07. Public Vidui

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) raised another important question in the context of vidui: Is it proper for a sinner to confess publicly? On the one hand, we have seen that a person should be ashamed of his sins and not confess them in the presence of others, as it says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over” (Tehilim 32:1). On the other hand, we have learned that a sinner should not try to cover up his crimes. Rather, he should publicly confess them, as it says, “He who covers up his faults will not succeed; he who confesses and gives them up will find mercy” (Mishlei 28:13).

The Gemara records two views. Rav explains that if a sin was committed in private, it should be confessed in private as well, as public confession impinges on the honor of heaven and publicizes that some people brazenly violate Torah commandments. However, if the sin was committed in public, it was a desecration of God’s name. The sinner can only rectify this by confessing publicly, so that the masses know that he repented. This will sanctify God’s name (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18).

  1. Naḥman explains that one should confess interpersonal sins publicly, so that everyone sees that his friend’s honor is important to him, which will also help his efforts to placate his friend. However, one who proudly hurts his friend publicly but asks for forgiveness privately has not repented adequately. In contrast, when sins are between man and God, generally it is preferable to confess privately, to avoid further desecration of God’s name.

In practice, one should consider both factors, namely, God’s honor and his friend’s honor and appeasement. In general, sins between man and God should preferably be confessed privately, though if the sin was committed publicly, in a way that desecrated God’s name, the confession should be public as well, as this restores divine honor. In contrast, interpersonal sins should generally be confessed publicly, as this is a better way for the offender to placate the injured party. However, in cases where a public confession would make things worse (for example, when only the two of them are aware of the offense, or when the injured party would prefer that the whole embarrassing incident be forgotten), clearly it is forbidden for the offender to confess publicly.[5]

[5]. Some say that Rav and R. Naḥman disagree (Leḥem Mishneh, based on its understanding of Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:5), while others maintain that they generally agree, except in rare cases (Kesef Mishneh). Still others argue that their views are complementary (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18; this would seem to be the position of Raavad as well). This last approach is the one I present above, because each position has merit, and many poskim understand them this way. Additionally, even according to those who maintain that there is a disagreement between Rav and R. Naḥman, in most cases they still agree with one another. For example, they may disagree about an interpersonal sin that was committed in public (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in public, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in private – Kesef Mishneh). But when the sin involves a desecration of God’s name, even R. Naḥman agrees that the vidui should be public. Similarly, they may disagree when an interpersonal sin was committed in private (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in private, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in public). But when a public confession could further hurt the injured party, it is clear that R. Naḥman would agree that the confession should not be public. Therefore, I focus on the cases where both agree. In a case where they might disagree, the offender must weigh the factors and determine which approach is better in the particular instance.

The Sages say that one who tells others of a sin he committed in private is called brazen, as he desecrates God’s name. They then ask: How could Reuven have confessed to changing his father’s sleeping arrangements? They answer that a sinner must confess when there is a possibility that not doing so will result in someone else being wrongfully suspected (Sota 7b). With this precedent, some Aḥaronim say that it is permitted to publicly admit to one’s sins when there is a legitimate need to do so (Pri Ḥadash; Sha’arei Teshuva 607:2).

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