bit too far?

Dear Marcus,

Your point is well taken, and a lot of people ask the very same question.

However, it is important to realize that while this part of the Yom Kippur service is required reading, it is meant only as a partial list of things that a person may have done wrong, and should be used as an outline of the type of things needing improvement. A person can and should add to the list things that one knows hes done wrong but are not specifically mentioned. In this way, the confession or vidui is not being dictated to you, but is rather a list of suggestions that you are intended to personalize and tailor-fit.

Regarding not being guilty of the charges, even if a person has never explicitly transgressed any of the things listed there, it is still possible that he has done some of them in one way or another. For example, even if youve never outright stolen, you might have used something without permission, or subtly misled others - both are considered a form of theft in Judaism. Similarly, even if youve never actually had an affair, owning-up to illicit relations can include desiring and fantasizing in ways that may be very real. Merely embarrassing someone to the point that the blood rushes to his face, or worse yet causing him to become white in the face, is a form of bloodshed tantamount to murder in Judaism. Our Sages thus taught, better one throw himself into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone in public (Baba Metzia 59a).

Based on this, with some effort and strategic repentance, most people should be able to find some way in which they need improvement for everything enumerated in that list. Still, what about the truly righteous who are far from transgressing? As far as they are concerned, they scrutinize themselves much more than most people could imagine. For example, Rabbi Israel Meir Cohen, the Chofetz Chaim, was one heard weeping over a list of his wrong-doings. It later became known that he lamented over not being able to account for five minutes of the parting year. Another beautiful message can be learned from the Ponavitcher Rabbi who was once heard confessing intensely on Yom Kippur. His students, unable to believe that he was actually guilty of what he was saying, asked for an explanation. The Rabbi said that one must not think only of ones own fate, but for the spiritual welfare of every Jew as well. Doing teshuva in this way helps others, and also spares them embarrassment as the entire community repents together. We also see this in the Kol Nidre service before Yom Kippur when the community announces its willingness to pray together with the transgressors.

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