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The synagogue service of Yom Kipur is based on the confession of the High Priest as chronicled on chapter 16, verse 21of the Book of Leviticus. The late Israeli philosopher and biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann called the Yom Kipur service “the priestly rite par excellence.”

Characteristic of the prayers of he Day of Atonement is the confession of sins as expressed in the litany “al het,” repeated 8 times during the whole day.


The Hebrew word “het” is usually translated as “sin” however, in the Hebrew language there is not one, but several words that can be also translated as “sin.” This means that in Judaism there are different shades of “sin,” or that “sin” covers a wide range of actions.

As rabbi Adin Steinsalz, amongst the most prolific and controversial Orthodox rabbis says it, “the concept of sin in and of itself is never fully developed or clarified in Judaism.”

The word “het,” one of the words used to evoke the concept of sin, is a case in point. Etymologically it refers to an act that misses the desired mark. In archery, for instance, the verb describes shooting an arrow that does not hit the target. In other words, by using the word “het” Judaism points to a human failure.

In general terms what Judaism means by “sin” is that being human is a matter of choice and that wrong choices conduct to de-humanization. Judaism, for sure, has an unambiguous understanding of who a human being is and consequently, who is a “failed” human being.

Society has made sure to take off the back of the concept of sin those de-humanizing acts that affect it. Jails are populated by human beings who have failed to live as humans among humans.

“Sin,” as Yom Kippur understands it in our day and age, throws the spotlight on those actions that society does not penalize, or at least does not penalize with jail.

Many of those acts are unintentional, “sins committed by ignorance.” Others are committed by inaction. The Talmud, in fact lays down the principle that a person is held accountable for the sins of his/her family, or community, or even “of all humankind” when he or she fails to employ the influence he or she commands for the correction of abuses.

In a sense, the relevance of the concept of “sin” today is its recognition of those personal acts that alienate a person from his, her humanity.

The “sin” of human beings is failing to live as human beings. Caring for each other and making the world a better place for future generations, according to Judaism, is the reason a human being comes into the world. It is our purpose for being.

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Moshe Pitchon is a Jewish thinker living in Florida. His weekly contemporary TaNaKh commentaries appear in Spanish, French and Portuguese