During Temple times, the Kohen Gadol confessed on Yom Kippur on behalf of the entire Jewish people, as we read, “Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins” (Vayikra 16:21). According to the maḥzor, this was the formula of the vidui:
Please, Lord, Your people, the house of Israel, have sinned, have done wrong, have rebelled before You. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that they have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – Your people, the house of Israel. As it is written in the Torah of Moses Your servant, at the word of Your glory, ‘For on this day, you will be atoned for and made pure of all your sins before the Lord.’”
“Sins” are unknowing, “wrongs” are knowing, and “rebellions” are spiteful. This order is logical, as it is reasonable to ask for forgiveness beginning with the less serious offenses (Yoma 36b; SA 621:5).
With this vidui, the Kohen Gadol fulfilled the mitzva of vidui on behalf of all Israel, even though presumably it was still valuable for each individual to confess his personal sins. An advantage of the Kohen Gadol’s vidui was that it allowed the entire nation to participate in repentance. This made the repentance deeper and more comprehensive. For this reason, after the Temple was destroyed, the Sages ordained that every Jew confess in the plural. During this recitation, each individual should keep in mind his personal sins as well (Yere’im; R. Sa’adia Gaon).
The minimum mandated vidui on Yom Kippur is: “But we have sinned, wronged, and rebelled” (Yoma 87b; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:8; Pri Ḥadash; MB 607:12). Common practice is to add a more extensive list of sins in alphabetical order (R. Amram Gaon):
We have sinned (ashamnu), we have acted treacherously (bagadnu), we have robbed, we have spoken slander. We have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly, we have acted presumptuously, we have been violent, we have framed lies. We have given bad advice, we have deceived, we have scorned, we have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity, we have transgressed, we have persecuted, we have been obstinate. We have done wrong, we have corrupted, we have acted abominably, we have strayed, we have led others astray.
We continue with another list of sins, each of which is introduced by the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You” (al ḥet she-ḥatanu lefanekha). Taking these as a starting point, each ethnic/geographical community has its own version.
One might ask: How can a righteous person declare, “We have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity,” when clearly he did not sin knowingly or rebelliously? How can someone who is careful with other people’s money declare, “We have robbed”? The answer is that the mitzva of vidui on Yom Kippur is communal. Therefore, the Sages ordained that every individual recite his vidui in the plural on behalf of the entire nation, just as the Kohen Gadol confessed on behalf of the entire nation.
Additionally, even if a person himself did not sin, it could be that he bears some responsibility for the sins of family members or friends. Sometimes he was in a position to object to their behavior but did not do so. Other times, he could have inspired them to repent, had he made the effort. It is also possible that had he been a better role model, he would have positively influenced them, so they would not have sinned. Finally, all Jews bear responsibility for one another. We are like one body made up of many parts. Therefore, the sin of any Jew is the responsibility of all. Thus, even the righteous must confess. It cleanses them of their share in the sin and inspires others to repent (Sefer Ḥasidim §601; Arizal; Ben Ish Ḥai, Ki Tisa).
One must stand for the entire vidui, until, “And for the sins for which we incur the four types of capital punishment…King who pardons and forgives” (SA 607:3; MB ad loc. 10). It is proper to bow the head or bend over a little during vidui, to show humility. Some are meticulous and bow more deeply, like we do when reciting the prayer of Modim (Shlah). Others who want to do so but find it difficult to stay bent over for a long time should bow deeply when reciting Ashamnu but just bend slightly when reciting Al Ḥet. It is customary to beat the chest during the recitation of vidui, as if to say, “My heart caused me to sin” (MB 607:11).
It is proper to confess for our ancestors’ sins as well (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:40). Therefore, our vidui includes the line, “For in truth, we and our fathers have sinned” (Shlah). There is a profound wisdom here. Alongside the mitzva to honor one’s parents, one must also repair his family’s bad habits. When one confesses his ancestors’ sins, he can free himself of them and repair them. If he does not confess them, we are afraid that he will repeat them inadvertently. This vidui is also fulfilled with the general formula (“we and our fathers have sinned”); but if someone feels it will facilitate his repentance, he should specify the sins, as explained below in section 6.
. One should make sure to stand from the beginning of vidui, meaning from “Our God and God of our fathers” (prior to “Ashamnu”) through the concluding words. In congregations where the congregants are not required to recite vidui during the repetition of the Amida, one must stand only when the ḥazan recites the crux of vidui: “But we and our fathers have sinned” (SAH 607:8). However, in practice, all communities recite vidui during the repetition, so everyone must stand for the entire recitation (MB 607:10). One who finds it difficult to stand should stand for the crux of vidui. If he can, it is preferable that he stand for the recitation of Ashamnu as well.
Many bend over slightly or bow their heads while reciting vidui. Others bow more deeply, as when reciting Modim (Shela). One who has difficulty bowing but wants to be stringent should bow deeply during the recitation of the crux of vidui, and if possible also for the recitation of Ashamnu. The rest of the time, it is enough just to bow the head a bit.
Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim customarily beat their chests during the recitations of Ashamnu and Al Ḥet. However, in the section listing the sacrifices relevant for different sins, many do not bow or beat their chests because these statements are general and do not include the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You.” Many Yemenites do not strike the chest at all during vidui.