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Asking Forgiveness

The Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches that there is a fundamental difference between the forgiveness of sins defined as “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 procure forgiveness; for the latter, Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his wronged fellow.

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, as it says (Bereishis 20:7): Now return the man’s wife.”

It appears that this halachah applies to all wrongs that a person commits against his fellow. However, the Rambam seems to distinguish between different types of offenses, as he writes (Laws of Damages 5:9): “A person who damages a colleague’s property cannot be compared to one who injures his physical person. When a person who damages a colleague’s property pays him the required compensation, he receives atonement. In contrast, when a person injures a colleague’s physical person, paying him the five assessments is not alone sufficient to generate atonement… his sin [is not] forgiven until he asks the person who was injured to forgive him.”

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. The Lechem Mishnah does not expound, but we will seek to clarify this approach below.

Direct and Subsidiary Injury

It appears that there is a distinction between a direct and personal injury to a person, and an indirect injury. For a direct injury, there is an obligation to appease one’s fellow; for an indirect injury, however, it is sufficient to pay the required 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 friend: Go and humble yourself, and plead with your friend.”

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 friend” for forgiveness.

It is thus possible that under most circumstances, the requirement to appease one’s fellow applies only where the injury is direct and personal. Although losing money also hurts, this hurt is considered indirect and subsidiary and it does not obligate the offending party to ask for forgiveness. The obligation to secure forgiveness applies only to cases of direct injury.

Thus, one who angers his fellow must ask his forgiveness. Likewise, a thief – specifically, a gazlan who takes a person’s possessions forcibly from him (Rambam, Gezeilah 1:3) – causes direct damage to the victim (in addition to monetary damage), and must beg for his pardon. In cases when the damage is only to a person’s possessions and not to his person, there is no obligation to request forgiveness, and the sin is fully atoned by paying the damages.

Obligation of Repentance before Hashem

The Mishnah in Yoma (cited above, which states that for sins between one person and his fellow Yom Kippur does not atone until the injured party is appeased) implies that 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 Yonah (Avos 4:29) likewise writes that if a person damages his fellow man, 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 likewise 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 an interesting addition.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 607:4) rules that the Yom Kippur confession can include sins that a person committed in the past, even though they have already been confessed in past years. Although the sins have ostensibly been atoned, one can 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-Tzion 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 between the two is that the obligation to repent before Hashem in addition to procuring human forgiveness applies only to damage to property. Concerning such sins, any injury one caused is secondary to the principal sin of theft and damage. The principal sin obligates the offending party to repent before Hashem, and the secondary injury requires forgiveness from the victim.

In contrast, angering one’s fellow involves only a direct injury to the other. In this case, the entire content of the prohibition is the injury caused, and there is nothing else to the sin other than hurting his feelings. Because of this, once the injury is repaired there is no need for repentance before Hashem.

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.”

It is possible (though the proof can be deferred) that with regard to direct sins to another person, securing forgiveness from the injured party is enough; only for sins that involve something beyond personal injury is there a need for “repentance and good deeds.”

How to Say Sorry

The Bach (606:1), citing the Maharash, 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) is mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah (606:2). There is a famous dispute between the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisroail Salanter whether one who spoke loshon hora about someone should state the offense explicitly since the victim will be hurt by hearing that someone spoke loshan hora about him.

For this reason, the Bach adds that a person should not send others to ask forgiveness on his behalf, but should rather go on his own. A person must appease his fellow himself, and not send others to do it for him – though the Shulchan Aruch (606:1), based on the Gemara, writes that he should take friends with him who might influence the injured party to forgive him.

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 confess his specific sins, so somebody who sins against his friend must “confess” his specific misdeeds.

It is therefore possible that this halachah will apply specifically to those sins that involve a personal and direct injury to another; such sins are directed specifically at the other party, and therefore the process of repentance is also directed towards the injured party. However, if the damage was indirect, perhaps, one can fulfill his requirement to appease by means of a deputy.

A person must ask for forgiveness three times (606:1). If after three times the injured party still refuses to forgive, 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).

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One Response to “Asking Forgiveness: How and for What?”

  1. Good

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