We huddle together as a community during the High Holy Days and make
collective proclamations of our guilt. And though the tradition affirms that the
world and all its inhabitants are judged at this season, it is also warns us that
each of us individually must undergo scrutiny.
This whole courtroom motif is meant to inspire a certain ambience of
seriousness in our thoughts, but taken literally, it raises questions about rules of
evidence in the Talmud. Rabbis are fond of reciting a brief phrase that seems to
anticipate the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution: a person may not
declare himself wicked. As a stand-alone declaration, this teaching seems to
insist that while confession can be good for the soul, it may not be the basis of
legal judgment. A person who confesses honestly on Yom Kippur therefore
need not fear God’s punishment.
But the teaching that comes just before this exemption from self-
incrimination mitigates the implied compassion in it. In almost every case, an
immediate relative may not testify in court since it is presumed he or she has a
vested interest in the defendant’s verdict. The Talmud extends that teaching
with this almost comical assertion: a person is related to himself. That is why a
person cannot testify against himself – the witness is disqualified on a legal
Before your head stops spinning, let me take another small step back and
reveal the context of these two declarations. A woman abandoned by her
missing husband cannot remarry; the marriage must first be dissolved by
divorce or death. The rabbis were so interested in freeing such “anchored”
women that they allowed the testimony without penalty by a third party who
was involved in the murder of the husband. Sometimes, the well-being of others
is so important that an unforgivable sin may be overlooked for the other’s
benefit. Therefore, a murder confession may be admitted to free the woman
without incriminating the perpetrator – because the murder is related to himself
and therefore unable to declare himself wicked.
You may find this fascinating or absurd, but I urge on you its proper lesson.
Each year we affirm the impending judgment of the world. The small and large
acts each of us commits may be of immediate consequence to a tiny number of
human beings, but in the aggregate those acts determine the nature of the world
in which we live. If you could save the lives and well-being of others by your
honest confession, in exchange for the guarantee of immunity from
prosecution, would you not do so?
Take this time to open your heart in candor and contrition before God. You
might receive the self-serving benefit of cleansing your own soul, but, more
important, you could save the entire world.
From our family to yours, a happy and healthy 5770.