Confession: Commandment or Component?

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Nitzavim

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: If you repent but forget to make a verbal confession are your transgressions not forgiven?

You will return to Hashem, your God, and obey Him exactly as I am commanding you today, you and your sons, wholeheartedly and with your whole being.…For this commandment that I am commanding you today; it is not abstruse to you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?’’ Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say, ‘‘Who will travel overseas for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?’’ For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it. (Deuteronomy 30:2,11-14)

Unlike the Talmud (Eruvin 55a) and Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:8) who interpets the latter verses as referring to the mitzvah of Torah study, the Ramban understands the ambiguous “commandment” to be referring to the mitzvah of repentance, as referred to explicitly in verse two. According to this interpretation, the Torah reassures us that repentance can be accessed anywhere – that we need not go to heaven or travel across the sea to obtain it. The Sefer HaChinuch (no. 364) on Parshas Nasso, based on the Mechilta (Sifrei Zuta on Numbers 5:6), elaborates on how one can achieve atonement for their sins even outside the Land of Israel:

And so they [the Sages] said there, “I might have thought that I only confess when they brought [offerings]. From where do I know even at the time that they do not bring [them]? Since it is stated, ‘the children of Israel[…] and they shall confess’” — meaning to say that the tradition comes to expound [it] in this way. “Still, I might have thought that there is confession only in the Land”; that is, even though one may confess without the sacrifice, nonetheless, that the obligation for confession is only in the Land, as that is the locus of atonement, and the sacrifices are there and the locus of everything is there. “From where do I know to include the Diaspora? From that which is written (Leviticus 26:40), ‘And they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.’” That is, the iniquity of their fathers who sinned and were exiled from the Land. “And so [too,] did Daniel say outside of the Land (Daniel 9:7) ‘For You, Lord, is the righteousness and for us is the shame on this day.’” Hence it is elucidated that confession is an independent commandment and that it is practiced in all places.

While the conclusion is that indeed one can earn atonement in the Diaspora, it is challenging to comprehend how such a state of affairs could be conceivable in the first place. What is the initial thinking that God would not enable those outside of the Land of Israel to repent for their sins?

This can be answered by the novel suggestion of the Minchas Chinuch (364:1), based on his reading of the Sefer HaChinuch, who bifurcates between the (A) commandment to repent and (B) the commandment to confess, which is being discussed here. While the standard conceptualization, espoused by many such as the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 1:1), is that confession is a component of the mitzvah of repentance, the Minchas Chinuch argues that they are not necessarily synonymous. A practical distinction is that while repentance can be done in one’s heart, confession must be done with one’s mouth. The fact that there can already be repentance prior to verbal confession is illustrated by an iconic passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 49b):

[If one says to a woman: Be betrothed to me] on the condition that I am a righteous man, [then] even if [he was] a completely wicked man she is betrothed, as perhaps [in the meantime] he had thoughts of repentance in his mind [and is now righteous].

The Minchas Chinuch demonstrates from this legal passage about marriage that one can be subjectively penitent and they are already considered righteous absent a verbal declaration of their transgression. (The Minchas Chinuch adduces a further proof from Yoma 85b. However, the Kiryas Sefer rebuts his interpretation that repentance is an independent mitzvah from confession – the latter is merely the culmination of the repentance process.)

The Minchas Chinuch proceeds to raise an issue with his own line of reasoning: What is the practical difference whether repentance and confession are two independent commandments? Afterall, if one repents for consuming non-kosher food, but then neglects to fulfill his obligation to confess his sin of consuming non-kosher food, he has effectively traded one sin for the other. Now, instead of having to repent for eating non-kosher food, he needs to repent for his lack of confession to eating non-kosher food!

(1) The Minchas Chinuch first answers that indeed this would be an ironic scenario in which the individual swaps one sin for the other. However, if the initial sin he is repenting for is more severe, for example it carries the death penalty or lashes, then being left with only passively failing to fulfill the positive commandment of confession would still leave him better off than he started.

(2) Alternatively, the case can be in which one was either unable or unaware that he was supposed to issue a verbal confession. In such a case, this individual would not have incurred a new sin.

However, we can still inquire – absent confession would their repentance still count? According to the conventional understanding that confession is a component of repentance, since this person has not yet confessed, by definition he has not yet completed the repentance process and thus has not earned himself atonement. Whereas, according to the Minchas Chinuch, this individual has indeed fulfilled the mitzvah of repenting and now just needs to fulfill the independent mitzvah of confessing.

After the Minchas Chinuch completes his defense of his dichotomy between repentance and confession he answers our question – how could there even be an initial thought to exclude the Diaspora from the mitzvah of repentance? In truth, it was never the mitzvah of repentance that was up for debate. That was clearly applicable anywhere in the world – one would not need to go to heaven or travel across the sea to attain it. However, what was less obvious was the autonomous commandment of confession which one could reason was inextricably bound to the confession performed upon bringing an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. And that is precisely why our Sages needed to explicitly dispel any notion that confession should be limited to a particular place.

R. Mordechai Carlebach, based on his reading of the Ramabm (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:3) and R. Elchonon Wasserman (Koveitz He’aros, Aggados 3:3), offers a slightly different framework: The mitzvah to repent is self-understood to be built-in to every commandment. Inherent within every mitzvah is that when one fails to comply with it they should commit to performing it correctly next time. On this premise, it was obvious to the Sages that the ability to repent could be accomplished anywhere, as evidenced by stories in Tanach and Rabbinic literature in which people indeed do so outside of the Land of Israel. The revelation, therefore, is that in addition to feeling penitent one needs to verbalize their confession aloud – and that is what was not initially clear to the Sages whether this could be accomplished in the Diaspora. However, thank God, the conclusion is that atonement is available to us anywhere: “For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.”  It is not distant from us – anyone can return to God, in any place, at any time until their dying breath. As Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1) writes:

Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven as [Ecclesiastes 12:2] continues: “Before the sun, the light, the moon, or the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain…” – This refers to the day of death. Thus, we can infer that if one remembers his Creator and repents before he dies, he is forgiven.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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