Viduy: Lost in Translation

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Viduy takes the center stage on Yom Kippur, and is a dominant subject throughout all the tefilos and themes of the day. It is also the activity most closely associated with teshuva, functioning to bring us out of our state of sin. The conventional definition of viduy is “confession,” the admission of misdeeds and sins, which would certainly be apropos to teshuva. Yet there is another usage of viduy in the Torah, introduced in Parshas Ki Savo. In that context, the above translation of viduy is quite awkward. The Rambam (Sefer Mitzvos 131), the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 607), the Semag (Mitzvah 138) and others all write about the commandment of viduy masser--and using the standard definition would be a “confession” of maaser. Looking through this area, and comparing it to the viduy associated with teshuva, adds a new dimension to our understanding of this subject. 

What exactly is this viduy maaser? After completing one’s maaser obligations, one must travel to the Bais Hamikdash and declare as follows (Devarim 26: 13-15):

“"I have divested my estate of sacred material, and I have also presented it to the Levi and also to the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow, totally according to Your command that You commanded me; I did not transgress any of Your commandments nor did I forget. I did not eat of it when grieving, nor did I devour it when ritually defiled, nor did I make use of it for the dead; I have heeded the voice of Hashem, my God; I have fulfilled everything that You commanded me.

View, from Your sacred residence, from the heavens, and bless Your people, Yisroel and the soil which You have given us, as You swore to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey."”

The Mishna (Maaser Sheni 5:10-13) explains that what the person is “confessing” is that he performed all the commandments regarding designating produce and other food (i.e., terumah, maaser, bikurim) for kohanim, leviim and others, in their entirety and correctly. For example, when enunciating “totally according to your command,” the individual is in reality saying that he performed the commandments of maaser in the proper order (maaser rishon before masser sheni, etc.). 

What type of confession is this??? Confessing involves admission of sin; yet in the case of viduy maaser, the individual is clearly expressing his precise adherence to the entire scope of the commandments of teruma, maaser, et al. How does the concept of confession have any bearing on something done correctly? One might argue that there are really two completely different translations of “viduy.” However, the Talmud, along with the major codifiers of mitzvos and other commentaries, do not differentiate between viduy of teshuva or viduy maaser, implying that one explanation should serve both situations. What, then, does viduy mean?

There are more basic questions that need to be asked about each of the viduyim. Beyond the fact that the application of the term “confess” to the appropriate completion of mitzvos seems difficult to digest, the question emerges as to why there is a need to review any of these actions. At the end of Succos, are we commanded to go to the Bais Hamikdash and declare our successful accomplishment of residing in the succah and netilas lulav v’esrog? At the end of Shabbos, are we obligated to travel to Yerushalayim and exclaim, “I kept Shabbos!” Of course not. Why is there a need to review your personal success here?

The role of viduy in regards to teshuva also needs to be analyzed. The Rambam, whose writings in Hilchos Teshuva serve as the foundation to our understanding of the phenomenon of teshuva, describes (Hilchos Teshuva 2:2) the process of teshuva as being one that involves removing oneself from the sin and resolving to never violate the commandment again. It is only at the end of the process that the Rambam writes that one is required to enunciate all that he has reviewed in his mind, and that this review is viduy. The question here is: what exactly is the importance of this verbalization? The person has, in his mind, seemingly completed the teshuva process. To say out loud what he has completed seems to be repetitious. Yet its importance cannot be overstated –there are numerous instances where the Rambam describes viduy as an integral part of teshuva. 

So what is viduy? From reading the Rambam, viduy is clearly the last step in the entire teshuva process. At its most elementary, one can posit that viduy is a form of verbal acknowledgement, reviewing that which the person accomplished in his mind. In general, to enunciate that which one is thinking packs a powerful punch, and has a huge impact on an individual. One can think about his dependence on God, but it is the recitation of tefila that ultimately affects the individual. The same is true of teshuva.  Viduy is the auditory culmination of the process. Why is it necessary for teshuva? The Rambam describes the process of teshuva as a purely intellectual phenomenon – but it would be incomplete without bringing the person’s emotions in line with the process. As a person organizes his thoughts and resolutely concludes he will not engage in this action in the future, there is still a residual emotional attachment that exists to the instinctual world he “visited.” That last tie to that world of sin must be severed, and that is accomplished through the verbal acknowledgement of viduy. It is interesting that the beginning of the personal viduy (also seen in the kohein gadol’s viduy described in the musaf) involves the person saying Anah Hashem, prefacing the viduy with the recognition of God. The mechanism employed to put the person in the correct framework, ensuring complete removal from the lure of the instinctual, is placing himself in the correct relationship vis-a-vis God. This seems to be the final act of teshuva, completing both the intellectual internalization of the process and the psychological break from the world of sin.

Let’s now look at viduy maaser. The underlying problem is the apparent need to acknowledge the accomplishment of these mitzvos. We do not live in an agricultural society, so many of the emotions that emerge through being intimately involved in the process from planting to harvesting (and the many steps in between) do not directly impact us. However, there are certain concepts contained within the arena of the agricultural that are universal. The process from planting to harvest is a long and difficult one. No doubt, when the produce is harvested, the completion of this long process, a person naturally reflects on this bounty being the result of his hard work. It is at this juncture the Torah introduces the mitzvos of terumah and maaser. Each of the mitzvos tied to the giving of produce to the kohen or destitute involves a demonstration of the limitations of our control in the natural world.  To give up that which someone worked so hard on, from its inception to culmination, is not an easy task. One of the objectives in each of these commandments is to assist the person in realizing he is ultimately not the creator of his produce. Yet, even after completing all of these commandments, there is a lingering resistance to relinquishing his feeling of ownership, of power. The objective of the viduy here, in a similar vein to teshuva, is to help the person overcome this remaining resistance. The person recites this at the Bais Hamikdash, before God, reviewing his actions. He ends by asking God to now “bless” Bnai Yisrael. This request clearly indicates to the individual the nature of his dependence on God for all that he has. Once again, the appropriate view of the self in relation to God serves to ultimately overcome any resistances. 

Clearly, precision in translation is crucial to understanding. Translating viduy as confession assumes an action which is not really part of the process while excluding a critical element. Viduy with teshuva is not a confession in the standard sense of the word. Rather it is the imperative to verbalize that which has been done and what he has gone through. By viewing himself in an objective way, accomplished through the acknowledgment of God, he is able to complete the process of teshuva. As we engage in tefila and teshuva this Yom Kippur, we should clearly understand the unique phenomenon of viduy and its ability to bring us to a greater level of yediyas Hashem.