The deathbed confession is a classic cinematic moment. It is often at this dramatic climax that past evils are revealed, forgiveness is granted and tears are shed. Hopefully, most people don’t have many serious misdeeds weighing on their conscience at the time of death, but the concept of confessing before dying is an important one in Jewish tradition.
While the term vidui (confession) is most familiar to people from the public confessional on Yom Kippur, there is a similar confessional prayer for those on their deathbed. The primary difference is that on Yom Kippur, the vidui is communal and is recited in plural form, as opposed to the singular form of the personal deathbed confession. One can, of course, add one’s own words to the confession and it may be recited in one’s preferred language.
Final deathbed statements can be found throughout the Torah. Of them, the most memorable occurs when Jacob blesses his 12 sons and prophetically alludes to the character of the tribe they will become. Confession is mentioned in the Talmud, and the Code of Jewish Law specifically states: “Many have confessed but have not died; and many who have not confessed died. And many who are walking outside in the marketplace confess. By the merit of your confession, you shall live. And all who confess have a place in the World-to-Come”(Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 338:1).
If the ill person is unable to recite vidui, it may be said by someone else. After vidui and the Shema have been recited, it is customary not to leave the ailing person alone until they pass or, with God’s help, recover.
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