What is forgiveness?


With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner, we start thinking about the three Ts: teshuvah; tefilla; and tzedakah. I’d like to use this month’s column to zone in on the first of these Ts. When it comes to teshuva, or repentance, what are we repenting for? Is it atoning for one’s sins committed against G-d, other people in general, or our friends and family?

I remember being told at school that we have to ask forgiveness from people, intentionally, and if they don’t forgive us then they are the ones at fault. It’s a pretty basic maxim, but it got the point across – don’t be horrible, and if you are, know what you did to make the other person feel bad. And then apologise. But if you apologise three times and they don’t accept your apology, then they are to blame as well – and (in the brain of a younger and less critical me), you can wash your hands of any wrongdoing and get on with your life.

Did I get that right? Is that what my teachers were really telling me? It seems like there are a few logic jumps going on here in terms of what repentance and forgiveness really are.

Repentance, in Judaism, comes in many different guises. According to the Rambam’s (Maimonides) Rules of Repentance and the Gates of Repentance by Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona, the sinner repents by:

• “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.”

When you have asked for forgiveness and followed these steps, is the offended individual still obliged to forgive you? Should we ‘turn the other cheek’, as our fellow monotheist religionists state?

Well, the answer is complicated. According to Rabbi David J. Blumenthal in an article published in My Jewish Learning, sinning can be understood as a legal contract, in which the sinner has incurred a debt towards the individual who he has sinned against. In this scenario, the creditor has options, just as in a transaction in ‘real life’. Rabbi Blumenthal says, “The creditor can forgo the debt, waive the obligation, or relinquish the claim.” This is true in a matter of sinning against another. The sinner or offender has a responsibility to correct the wrong, and “It is (the offender’s) responsibility to allow the offender to do teshuvah, that is, to correct the wrong done to them.” Thus, the sinner has a duty to do teshuvah and the offended person has a duty to allow the sinner to do teshuvah.

However, if the offender has not been sincere in their apology and has not changed their ways, there is no obligation to offer this mechilah – forgoing the other’s indebtedness. Blumenthal quotes the Rambam in this matter, “The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mechilah, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner mechilah” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Hilchot Chovel u-Mazzik,” 5:10).

Repentance and forgiveness are very difficult concepts to grasp without context. I asked Gabi what she thought of forgiveness, and a few ‘uncomfortable’ scenarios came up. Can we offer mechilah to a 95-year-old ex-Nazi who was a guard at Auschwitz and never came forward and asked for forgiveness?

Where do you stand on trying to forgive people who have wronged you? And, if you are conflicted, have you made an effort to see whether the offender has followed the steps to repentance? If this is something that you have thought about for many years, perhaps you can take solace that it is a large discussion point and has been for many years. Absolution and atonement only come through G-d, but we can make a start with our fellow humans. As the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) states, “For sins against God, Yom Kippur brings atonement. For sins against one’s fellow man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement until he has become reconciled with the fellow man he wronged.”

So, for the rest of Elul until Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (and some even say until the end of Sukkot on Hoshana Raba) think about how you can ask for forgiveness, change your ways, and maybe how you can offer mechilah and forgiveness. Only then can we pave the way for a fresh start to the new year.

Shana Tova u’Metuka and may you have a meaningful fast – from all the Nudels down in Oz.

A former Capetonian, Craig Nudelman is now based in Sydney, where he has settled into Australian life with his wife Gabi, and two daughters, Jessica and Livi. He works for the Jewish Communal Appeal and enjoys singing as a member of Sydney’s Central Synagogue choir and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir. The Cape Jewish Chronicle is privileged to continue to receive regular articles written by Craig.

• Published in the September 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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