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Atonement for Interpersonal Sins: Asking Forgiveness

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance, we are confronted by the task of Teshuvah – repenting our misdeeds and bettering our ways in the future.

Teshuvah includes three basic components. These are: a deep regret for sinning (charatah), confession (viduy) – an articulation of the sin – and an undertaking to refrain from the sin in the future.

This acceptance for the future cannot be an empty promise – such as the promise of a chain smoker to quit smoking. It must be accompanied by a concrete plan of action describing how the person will change his ways and leave sin behind.

For sins that a person commits vis-à-vis others – such as shaming or slandering another, another component is vital: Procuring the forgiveness of the wounded party. As we will see below, without the victim’s forgiveness, the Teshuvah process is ineffective for sins committed against others.

For which sins must we ask forgiveness from others? 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 in the present article.

Asking Forgiveness

The Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches that there is a fundamental difference between the forgiveness of sins “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.

Thus a person who injures his fellow must ask his forgiveness. This basic halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 606:1): “Sins that are committed between a person and his fellow are not atoned for by Yom Kippur, until he placates him.”

The principle 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.”

For Which Sins is Forgiveness Required

It seems that this halachah applies to all wrongs that a person commits against his fellow. However, the Rambam appears to distinguish between different types of offenses, as he writes (Laws of Personal 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 the person himself? 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 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 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 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 forgiveness. The obligation to secure forgiveness applies only to cases of direct 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 his victim (Rambam, Gezeilah 1:3) – causes direct damage (in addition to monetary damage) and must beg for his pardon. However, 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 this principle, citing from 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

The need for repentance before Hashem as well as forgiveness from one’s fellow 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 illegal 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 appears that there are certain interpersonal sins where appeasement of the injured party is sufficient. If the only element of the sin is offending the other party, procuring forgiveness simply undoes the damage, and there is no need for anything beyond. Only where there are other aspects to the sin (damage of some sort) is there also a duty to atone 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 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 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, is mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah (606:2).

In fact, it appears that the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael Salanter dispute whether one who spoke lashon hara about somebody should specify his offence, 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 before his friend that he spoke lashon hara about him, whereas Rav Yisrael Salanter stated that where a person spoke lashon hara behind another’s back he should not confess this before him, for fear of causing offence (see Tenu’as HaMussar Vol. 1, p. 363).

At the same time, the Mishnah Berurah (606:3) himself cites from the Magen Avraham that where the other person will take offence he should not specify the details of the injury. The dispute between the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael Salanter, if at all, 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 offence, 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 confess his specific 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 additional, 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, 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).

Forgiving Others

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 thus 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 or 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, describes them, as follows: The Gibeonites are not among the children of Israel.”

We are supposed to 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 has Died

What should a person do if the person he hurt has already 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.

May we all merit atonement for all of our sins and bring the ultimate redemption as it says (Yoma 86B), “Great is teshuvo for it brings the ultimate redemption”.

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