How does one earn forgiveness/atone for sinning?

Some people, based on a literal reading of  parts of the Bible, believe God requires sacrificial offerings to be made in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But that is not a Jewish reading of the text. Even when the Holy Temple still stood, the mere act of bringing an offering (animal, wine, grain, etc.) didn’t automatically grant atonement. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) teaches:

Psalm 40:6: “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.”

Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Hosea 14:2: “Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.'”

After the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the practice of offering korbanot (sacrifices) ceased.  What then was the Jewish response? Let’s look at classical rabbinic literature: The Midrash, Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud. They emphasize that following Jewish law, performing charitable deeds, and studying Torah are greater than performing animal sacrifices.

Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y’hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said “Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written ‘Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.'” (Hosea 6:6)
– Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 4:5

Rabbi Elazar said: Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than offering all of the sacrifices, as it is written: “Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).
– Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 49

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: The Holy One Said to David: “Solomon, your Son is building the Temple. Is this not for the purpose of offering sacrifices there? The justice and righteousness of your actions are more precious to me than sacrifices.”
And how do we know this? “To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice.” (Proverbs 21:3)
– Talmud Yerushalmi, B’rakhot 2.1

A midrash says that there is no need to replace the sacrifices:

Rava said: whoever studies Torah does not need [to sacrifice offerings] (Menahot 110a)
… Said God: in this world a sacrifice effected their atonement, but in the World to Come I will forgive your sins without a sacrifice… (Tanhuma Shemini, paragraph 10).

The humble are rewarded as though they had presented all the offerings prescribed in the Torah – This idea can be found in Psalm 51; Talmud Soṭah 5b; Talmud Sanhedrin 43b;  and Midrash Lekach Tov, by Rabbi Tobiah ben Eliezer (11th century.)


The difference between sins against people, and sins against God

If a person breaks a vow to God, or fails to follow religious rules, that may considered a sin. These are “bein adam la-Makom“, between man and God.

The Jewish tradition holds that God is always understanding and willing to forgive:

The theme of God’s forgiveness for man’s sins is recurrent in talmudic and midrashic literature and reappears in later rabbinic writings and the synagogue liturgy. Its main theological purport is to counterbalance, and indeed outweigh, the strongly entrenched rabbinic belief in the inevitable punishment of sin. …Only the unrepentant sinner incurs God’s wrath; the sinner who repents is always forgiven. Thus the Talmud states, “One who sins and regrets his act is at once forgiven” (Ḥag. 5a; Ber. 12b) and the Midrash states, “Says the Holy One, even if they [your sins] should reach to Heaven, if you repent I will forgive” (Pes. Rab. 44:185a; see Yal. Ps. 835).

The Tosefta says that God’s quality of forgiveness is five hundred fold that of His wrath (Tosef., Sot 4:1).

The idea is more picturesquely expressed in the talmudic image of God praying that His mercy should prevail over His anger and that He should deal with His children “li-fenim mi-shurat ha-din,” i.e., that He should forgive them even though strict justice would demand their punishment (Ber. 7a).

Maimonides [writes]: “Even if a man has sinned his whole life and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven him” (Yad, Teshuvah 2:1).

Sins committed against another person

Here we consider sins in which one has hurt another person, “bein adam le-ḥavero“, between one person and another. In this case, prayers to God don’t count: If one has done wrong to another person one must recognize this, and make amends to the person that one has wronged. Judaism doesn’t offer vicarious atonement (“I hurt John, but I asked God for forgiveness.”) Judaism instead teaches we must engage in personal atonement (“I hurt John, and I need to understand why that hurt him, and then I’ll talk to him, and try to make it up to him.”)

Hence the custom of seeking forgiveness from those one may have wronged on the eve of [Yom Kippur] , without which proper atonement cannot be made.

The law regarding physical injury, for example, is explicit in that even after the various compensatory payments have been made, the inflicter of the damage must seek the forgiveness of the injured party for the suffering caused (BK 92a; Yad, Ḥovel u-Mazzik 5:9; Sh. Ar., ḤM, 422).

Not only must one who sins against one’s fellow seek forgiveness from them, but the one sinned against is duty bound to forgive. “Man should be pliant as a reed, not hard like the cedar” in granting forgiveness (Ta’an. 20a).

…If the injured party refuses to forgive, even when the sinner has come before him three times in the presence of others and asked for forgiveness, then he is in turn deemed to have sinned (see Tanh. Hukkat 19). He is called akhzari (“cruel”).

– Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group.

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes:

“It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel.”

The Gates of Repentance

The Gates of Repentance (Hebrew: שערי תשובה‎) is an important work of Jewish ethics written by Rabbenu Yonah (רבנו יונה) of Gerona (northern Spain) (died 1264 CE) He was a rabbi, and a cousin of the famed medieval Jewish scholar Nahmanides.

In The Gates of Repentance he writes that if someone commits a sin, then one can be forgiven for that sin if one performs teshuva (acts of repentance) which includes:

regretting/acknowledging the sin;

forsaking the sin

worrying about the future consequences of the sin;

acting and speaking with humility;

acting in a way opposite to that of the sin (for example, for the sin of lying, one should speak the truth);

understanding the magnitude of the sin;

refraining from lesser sins for the purpose of safeguarding oneself against committing greater sins;

confessing the sin

praying for atonement;

correcting the sin however possible (for example, if one stole an object, the stolen item must be returned or if one slanders another, the slanderer must ask the injured party for forgiveness);

pursuing works of chesed and truth;

remembering the sin for the rest of one’s life;

refraining from committing the same sin if the opportunity presents itself again;

teaching others not to sin.

This section adapted from “Repentance in Judaism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 28 Jun. 2015

Earned forgiveness versus cheap forgiveness

Judaism teaches that repentance is really hard work, in contrast to the glib and easy way these accused perpetrators are seeking cheap forgiveness from popular culture. America is often perilously quick to welcome comebacks, in part because we don’t really know what it means to atone.

According to Jewish law, though, the most critical factor is repentance, tshuvah — the work that a person who has done harm must undertake. There are specific steps: The bad actor must own the harm perpetrated, ideally publicly. Then they must do the hard internal work to become the kind of person who does not harm in this way — which is a massive undertaking, demanding tremendous introspection and confrontation of unpleasant aspects of the self. Then they must make restitution for harm done, in whatever way that might be possible. Then — and only then — they must apologize sincerely to the victim. Lastly, the next time they are confronted with the opportunity to commit a similar misdeed, they must make a different, better choice.

For the rest of this essay see Famous abusers seek easy forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah teaches us that true repentance is hard. By Danya Ruttenberg

Further reading

On Repentance, from “The Observant Life”, David Lincoln, The Rabbinical Assembly

Should We Forgive the Nazis? The Jewish Response to The Sunflower’s Moral Dilemma. By Mendel Kalmenson

“Gates” as an Enduring Metaphor, by Alden Solovy


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