Shaila of the Week – Confession, Guilt, and Stolen Pencils

Some religions require confession in order to achieve absolution from sin.  But there’s a catch – the confession must be to another person.  The Halacha tells us that confession to another person, at times, is not only not required but morally reprehensible!

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) points out that different pesukim seem to contradict one another about whether to hide one’s past sins or reveal them.  The gemara resolves the issue with two possible answers: 1. Sins that are public knowledge require public confession on the part of the sinner whereas sins that the public is unaware of do not require public confession 2. Interpersonal sins must be confessed publicly, whereas sins against G-d alone do not need to be publicly confessed. The Rambam codifies this halacha (Hilchot Teshuva 2) with wording that seems to be in line with the second explanation of the gemara (see lechem Mishnah ibid).  Whereas, the Raavad seems to accept the first explanation of the gemara.  In fact, the Rambam goes as far as to claim that it is azut panim, unbridled haughtiness, to publicly confess sins against G-d.  It is worth noting that Kesef Mishnah (ibid) insists that even the Rambam agrees to the Raavad that sins against G-d which are publicly known must be publicly confessed.  Nonetheless, everyone is in agreement that sins against G-d that are not publicly known should not be confessed to another individual or in public.  The Shulchan Aruch (OC 607:2) codifies this in practice.

An Individual that Feels a Need to Confess

What if someone violated the Torah privately and feels a need to confess in order to do Teshuva?  The Rambam was very clear that this is wrong.  However, the point is made in even stronger fashion in the Shaarei Teshuva (ibid).  He mentions public confession of private Torah violation as the practice of some and completely rejects it as being foreign to Judaism.  However, he does allow confession of a sin if others are suspected of committing it and admission will clear them of guilt.

The Case of the Stolen Pencil

Rav Yosef Messas

Rav Yosef Messas, one of the great Morrocan poskim and Chief Rabbi of Chaifa, addresses a situation related to this discussion.  A student stole belongings from his fellow student and regretted it.  He asked Rav Messas if he could confess publicly to absolve himself.  Rav Messas responded (Shu”t Mayim Chaim 1:44) that he could do so.  Even though he would also be revealing a sin against G-d when he confesses, he would be absolving others who might be suspected.  Additionally, the sin against G-d is intimately intertwined with and interpersonal sin as well, namely the pain caused to the student he stole from.  Rav Messas claims that in such a case all would agree that the public confession is praiseworthy.

The Takeaway from this Halacha

Our society often teaches us that to absolve oneself of guilt they need to tell everyone about their missteps.  Even things that should be kept private as a part of one’s personal history are often revealed.  If these missteps included wrongdoing against another person – the halacha is in total agreement.  However, when dealing with private missteps bein adam l’makom, a Jew is neither required nor encouraged to do so.  Guilt is not absolved by confession in Judaism, it is absolved with private heartfelt teshuva.

Vignette of a Famous Rabbi – Rav Chaim Berlin’s Eulogy for the Netziv

The Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, was one of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century.  The intensity with which he was committed to teaching Torah and building the Volzhiner yeshiva are legendary.  Shortly after the Yeshiva was closed by the Russian authorities, the Netziv’s health deteriorated and he passed away.  His funeral was attended by over 40,000 people and witnesses many eulogies given.  However, his eldest son, Rav Chaim Berlin, gave a memorable eulogy that was recorded by the his younger, half-brother, and ben-zekunim of the Netziv, Rav Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin):

Rav Chaim Berlin

“The strongest and most meaningful eulogy was given by my brother, Rav Chaim Berlin.  As one of the great orators of the generation he spoke, in his charismatic style, about the well known Talmudic story: When the First Temple was destroyed, groups of young priests gathered with the keys of the Sanctuary in their hands, and they ascended to the roof of the Sanctuary and they said before Him: “Master of the Universe! Seeing as we are not worthy to be trustworthy curators, let the keys be given to you.” And they threw them towards the Heavens. And the form of a palm appeared, and took them (Taanit 29a).  My brother continued, “So too the Yeshiva of Volozhin was destroyed, the golden key of the yeshiva, my father of blessed memory, no longer had his sacred mission in life, and behold a hand of fire descended from heaven and took him from us!”  The eulogy my brother gave made an impact, not only at the funeral, but throughout the Jewish world.  Everywhere that Jews lived they understood that not only had the key to the Volozhin Yeshiva been taken, but that nowhere in the Jewish world remained an individual that had the strength to spread Torah with such passion.” (MiVolozhin Ad Yerushalayim Vol. 1 pg. 196)

Rav Meir Bar-Ilan