Communal Confession


The communal vidui, confession, recited by the Kohen Gadol over the se’ir hamishtaleiach is a central feature of this Yom Kippur Temple ritual:

“And Aharon shall place his two hands upon the living he-goat and he shall confess upon it all of the iniquities of the children of Israel and all of their rebellious sins in all of their sins, and he shall place them upon the head of the he-goat and he shall send it at the hand of a designated man to the wilderness.”


What is the implication of the confession uttered by the Kohen Gadol over the “sent goat” on behalf of the entire nation?

What role does this communal confession play in the atonement divinely granted on Yom Kippur? Aren’t confession and tshuva private, personal processes best experienced individually rather than communally?


A. Before turning to the specific vidui associated with the se’ir hamishtaleiach, we must first examine the Rambam’s approach to the general phenomenon of confession and its place in Jewish thought and law. The Rambam opens his review of the laws of tshuva with the following halacha:

“With regard to all the precepts in the Torah, whether positive commandments or negative ones, if a person transgresses one of them, either willfully or unknowingly, when he does tshuva and returns from his sin, it is his duty to confess before God, blessed be He...and this confession is an affirmative precept [my italics]…”

Numerous later authorities raise two questions concerning the Rambam’s formulation of the tshuva process. Firstly, they ask, why doesn’t the Rambam depict tshuva in obligatory terms, choosing instead to state “when he [the sinner] does tshuva”? Secondly, the Rambam’s delineation of confession as a positive biblical precept seems counterintuitive. At first glance, they argue, confession would appear to be only a means to an end, a first step on the path towards the mitzva of full tshuva. Why, then, does the Rambam list confession itself as a mitzva?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) pointed out that numerous sources within the Torah plainly define tshuva as a mitzva. Furthermore, the Rambam’s own language on a number of occasions supports this view. Most tellingly, the very heading of the section in his Mishneh Torah that summarizes the laws of tshuva lists repentance as a mitzvah.

Clearly, the Rambam views repentance – and not confession alone – as a mitzva. Why, then, does the Rambam, as noted above, focus so distinctly on the obligation of confession, going so far as to label confession itself an affirmative precept?

The Rav explained that the first halacha in the Rambam’s laws of tshuva focuses upon the physical action through which the mitzva of return is performed: the concrete act of verbal confession. This entire section of law is introduced by a heading that reflects both tangible performance and psychic fulfillment: “The Laws of Return: One positive precept – that the sinner shall repent of his sin (fulfillment) before the Lord and confess (performance).”

The Rav lists two main reasons why the Torah obligates a penitent to make confession.

1. Confession serves to complete the tshuva process. Verbalization forces the penitent to crystallize both his remorse over the past and his commitment to future change.

2. By forcing us to admit the facts, confession robs us of the ability to fool ourselves. Through verbalization we compel ourselves to examine not only our sins, but the nature of our sins. Acts that we might have written off as unintentional are scrutinized anew and we are compelled to admit motivations that we would have rather ignored.

At this level, the Rav maintains, confession becomes a wrenching act of personal “sacrifice” which moves man beyond remorse to shame. The penitent’s will is broken as he is forced to act against his very nature.

B. Having briefly reviewed the general role of confession in the process of return, we can now turn our attention to the specific vidui pronounced by the Kohen Gadol over the se’ir hamishtaleiach.

In the first chapter of his laws of tshuva, the Rambam writes:

“Since the se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel.…

“The se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all the sins mentioned in the Torah, the venial and the grave, those committed with premeditation and those done unintentionally, those which become known to their doer and those which do not – all are granted acquittal by means of the se’ir hamishtaleiach, provided only that the sinner has repented.

“If, however, he has not repented, the scapegoat can bring acquittal only for the lighter sins.”

The Rav raises a series of critical questions, including the following.

1. What innovation does the Rambam introduce with his initial declaration, “Since the se’ir hamishtaleiach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel”? The classification of the sent goat as a communal sacrifice is obvious and emerges from the Torah text itself.

2. Immediately before his passage dealing with the se’ir hamishtaleiach, the Rambam lists a litany of potential means of atonement which are effective only when accompanied by repentance. How can he now suddenly claim that the ritual of the se’ir hamishtaleiach effects atonement for specific sins even in the absence of such repentance?

3. What is the delineating line between “lighter” sins for which the se’ir hamishtaleiach is automatically effective and more severe sins which require tshuva as well?

C. The Rav answers these questions with one bold, imaginative stroke. Based on sources in the Written and Oral Law, he posits that on Yom Kippur two essential types of atonement are potentially granted to man: individual and communal.

Individual expiation is open to each and every Jew who is strong enough to undergo a full, heartfelt process of return. Such acquittal is achieved in solitary fashion as the penitent plumbs the depths of his own heart and soul.

Communal atonement, however, is different. This expiation is granted globally to Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel, “in its entirety and as a separate mystical kind of self, as a separate entity in its own right.” Once granted to the collective, this acquittal is automatically afforded to each individual who remains linked to Knesset Yisrael through an unbreakable bond.

On the one hand, man must travel alone and in solitary fashion along the path to individual repentance. At the same time, however, “‘Repentant Man’ will not reach his goal and the completion of his mission – salvation – as a lonely man of faith, but only as part of the community of Israel.”

Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.