As the month that builds up to the High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the month of Elul has special significance in terms of mending our ways, repenting our misdeeds and coming closer to Hashem. Sephardim say selichos during the entire month. Although Ashkenazim begin only the last week of the month, the entire month has a special status.
As part of the focus on repenting and returning to Hashem, it is important to recall misdeeds that we have committed bein adam lechavero. These involve two elements: in addition to repentance before Hashem, we must also ensure that the injured party forgives us for any affront or injury we have caused.
Some recall the need to procure forgiveness only on the eve of Yom Kippur, which can be too late. It is certainly worthwhile to give the matter due consideration during the month of Elul—the month of selichos when we work to prepare ourselves for the great days to come.
For which sins is there an obligation to ask forgiveness from one’s fellow? Is there a concurrent obligation to confess and to repent before Heaven? What is the nature of the request for forgiveness, and is there a need to detail the sins?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Asking Forgiveness and Repentance
The Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches that there is a fundamental difference between forgiveness for sins committed between man and G-d and those that are between man and his fellow. For the former type, the experience of the day of Yom Kippur coupled with teshuva is sufficient to bestow forgiveness. For the latter, one must also appease the wronged person.
We thus learn that a person who injures his fellow must ask his forgiveness. This is also explicit in the Mishnah in Bava Kama (92a), which states: “Even though he pays compensation, he is not forgiven until he asks him for forgiveness, as it says (Bereishis 20:7): Now return the man’s wife.”
It should be noted that the wording of the Mishnah indicates that, for sins between man and his fellow, besides securing the forgiveness of the injured party, a person must also repent before Hashem. This principle is implied by the Rosh (Pe’ah 1:1), who writes that Hashem desires interpersonal mitzvos (bein adam le-chavero) more than ritual mitzvos (bein adam la-Makom). Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Maamarim p. 42) explains that this is because interpersonal mitzvos actually include both categories: The mitzvah is aimed towards another person, but performing the mitzvah also fulfills a Divine decree.
Rabbeinu Yona (Avos 4:29) likewise writes that if a person damages his fellow, he should not consider that he has sinned against him alone and not against Hashem, “…for even to Hashem He has sinned, and He claims the damage as one of the parties.” The Beis Sha’ul (Bava Kama Chap. 2) also mentions the same principle, citing the Chovas Halevavos.
The same idea can be derived from a ruling of the Rambam, who writes (Teshuvah 1:1), “Similarly, one who injures a colleague or damages his property, does not attain atonement, even though he pays him what he owes, until he confesses and makes a commitment never to do such a thing again.” Rav Chaim Falagi (Tenufah Chaim, Yirmiyah 60) has noted the implication that even for interpersonal sins, a person has to repent before Hashem for sinning even against Him.
Somebody who Caused Offense
Halachic authorities rule that a person must repent before Hashem as well as beg forgiveness from his fellow. This halachah is ruled by the Chayei Adam (144, and in Chayei Avraham 49), and is also found in the Chida (Nachal Kedumim, Acharei 5), as well as others. The Mishnah Berurah also cites this ruling, yet makes the following qualification.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 607:4) rules that the Yom Kippur confession may include sins that a person committed only in the distant past, even though they have already been confessed in past years. Although the sins have ostensibly been atoned for, one may continue to mention them in subsequent years. The Mishnah Berurah (13) adds that this principle applies even to interpersonal sins, such as theft. However, with regard to angering one’s fellow, or unfair competition (ani ha-mehapech be-chararah), he writes that after having asked forgiveness from one’s fellow and confessed on Yom Kippur, there is no need to confess again in future years.
In the Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun the Mishnah Berurah adds, citing the Peri Megadim, that with regard to angering one’s friend, “it is possible that even on the first Yom Kippur there is no need to confess after the injured party has already forgiven him.” This ruling appears difficult: What is the difference between theft, for which one must certainly repent even before Hashem, and the sin of angering one’s friend, for which procuring forgiveness from the friend may be sufficient?
It is possible that the distinction is that the obligation to repent before Hashem in addition to procuring human forgiveness applies only where there is physical damage. Concerning such sins, any harm caused is secondary to the principal sin of theft and/or damage. The principal sin obligates the offending party to repent before Hashem, and the secondary injury requires forgiveness from the victim.
By contrast, angering one’s fellow involves only a non-physical injury to the other. In this case, the entire content of the prohibition is the harm caused, and there is nothing else to the sin other than hurting his feelings. Because of this, once the harm is repaired there is no need for repentance before Hashem since procuring forgiveness erases the hurt.
It is possible that this principle is alluded at in the words of Chazal (Yoma 87a), who write (based on I Shmuel 2:25), “If a person sins to another person, and he appeases him, Hashem will forgive him; but if he sins before Hashem, who will appease for him?—Repentance and good deeds.”
How to Say Sorry
The Bach (606:1), citing the Maharashal, writes that when a person asks forgiveness from a friend, he must specify the injury he caused him. This ruling, which makes asking forgiveness somewhat harder than it would otherwise be, is mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah (606:2).
It appears that the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael Salanter dispute whether one who spoke lashon hara about somebody should specify his offense, since the victim will be hurt by hearing that someone spoke lashon hara about him. In Sefer Chafetz Chaim (4:12) we find that a person has to confess to his friend that he spoke lashon hara about him, whereas Rav Yisrael Salanter stated that if a person spoke lashon hara behind another’s back he should not confess this to him, for fear of causing offense (see Tenu’as HaMussar Vol. 1, p. 363).
At the same time, the Mishnah Berurah (606:3) himself cites the Magen Avraham that where the other person will take offense he should not specify the details of the injury. The dispute between the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael Salanter is therefore slight (for more details see Moadim Uzmanim 1:54; Chazon Ovadya, Erev Yom Kippur note 20; Orchos HaHalachah Chap. 3, no. 6).
On account of the need to specify the offense, the Bach adds that a person should not send others to ask forgiveness on his behalf, but should rather go on his own. The Mishnah Berurah explains that this is preferable, but not essential.
The halachah of specifying the sin suggests that the idea of procuring forgiveness is not merely a matter of easing ill-feelings between the two, but rather related to the process of repentance: Just as somebody who sins before Hashem must specify his sins, so somebody who sins against his friend must confess his specific misdeeds.
If needed, a person must ask for forgiveness three times (606:1). In addition, the Shulchan Aruch (606:1, based on the Gemara) advises that a person should take friends with him who might influence the injured party to forgive him. If after three times the injured party still refuses to forgive him, there is no need to ask again – though it is permitted to do so, if this doesn’t involve a diminution of Torah honor (Bach).
The Sages also emphasize the importance of granting forgiveness to others. The Rabbis teach that one should not be cruel by refusing to grant forgiveness to somebody who offended him. The Rambam writes (Teshuvah 2:10): “It is forbidden for a person to be cruel and refuse to be appeased. Rather, he should be easily pacified, but hard to anger. When the person who wronged him asks for forgiveness, he should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged him severely, he should not seek revenge nor bear a grudge.
“This is the path of the seed of Israel and their upright spirit. In contrast, the insensitive gentiles do not act in this manner. Rather, their wrath is preserved forever. Similarly, because the Gibeonites did not forgive and refused to be appeased, Scripture describes them, as follows: The Gibeonites are not among the children of Israel.”
In this sense we emulate the ways of Hashem, who is forgiving and benevolent. Indeed, by being forgiving towards others, we earn Hashem’s forgiveness towards ourselves, midah keneged midah. Based on Rabbeinu Bachya (Bereishis 50:17), a person should speak out his forgiveness, and not merely pardon the other in his heart.
If the Wronged Person Passed Away
What should a person do if the person he hurt has passed away? The Rambam (in the next halachah) writes that if the person whom one wronged has died before he had the chance to appease him and ask for forgiveness, one should bring ten people to his grave and make the following declaration: “I sinned against the G-d of Israel and against this man (and insert his name).”
The assembled then say the words, “You are forgiven,” three times. The person who committed the wrong should go barefoot. He should also mention the wrong he committed, unless doing so would cause an embarrassment for the deceased.
Does the requirement to procure forgiveness apply to all sins, or is it restricted to certain offenses?
The Rambam appears to distinguish between different types of offenses. He writes: “A person who damages his fellow’s property cannot be compared to one who injures his physical person. When a person who damages his fellow’s property pays him the required compensation, he procures atonement. By contrast, when a person injures his physical person, paying him … is not alone sufficient to generate atonement… his sin [is not] forgiven until he asks the person who was injured to forgive him” (Laws of Damages 5:9).
The statement of the Rambam appears difficult: What difference is there between somebody who damages his fellow’s property, and somebody who injures his fellow? Moreover, the Lechem Mishnah cites a ruling of the Rambam (Teshuvah 2:9) stating that a thief (gazlan) is not forgiven his sin until he secures the victim’s forgiveness. What is the difference between a thief, who is not forgiven until the victim is appeased, and a damager, who is forgiven immediately upon paying the obligatory compensation?
The Lechem Mishnah suggests that the sin of a thief is more serious than that of a damager, because a thief benefits from the stolen goods, and this is the reason he is not forgiven until he appeases the victim. That approach, however, appears difficult, for surely the need for forgiveness derives from the damage or injury inflicted on the other, and not from the benefit gained by the thief.
Another approach mentioned by the Lechem Mishnah is that the sin of a thief (gazlan) is more severe, for a thief takes the victim’s property against his will, because of the pain and grief inflicted on the victim. We will expound on this approach below.
Direct and Subsidiary Injury
It appears that there is a distinction between a personal injury, and an injury to property. For an injury to a person, there is an obligation to appease one’s fellow. For causing damage or loss of property, however, it is sufficient to pay compensation.
A possible source for this distinction emerges from the following.
In a number of places (Yoma 87a; Bava Basra 173b; Bava Metzia 1151) the Gemara cites the statement of Rabbi Yitzchak: “Anybody who angers his fellow, even with words alone, must appease him.” The source for this statement is three verses in Mishlei (6:1-3): “My son, if you become surety for your friend, if you have shaken hands in pledge for a stranger, you are snared by the words of your mouth.… Do this, my son, and deliver yourself: For you have come into the hand of your fellow: Go and humble yourself, and plead with your fellow.”
Rashi explains that in cases of monetary claims, a person should “humble himself and pay the money.” Where there is no monetary claim, however, a person should “plead with his fellow” for forgiveness.
It is thus possible that in general the requirement to appease one’s fellow applies only where the harm is to the person. Although losing money also hurts, this hurt is considered secondary and it does not obligate the offending party to ask forgiveness. The obligation to secure forgiveness applies only to cases of personal injury.
Thus, one who angers his fellow must ask his forgiveness. Likewise, a certain type of thief—a gazlan who takes a person’s possessions forcibly from the victim (Rambam, Gezeilah 1:3)—causes personal damage (in addition to monetary damage) and must beg for his pardon. However, in cases when the damage is only to one’s property and not to his person, there is no obligation to request forgiveness, and the sin is fully atoned by paying the damages.
May Hashem grant us forgiveness and atonement for all our sins, and may we see the coming of the Redeemer, speedily and in our days.