Yom Kippur


Rabbi Bernard Fox



“Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins committed towards Hashem … However, sins committed towards another person …  are not forgiven until one pays his friend all that he is obligated to pay him and appeases him.”  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:9)

The ten days between Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur are devoted to repentance – Teshuva.  Maimonides explains that the violation of any commandment engenders an obligation to repent from wrongdoing.  Repentance is essential in securing atonement.


However, repentance alone is not adequate in every case to secure atonement.  Maimonides explains in the halacha above that there is a fundamental difference between a sin committed against Hashem and a sin committed against another individual.  If we sin against Hashem, we violate the perimeters of the relationship between ourselves and our Creator.  Atonement is secured through repairing this relationship.  Through repentance, we restore our relationship with Hashem and secure atonement.


When we sin against another individual, we have violated the perimeters of two relationships.  The mitzvot of the Torah establish clear expectations regarding our relationships with other individuals.  When we violate a commandment that regulates our relationships with others, we have violated one of Hashem’s commandments.  Because we have violated a commandment of Hashem, we must repair our relationship with Him.  Therefore, we must perform Teshuva.


However, we have also acted outside of the proper perimeters of our relationship with another individual.  The Torah requires us to also repair this relationship.  We must return the relationship to within the perimeters established by the Torah.  In order to accomplish this, we are required to make restitution and any other payments required by the Torah to the damaged party.  We are also required to secure the forgiveness of the person we have harmed.




“And just as I forgive every person, so too cause all others to look kindly upon me and completely forgive me.” (Teffilat Zakah)

It is customary in many Ashkenazic communities for the members of the community to individually recite Teffilat Zakah prior to Kol Nedrai.  Teffilat Zakah is a fascinating and moving prayer.  The prayer ends with an acknowledgement that we can only atone for sins committed against another individual, through securing this persons forgiveness.  The teffilah continues with a declaration.  The individual reciting the prayer grants forgiveness to all others that have sinned against him.  Then, he beseeches Hashem to intervene on his behalf with those against whom he has sinned.  He asks Hashem to inspire these people to forgive him for the sins he has committed against them.


This element of Teffilat Zakah deserves careful consideration.  It is based on an interesting premise.  In Teffilat Zakah we forgive individuals who have not necessarily approached us and asked for forgiveness.  Similarly, we ask Hashem to cause those we have sinned against to forgive us.  Presumably, some of these people whose forgiveness we are seeking, we have not personally approached.  The teffilah implies that forgiveness is effective in securing atonement, even in instances in which the sinner has not made any personal appeal to the affronted party.  In other words, atonement requires Teshuva and the forgiveness of the aggrieved person.  However, it is not necessary for the wrongdoer to personally appeal to the injured party.


This does not seem to accord with Maimonides’ position.  According to Maimonides, we are required to ask the offended party for forgiveness.  It is not adequate that the person spontaneously forgives us in a moment of charity.  We cannot secure atonement without directly asking the person we have harmed for forgiveness.




“Even if he only verbally insulted his friend, he is obligated to appease him and confront him until he forgives him.  If his friend does not wish to forgive him, he brings to him a delegation of three people that are his friends.  He confronts him and asks for forgiveness.  If he is not appeased, he brings him a second and third delegation.  If he is still not appeased, he abandons him and this person that has not offered forgiveness is the sinner.”  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:9)

Maimonides acknowledges that sometimes a person will not willingly and eagerly forgive a wrongdoing.  What is the extent of the obligation to appease the injured person?  Maimonides explains that we cannot discharge our obligation through asking once.  We must persist.  We must recruit a delegation of supporters and in the presence of this delegation we must press our case with the injured person.  One delegation is not enough; we must return with new delegations even a second and third time.


What is the purpose of these delegations?  It seems that the delegation exerts pressure upon the injured party.  We hope that the peer pressure exerted by the delegation will influence the person that has been harmed and evoke his forgiveness.


As we noted above, Maimonides apparently maintains that in order to secure atonement, we must make every reasonable effort to appease the person we have harmed.  Yet, Maimonides tells us that it is not enough to repeatedly appeal to this person for forgiveness.  We are required to assemble delegations – time and again – and appeal to our friend for his forgiveness.  It is difficult to understand this requirement.  It is reasonable for the Torah to require the wrongdoer to make repeated appeals to the injured person.  In some instances, it is understandable that the injured party may not be immediately convinced of the sincerity of the repentant wrongdoer.  But why is the wrongdoer required to assemble delegations?


One possible explanation is that in order to secure atonement, the sinner is required to secure the forgiveness of the person he has harmed.  If he needs to enlist the assistance of others, he must take this measure.  But this is clearly not Maimonides’ position.  If the injured party refuses to forgive the repentant petitioner, he nonetheless receives atonement.  So, if the forgiveness of the injured person is not absolutely required, why assemble these delegations?  Would it not make more sense to simply require the repentant sinner to make a specified number of appeals? 


In short, there are two interesting elements in Maimonides’ position.  First, Maimonides seems to disagree with the position expressed in Teffilat Zakah.  According to Maimonides, we cannot secure atonement for a sin against another individual simply through repentance and the person’s forgiveness.  We are required to personally appeal to the individual against whom we have sinned.  A spontaneous act of forgiveness – not preceded by an appeal – does not secure atonement.  Second, the forgiveness of the person we have sinned against is not absolutely required in order to secure atonement.  If the person refuses to provide his pardon, atonement can still take place.  Nonetheless, the repentant person is required to take extreme measures to secure this pardon.  Why are these extreme measures – the forming of up to three delegations of supporters – required?


In order to resolve these difficulties, we must return to an issue discussed earlier.  When a person sins against another individual, there are two dimensions to the sin.  It is a violation of the Torah.  In this respect, the sin breeches the relationship between the sinner and his Creator.  The sin also represents a deviation from the proper relationship between the sinner and the injured person.  It is obvious that in order to restore one’s relationship with Hashem, repentance is necessary.  But how is one required to respond to the damage that has been caused in one’s relationship with others?


Maimonides maintains that securing the person’s forgiveness is not adequate, neither is this forgiveness absolutely necessary.  One cannot secure atonement through unsolicited forgiveness.  One is not denied atonement because of the obstinacy of the person that bears a grudge.  But in order to secure atonement, there is one absolute requirement in addition to repentance.  The sinner must assume responsibility for his wrongdoing.  He must demonstrate his acceptance of responsibility through proactively seeking to restore the proper relationship with the injured person.  Spontaneous forgiveness is inadequate.  Spontaneous forgiveness does not include an acceptance of responsibility by the wrongdoer.  He has done nothing to restore the relationship.  He is merely the beneficiary of a charitable act by the injured party.  In contrast, when the sinner appeals repeatedly to the injured party for his forgiveness and when he goes so far as to assemble delegations to support his plea, he has demonstrated that he not only regrets his behavior but he also accepts responsibility for correcting the relationship.  Once he has assumed responsibility, even if he fails to secure forgiveness, he has executed his duty.  Now he can secure atonement.