The Al Chet prayer is part of the text of Vidui, the Jewish confession, and one of the bedrocks of Yom Kippur services. Al Chet literally means “for the sin.” In this prayer, we enumerate the many ways we may have transgressed over the previous year and ask G‑d to forgive us.

Why Do We Confess?

This prayer can be traced back to the Jewish nation’s sojourn through the desert. After experiencing a terrible plague, “the people came to Moses and said: we sinned.”1 The Midrash tells us that as soon as they acknowledged their sin, they were immediately forgiven.2 The very acknowledgment of sin itself brings about forgiveness.3

Verbally acknowledging that we’ve sinned is a core component of teshuvah, repentance.4 Part of the process of bringing a sin offering was a confession: “And they shall confess the sin that they have committed.”5

So, on the Day of Atonement, we confess our sins just as our ancestors did when they brought offerings to the Temple to atone for their misdeeds.

How Is Al Chet Said?

In Talmudic times, the basic text of the acknowledgment, called vidui (“confession”), included just the phrase “I have sinned.” Then, a declaration of sins was added to our liturgy, laid out in alphabetical order, with one form of sin for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This prayer is called the Ashamnu prayer. Al Chet is an expanded version of the Ashamnu prayer.

In the Geonic period, the Al Chet prayer was expanded to include 53 specific forms of sin.6 They follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet, with two forms of sin for each letter. The prayer ends with a confession of sins we may have committed that lead to different punishments meted out by the courts, including lashes, capital punishment, and the obligation to bring an offering in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Each time we recite the words “... that we have committed,” the custom is to bang lightly on one’s chest. Some have the custom to bang on the left side, above the heart, while others have the custom to bang on the center.7

What If I Did Not Sin?

Even though we personally might not have committed those specific sins, any sin impacts the Jewish nation as a whole. That is why the prayer is said in the plural, enumerating the sins “we” have done. For that reason, even the most righteous say the entire Al Chet prayer.8

When Is Al Chet Said

Al Chet is recited multiple times over the course of Yom Kippur, at the end of the Silent Prayer, after the blessing of Sim Shalom. According to Chabad custom, this prayer is said a total of 10 times, starting from the Mincha on the eve of Yom Kippur.

The Al Cheit prayer is also said in the final moments of one’s life, to atone for one’s sins at the last opportunity.9 It is also customarily recited in the afternoon prayer by a bride and groom on the day of their wedding.10

For the full text of the Al Chet confession, see The Text of Al Chet.