As we approach Yom Kippur, we are confronted by the task of Teshuvah – repenting our misdeeds and turning over a new leaf to better our ways for the future.
As we know, Teshuvah includes three basic components. These are a deep regret for the sin (charatah), confession (viduy), and an undertaking to refrain from sin in the future. Of these, the third is often the hardest: how can we, in the knowledge that we are sinful, accept upon ourselves to refrain from future sin?
In order that our acceptance for the future should not be an empty promise, it needs to be accompanied by a plan of action for growth and improvement. The idea of the small undertaking (kaballah) that Rav Yisrael Salanter recommended is to ensure that we improve—that our acceptance for the future is not empty, since we are on a track of growth and elevation.
For interpersonal sins, those that are committed bein adam lechaveiro such as shaming or slandering others, or damaging their property, another component is vital: procuring the forgiveness of the injured party. As we will see below, absent the victim’s forgiveness, the teshuva process is ineffective. Moreover, our acceptance for the future can hardly be sincere if we don’t seek to mend the injuries we have already caused.
For which sins is there an obligation to 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? Is there a need to detail the sins? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) teaches that there is a fundamental difference between the forgiveness of sins between man and Hashem compared to those that are between man and his fellow. For the former category, the day of Yom Kippur, in combination with repentance, procures 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 basic halacha 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 appeases 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.”
Each of these halachos has a novel teaching. The Mishnah in Yoma teaches us that even where no monetary damage has been done, one still needs to ask forgiveness from the injured party. The Mishnah in Bava Kama teaches that paying monetary compensation is not sufficient, and even after doing so one still needs to ask the injured party’s forgiveness.
For Which Sins is Forgiveness Required
It seems that the halacha of asking forgiveness applies to all wrongs that a person commits against his fellow. However, the Rambam appears to distinguish between different types of offenses, writing as follows: “A person who damages another’s property cannot be compared to one who injures his physical person. When a person who damaged someone’s property pays him the required compensation, he receives atonement. By contrast, when a person injures someone’s physical person, paying him the five assessments is not alone sufficient to procure 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 somebody who damages, 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 somebody who damages, because a thief benefits from the stolen goods, and this is the reason he is not forgiven until he appeases the victim. Yet, this approach appears difficult, for it would seem that the need for forgiveness derives from the damage or injury inflicted on the other, and not from the benefit gained by the thief.
Direct and Subsidiary Injury
Another approach mentioned by the Lechem Mishnah is that the sin of a thief (gazlan) is more severe, since a thief who takes the victim’s property against his will, inflicts pain and grief on the victim. This approach makes 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 the victim; for an indirect injury, however, it is sufficient to pay the required compensation.
A possible source for this distinction emerges from the following the statement of Rav Yitzchak, as cited in several places (Yoma 87a; Bava Basra 173b; Bava Metzia 115a): “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, a person should “plead with his fellow” for forgiveness.
It is thus possible that in general the requirement to appease the injured party 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 in 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 include both categories: the mitzvah is aimed towards another person, but performing the mitzvah also fulfills the Torah’s 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 Hashem claims the damage as one of the parties.” The Beis Sha’ul (Bava Kama Chap. 2) also mentions this principle, citing Chovas Halevavos.
The same idea can be derived from a ruling of the Rambam, who writes that “one who injures his fellow 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” (Teshuvah 1:1). Rav Chaim Falagi (Tenufah Chaim, Yirmiyah 60) notes, based on this wording, that even for interpersonal sins a person has to repent before Hashem.
Somebody who Caused Offense
The need for repentance before Hashem as well as forgiveness from the victim 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 he adds an interesting comment.
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 previous years. Although the sins have ostensibly been atoned, 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, concerning angering one’s fellow or unfair competition (ani ha-mehapech be-chararah), he writes that after having asked forgiveness from the victim and confessed on Yom Kippur, there is no need to confess again in future years.
In Sha’ar HaTzion the Mishnah Berurah adds, citing the Peri Megadim, that concerning angering another “it is possible that even on the first Yom Kippur there is no need to confess the sin, since the injured party has already forgiven him.” This ruling seems 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 enough?
It appears that there are certain interpersonal sins for which appeasement of the injured party is sufficient. If the only element of the sin is offending the other party, procuring forgiveness completely undoes the damage, and there is no need for anything beyond. Only where there are other aspects to the sin (such as monetary damage, which goes beyond causing offense) 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 against 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 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 must confess before his friend that he spoke lashon hara about him. Although this might cause the person hurt and shame, the Chafetz Chaim writes that there is no other way to achieve forgiveness. By contrast, Rav Yisrael Salanter maintains that where a person spoke lashon hara behind another’s back he should not confess this before 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 be offended, he should not specify the details of the injury. The dispute between the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Yisrael Salanter is therefore slight. Both agree that one must be wary of causing offense, though the Mishnah Berurah maintains that a basic apology cannot be circumvented (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 halacha of specifying sins 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). Beyond this (of course when it is done seriously) it is no longer a person’s responsibility, and Hashem will forgive a person who has done his utmost to heal the damage. It is of course permitted to ask for forgiveness more than three times, where this might be effective, though one should not do so if it involves a diminution of Torah honor (Bach).
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.
The Sages 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 (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.”
The Rambam adds: “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.”
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 has Died
What should a person do if the person he hurt has already passed away?
The Rambam (in the next halacha) 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.
As we have seen, Chazal and later authorities place great emphasis on the need to secure the forgiveness of those we have injured.
Certainly, one cannot rely on the fact that the injured party is a good person, who in any case will forgive those who have affronted him. In fact, the Gemara teaches that Rav Zeira used to make a point of passing in front of those who wronged him, in order that they should be awakened and inspired to ask his forgiveness (Yoma 87a). He understood that merely forgiving them is not enough. They needed to ask his forgiveness, and only then could the forgiveness be fully effective.
As we come to Yom Kippur, it is our duty to ensure that our relationships with others—relationships that by nature know ups and downs—should be mended of their flaws, healed of their injuries. Thus, even the most important relationship of all—our relationship with Hashem, our Father and our King—should be mended as Hashem accepts our teshuva, and seals us all for a year filled with goodness, with bounty, and with life.