by Sara Zebovitz
One of the most repeated prayers in the Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur services – and the ten days in between – is one of repentance. It’s called the Ashamnu (literally, “we have been guilty”), the prayer of confession. It is written as an acrostic, a type of poem common in Jewish prayer. The Ashamnu is said silently during the Amidah prayer, and aloud afterwards. The unique thing about this prayer is that it is not a personal repentance; all of the words are in the first person, plural, and past tense. We say, “אשמנו, בגדנו, גזלנו…” – “we have incurred guilt, we have betrayed, we have stolen…” Why is this prayer recited in this tense, and why are we required to atone for things we have not done? We may have not stolen, lied, committed adultery, or acted violently, but there are others in our communities who have. By reciting this prayer of collective confession, we are taking responsibility over our wider community and taking it upon ourselves to repent for those who have not.