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.

2 thoughts on “Shaila of the Week – Confession, Guilt, and Stolen Pencils

  1. The following quote from your post is an interesting and creative view of Jewish theology but is it not contradicted by requirement of public confession on the Jewish high Holidays. “Guilt is not absolved by confession in Judaism, it is absolved with private heartfelt teshuva”

    • There is no public confession of personal sins on the high holidays. See the Shulchan Aruch cited above that states that our organized confession is not personal in nature because everyone says it whether they committed what is described or not. Publicly declaring one’s personal sins against G-d is not halachicaly correct.

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