Jewish Rites of Penance
29 SEP 2017
Unlike some branches of Christianity, Judaism has no tradition of confessing sins to a religious officiant, nor of fulfilling assigned tasks or receiving assigned punishments to counterbalance the sins. Instead of this kind of penance, Jews go through a process of atonement and restitution to gain forgiveness for their transgressions. While Jewish law and tradition do include some public rites of atonement, most of the process happens outside the ritual setting.
1 Jewish Beliefs About Forgiveness
Jews believe that two beings are involved in forgiveness for sins: God and the person they have wronged. Because of this belief, the Jewish process of penance must directly involve the injured party whenever possible, and the tradition doesn't require a rabbi's intercession. Jews focus on this process during the 10 days between the holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but Jewish law also requires them to practice it each time they sin. The Torah prescribes sacrifices and offerings to make to God as part of atonement, but because these sacrifices must be made at the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists, modern Jews are excused from the practice.
The Hebrew word for repentance, "teshuva," literally means "turning," as in turning back to a righteous path. To complete teshuva and be cleansed of a sin, a Jew must understand that he has sinned, feel genuine remorse for the act, stop committing the sin and pass up future opportunities to commit it again, apologize to the wronged party and correct the wrong if possible, and confess the sin to God. All these steps are mandatory for true and complete repentance in the Jewish tradition, but the most important one is stopping the sin and not committing it again.
Even without the Temple, Jewish tradition includes a few occasions for communal ritual confession and atonement. One such occasion is tashlich, a service Jews hold on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. During tashlich, congregations go to their nearest body of water containing fish and throw breadcrumbs into the water to symbolically cast away their sins. This ceremony is part of acknowledging sins and confessing to God, and it is reserved for sins between people and God, not between individuals. For example, a Jew might cast a breadcrumb for the sin of breaking the Jewish dietary restrictions, but not for the sin of theft.
4 Yom Kippur
The most ritualized opportunity for penance in Judaism is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, Jews don't eat or drink anything for 25 hours; they also don't wash, have sex or wear jewelry, perfume or leather shoes. They spend the day in religious services reciting ritual confessions for a litany of sins, symbolically beating their breasts, and begging God's forgiveness. This ritual itself doesn't absolve them of guilt for their sins against other people, only their sins against God. However, if they have performed teshuva properly, Jews are considered cleansed of their sins from the past year at the end of Yom Kippur.