Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ashamnu: Confronting Sin and Forgiving Ourselves on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, during which one fasts and intensely prays. According to Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the time which one appeals G-d to be sealed in the Book of Life. During this appeal, one of the repeated facets of the Yom Kippur service is the Ashamnu (אשמנו), which is an alphabetic acrostic prayer acting as a confession of one's sins. While going down the acrostic list of sins, one beats their chest while communally reciting one's sins, which includes verbalizing such confessions as "we have betrayed" (בגדנו), "we have stolen" (גזלנו), and "we have rebelled" (מרדנו).

[For a list of all 24 of the sins in Ashamnu, as well as interpretations on each sin, check out the insights from Aish HaTorah, Orthodox Union, and a translation of Chayei Adam (18 c.)]

What's so special about Ashamnu? What makes it such an important prayer?

Before answering that, a bit on the Jewish notion of sin. Judaism conceives sin differently than Christianity does. Jews do not believe that Jesus died for our sins or in Original Sin. To quote Genesis 4:7, "Sin crouches at the door, its urge towards you, but you can overcome it." In Hebrew, the word חטא is commonly mistranslated as "sin." When taking a closer look at its usage in the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures), the word is better translated as "error" or "mistake." For a Jew, "sinning" is much more akin to the idea of an archer missing his target. Even righteous people still err (Ecclesiastes 7:20); it does not make them bad people. For Jews, humans are neither inherently evil nor inherently good. We are born with a strong inclination towards evil (Genesis 8:21), but nevertheless have the potential to become good by performing good deeds because we have free will.

With free will comes great responsibility. We do not live in isolation. Our actions affect others, which is one of the reasons why the confessions in the Ashamnu prayer are written in the first person plural. Although many of the sins in Ashamnu are actualized on an individual level, and while we need to view our spiritual selves on an individual levelwe are still a community and as such, responsible for others in the community.

Let's briefly contrast Ashamnu with Al Chet, the longer confessional prayer that proceeds Ashamanu, to provide further insight. The reason that Al Chet is longer because it goes into further detail with more concrete examples. Concrete examples are what makes it easier to connect to something like Al Chet than Ashamnu. How so? When one reads Al Chet, one essentially recites symptoms of a given חטא. In contrast, Ashamnu is a list of root causes. Root causes might be more difficult to examine, but if we are to truly improve upon ourselves, we need to confront them at their source. This is the gift that Ashamnu provides, which is important because knowing is half the battle.

Every time we thump our chests during the recitation of Ashamnu, the thump acts as a heartbeat. We need to be reminded of our conscience, our good inclination (יצר הטוב) because if we don't, our confession would look something like this. However, the Ashamnu prayer is a reminder that we can only beat ourselves for so long, both literally and metaphorically. After reciting the Ashamnu and Al Chet, we ask that "for all these sins, G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement" (ועל כלם אלוה סליחות סלח לנו מחל לנו כפר לנו). If we keep beating ourselves up indefinitely, we get exhausted, disillusioned about life, and lose sight of what is important. Ashamnu tells us that yes, we need to remember the wrong we did and figure out what caused it. Even so, we need to stop beating ourselves up and realize that not only we need to ask G-d for forgiveness, and then we need to forgive ourselves. The text doesn't explicitly state to forgive yourself, but how do we know that we need to do so? Because if we don't, we cannot move forward.

Most of us are hardest on ourselves, which makes sense. We know ourselves better than anybody else does. We also have the greatest amount of control over our own actions.  But if we are to "love your neighbor as yourself" (ואהבת לרעך כמוך; Leviticus 19:18), we have to remember the "כמוך" bit and realize that we need to love ourselves first because that self-love and self-confidence is what helps us actualize our full potential. And at the same time, we have to come to terms with what it means to be human. Looking at the list of sins in Ashamnu, odds are that we did not break every single one. Nevertheless, we are supposed to examine the entirety to remind ourselves which ones we did not commit (i.e., our strengths) and which ones we committed (i.e., our weaknesses, the ones upon which we can improve). We cannot live a life of perfection, nor does Judaism expect us to.  Everyone screws up at some point. When we fall, we need to get back up. All we can do is our utmost to make sure that we personally confess to less sins next year than we do for this year. May this be a year in which we not only forgive others, but we forgive ourselves.

גמר חתימה טובה!


  1. Steve,
    This is beautiful.

  2. This is great Steve. Only trouble is, half the time I don't feel worthy. Half the time I don't feel deserving of mercy. For me, forgiving myself is always the hardest