The Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches that there is a fundamental difference between the forgiveness of sins that are “between man and G-d” and those that are “between man and his fellow.” For the former category, the day of Yom Kippur is sufficient to achieve forgiveness; for the latter, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his wronged fellow.
Therefore, a person who injures his fellow must ask his forgiveness. A similar principle emerges from the Mishnah in Bava Kama (92a), which states: “Even though he pays compensation [for physical injury], he is not forgiven until he asks his forgiveness, as it says (Bereishis 20:7): Now return the man’s wife etc.”
The Rambam (Teshuva 2:9) rules that “when a person sins against his fellow by injuring him, cursing him or robbing him, he is not forgiven until he pays his debt and appeases the injured party. Even after he compensates him for the damage, he must appease him and ask his forgiveness. Even if his offense was only verbal he must persevere until the offended party forgives him.”
The same ruling is provided by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 606:1): “For wrongdoings against one’s fellow man, one must ask forgiveness from the offended party. Without this, Yom Kippur will not atone for the transgression. Even if one offended the person with words alone [without financial or physical harm], one must still ask forgiveness.”
In past years, we discussed the matter of forgiveness from the perspective of the person who perpetrated the injury. For which wrongdoings is forgiveness required? Does one also need to ask forgiveness from Hashem? And to which degree must the wrongdoing be specified? In the present article, we will address the issue from the perspective of the person who was wronged.
Is there an obligation upon a person who was wronged or hurt to forgive the perpetrator? Which reasons are legitimate cause for not forgiving? Are there sins for which there is no duty to forgive? Should a person forgive others even if they have not apologized? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Rambam (ibid.) details that if the person asking forgiveness is refused, he should not give up: “If the injured party refuses to forgive him, he should appear before him with three of his close friends and ask for forgiveness. If he still refuses, he should repeat this process a second and third time. If he still refuses to forgive, he should leave him, and he who refuses to forgive is the sinner. If the injured or offended party is his teacher, one must return even one thousand times until forgiveness is granted.”
A similar statement is made by the Shulchan Aruch (606:1). The Mishnah Berurah (606:4) adds that on each of the three occasions the person asking forgiveness should do so in a slightly different way. Based on the Magen Avraham, the Mishnah Berurah (606:5) adds that it is permitted to ask forgiveness more than three times, though this should not be done if this involves a denigration of kevod ha-Torah (if the person asking forgiveness is a Torah scholar and repeat requests for forgiveness will look like “groveling”).
We see from here that although the responsibility for procuring forgiveness rests on the shoulders of the offending party, the victim is expected to forgive, at least after the third attempt. Beyond this, “he who refuses to forgive is the sinner.” Elsewhere, the Rambam warns that a person should act with compassion and forgive those who have offended him. As he writes (Teshuva 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 or bear a grudge. This is the way of the Jewish people and their special characteristic.”
Clearly, it is a commendable practice to forgive those who ask us for forgiveness. As the Rambam states in laws of Chovel u’Mazik (5:10), once forgiveness has been supplicated once and even twice, if the injured party knows the offender has repented, he should forgive him. (In this sense we emulate the ways of Hashem, who is forgiving and benevolent, and we even earn Hashem’s forgiveness towards ourselves, midah keneged midah.)
However, as we will see below, giving a person forgiveness is not always an obligation, and it occasionally depends on individual circumstances.
Not Forgiving for a Reason
The Gemara (Yoma 87a-b) relates that Rav was once reading in front of Rebbi. Three Chachamim entered at different times, and each time Rav started again from the beginning, so that they would be able to participate in the discussion. When Rav Chanina entered, Rav refrained from starting again, at which Rav Chanina was offended. Because of this offense Rav visited Rav Chanina for thirteen consecutive years on the eve of Yom Kippur, seeking to appease him; but Rav Chanina was not appeased.
The Gemara questions why Rav Chanina refrained from forgiving Rav: Surely Rava taught that if a person is ma’avir al midosav—he pardons others even though they mistreated him—then all of his aveiros are overlooked? The Gemara replies that Rav Chanina saw in a dream that Rav would become Rosh Yeshiva (literally: that he was hung on a tree, which Rashi writes is a sign of greatness). He refused to forgive him so that Rav would to go to teach Torah in Babylon, rather than teach in Eretz Yisrael, in the place of Rav Chanina.
Rashi explains that Rav Chanina was the Rosh Yeshiva, and he was afraid that Rav’s becoming Rosh Yeshiva would defer him from the position by causing his untimely death. Therefore, he refused to forgive him for the misdeed, correctly assessing that this will cause Rav to go to Babylon, where he would be the Rosh Yeshiva without causing Rav Chanina to be niftar.
It emerges from this Gemara that where a person has justification for not forgiving, even for his own self-interest, there is no prohibition in refraining from issuing a pardon to others.
The Ruling of the Rema
The Rema (606:1) adds to the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch: “A person should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness, unless he means for the benefit of the person requesting it.”
It seems that the Rema understood the above-mentioned Gemara in a different way than Rashi: In the Rema’s understanding, Rav Chanina refused to forgive Rav for Rav’s benefit, and not for his own self-interest. The Bach (see also Gra 5) says that this was in order to save Rav from becoming overburdened with public office, which would distract him from his Torah study. Yet, he also questions: What made the Rema reject the interpretation offered by Rashi?
The Taz (606:2) replies that in fact the Rema also understood the Gemara as Rashi explains, yet he ruled that just as a person can refuse to forgive his fellow for his own interest, so, too, he can withhold forgiveness for the other’s benefit. The Mishnah Berurah (606:10) likewise writes that although the Rema states that a person can withhold forgiveness for the other’s benefit, the same is true for his own benefit. He adds (Sha’ar Hatsiyun 9) that nonetheless the offended should remove all ill-will from his heart.
Similarly, the Mishnah Berurah rules (606:9) that although it is permitted to withhold forgiveness, for the sake of the person requesting forgiveness—for example if he feels it is necessary to humble him—he should still forgive him in his heart. After the other has sincerely asked for forgiveness, he must not continue to hate him.
Although the Mishnah Berurah does not mention it, a reason to forgive is because as the Gemara writes (Shabbos 149b) if somebody is punished on account of Ploni, this Ploni will be unable to live together with Hashem (in His “mechitzah”). One should thus pardon another person, at least in one’s heart, to ensure that he should not be punished on his account.
Note, however, that based on Rabbeinu Bachya (Bereishis 50:17), it is clear that a person should speak out his forgiveness, and not merely pardon the other in his heart.
Forgiveness for Slander
Another addition made by the Rema relates to the sin of motzi shem ra—slander: “If the person asking forgiveness slandered him, there is no need to forgive him.”
The Darchei Moshe (606:2) and the Beis Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 420:33) note the source of this ruling as the Mordechai (Yoma 723), as well as several additional authorities (including Semag; Hagahos Maimoniyos (Teshuvah 2:9); Mahari Veil). Based on the Yerushalmi (Bava Kama 8:7), these authorities state that one need not pardon somebody who slandered him.
The reason (See Mishna Berurah 606, 11) for this is that it is possible that people will hear the slander (and believe it) and will not hear of the appeasement (the apology for the slander and confession of its falseness). Because the slander cannot be rectified, the requirement to forgive does not apply. The Sema (Choshen Mishpat 422:6) adds that slander assails even a person’s ancestors and progeny for all generations; it is not a personal matter than can be simply forgiven.
The Magen Avraham (5) and Mishnah Berurah (11) write that it is the way of humility to pardon nonetheless. The source of this statement is the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Kama 8:3), who writes that if a person overcomes his inclinations, and is able to totally forgive even this offense—though it is difficult to do so—it demonstrates great humility and piety.
Forgiving Without an Apology
Should a person forgive somebody who has caused him injury even if the person does not apologize and does not seek his forgiveness? In all the sources mentioned above, the circumstances for forgiveness are that the person who performed the wrong seeks forgiveness, and the person who was wronged is urged to forgive. But what happens when the person who wronged is unrepentant?
Several sources indicate that asking for forgiveness is very significant. The Gemara (Yoma 87a) notes that Rav Zeira used to intentionally pass in front of people who wronged him, intending that they should be inspired to request his forgiveness, and he would forgive them (based on Rashi’s understanding). Clearly, Rav Zeira believed that merely forgiving them is not sufficient for their own benefit, and he therefore tried to elicit their apology before forgiving them.
A similar idea emerges from another Gemara in Yoma (22b-23a), which notes (citing Rav Yochanan) that a Torah scholar should “avenge and bear a grudge like a serpent.” This means that, while those who are not Torah scholars can be charitable in issuing forgiveness, Torah scholars should not be so charitable, for an affront to them is not merely personal, but an affront to the Torah itself.
The Gemara proceeds to question this practice: Surely, it is prohibited to bear a grudge and to take revenge? The Gemara responds that this prohibition relates to monetary offenses, such as somebody who refused to lend his fellow a certain utensil. It is forbidden to take revenge (to refuse, in turn to lend the person a utensil) or to bear a grudge (to agree to lend a utensil, but to declare: behold that I am not stingy as you were). When it comes to personal affronts however, the prohibitions do not apply.
The Gemara proceeds, however, to ask additional questions concerning the clear virtue of being forgiving, and finally makes a distinction: Forgiveness should not be withheld when the wrongdoer apologizes; it should only be withheld when he is unapologetic. Once again, we see that there is a significant distinction between somebody who apologizes and seeks forgiveness, and somebody who does not.
The Gemara elsewhere (Megillah 28a) notes that there is a virtue of forgiving others each night, before one goes to sleep (the Gemara cites from Rabbi Nechunya b. Hakaneh that care to forgive others each night brought him a long life). Some include such a sentence in the daily Keriyas Shema al hamita. However, based on the sources above, the Maharsha (Yoma 23a) writes that this only applies to somebody who asks forgiveness, and not to somebody who is unrepentant. Even Hashem forgives only those who repent.
Having said this, as part of the Chayei Adam’s Tefillah Zakah we recite before Kol Nidrei we are careful to forgive whoever we are able to forgive, even if they did not request it. Moreover, the Mishnah Berurah writes that this passage of the prayer should be recited first, to ensure that we forgive others and that nobody should be punished on our account. Clearly, then, it is worthy to forgive others even without their request—certainly if we are not Torah scholars, and the affront is personal alone.
Yet, it remains clear that the proper manner of forgiving is that the wrongdoer asks forgiveness, and the injured party pardons him in response.
Just as we ask Hashem to pardon our sins and to be merciful to us, so it is correct for us to be merciful to others and to pardon their sins. Forgiveness of sin, whether Hashem’s forgiving us or our forgiving others, is about rehabilitating relationships—our relationship with others, and our relationship with Hashem. Deep down, in our innermost being, we are one with Hashem, and we are one with all of Israel. Our deeds are far from perfect, and sometimes, this unity is fractured; but we can rehabilitate and renew the relationship by means of Teshuva. Let us ask for forgiveness where required; and let us be merciful and forgive others where we can.
Wishing all readers a gmar chasima tova.