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Many people believe, based on a literal reading of the Torah, that Judaism requires people to offer sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to obtain forgiveness for sins. That is not a Jewish reading of the text.
Even in times when the Holy Temple still stood, the mere act of bringing an offering (animal, wine, grain, etc.) never automatically caused God to forgive someone for their sins. 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 in Jerusalem, the Jewish practice of offering korbanot (sacrifices) ceased. What then was the Jewish response? In a number of places the Midrash, Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud 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
The humble are rewarded as though they had presented all the offerings prescribed in the Torah – This idea can be found in Psalm li. 19; Talmud Soṭah 5b; Talmud Sanhedrin 43b; and in Midrash Lekach Tov, by Rabbi Tobiah ben Eliezer (11th century.)
Judaism recognizes that there is a difference between a person sinning against God, and sinning against another person.
Sins committed by a person against God
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 even gives a statistical figure to the matter, basing itself on Exodus 34:6–7, and 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 by one person against another person
God’s forgiveness, however extensive, only encompasses those sins which man commits directly against Him, “bein adam la-Makom“;
Those sins in which an injury is caused to one’s fellow man, “bein adam le-ḥavero” are not forgiven until the injured party has himself forgiven the perpetrator.
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.
When one sins, and every person does, Judaism teaches that we should go to the person we wrong, sincerely apologize, and do everything we can to make it up to them. Under such circumstances, Jewish law teaches that the wronged person should then accept the apology, and forgive. In his classic code of Jewish law, 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.”
This also means that, unless the victim forgave the perpetrator before he died, murder is unforgivable in Judaism, and they will answer to God for it. The victims’ family and friends may not forgive the murderer for killing someone, ever. However, they may forgive the murderer for the grief they caused them.
– paragraph adapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgiveness
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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.
Adapted by RK from: Wikipedia contributors. "Repentance in Judaism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Jun. 2015. Web. 28 Jun. 2015
Jewish teachings on repentance, by Rabbi David Lincoln. Excerpted from The Observant Life.
Should We Forgive the Nazis? The Jewish Response to The Sunflower’s Moral Dilemma. By Mendel Kalmenson