Atonement in Judaism is the process of causing a sin to be forgiven or pardoned. Judaism describes various means of receiving atonement for sin, that is, reconciliation with God and release from punishment. The main method of atonement is via repentance. Other means (e.g. Temple sacrifices, judicial punishments, and returning stolen property) may be involved in the atonement process, together with repentance.

In Rabbinic Judaism

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through repentance, which can be followed by some combination of the following:

Which of these additions are required varies according to the severity of the sin, whether it was done willfully, in error, or under duress, whether it was against God alone or also against a fellow person, and whether the Temple service and ordained law courts are in existence or not. Repentance is needed in all cases of willful sin, and restitution is always required in the case of sin against a fellow person, unless the wronged party waives it.

According to Maimonides, the requirements for atonement of various sins between man and God are as follows:[1]

Sinned under duress Sinned in error Sinned willfully
Positive commandment none none Repentance + confession or Yom Kippur Temple service
Negative commandment none none Repentance + confession + Yom Kippur or Yom Kippur Temple service
Severe negative commandment none Sin offering (if Temple exists) in some cases + confession Repentance + confession + Yom Kippur + tribulations or Repentance + confession + Yom Kippur Temple service
Profaning God's name Repentance Sin offering (if Temple exists) in some cases + confession Repentance + confession + Yom Kippur + tribulations + dying

The sentence of an ordained court (when available) can also substitute for Yom Kippur + tribulations + dying.

Anyone guilty of a sin which is punished by Kareth ("excision") may be atoned by receiving lashes. According to the Mishnah: "If by the commission of a single sin one forfeits his soul before God, then all the more so by a single meritorious deed (such as voluntary submission to punishment) his soul should be saved."[2]

In Judaism, once a person has repented, they can be close to and beloved of God, even if their atonement is not yet complete.[3]

Repentance

Main article: Repentance in Judaism

Repentance from sin (Hebrew: teshuvah, literally "return (to God)") has the power to wipe out one's sins, eliminating the punishment for sin and obtaining God's forgiveness.[4] When one repents with the correct intentions, one's sins are said to actually be transformed into merits.[5]

Judaism describes various means of receiving atonement for sin (e.g. Temple sacrifices, judicial punishments, and returning stolen property). However, in general these methods only achieve atonement if one has also repented for the sin:

Those who must bring sin-offerings or guilt offerings... their sacrifices do not atone for them until they repent... And similarly, one who was obligated the death penalty or lashes, their death or lashes does not atone for them, unless they repent and confess. And similarly, one who injures his fellow or damages his property, even if he paid to him what was obligated, does not receive atonement until he confesses and repents from ever doing such actions again... The scapegoat [of Yom Kippur] atones for all sins in the Torah... on condition that one has repented. But if he did not repent, the scapegoat only atones for minor sins... When the Temple is not in existence, and we have no altar for atonement, there exists [for atonement] nothing other than repentance. Repentance atones for all sins... and the essence of Yom Kippur atones for those who repent.[6]

Judaism teaches that our personal relationship with God allows us to turn directly to Him at any time, as Malachi 3:7 says, "Return to Me and I shall return to you," and Ezekiel 18:27, "When the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." Additionally, God is extremely compassionate and forgiving as is indicated in Daniel 9:18, "We do not present our supplications before You because of our righteousness, but because of Your abundant mercy." Judaism is optimistic in that it always sees a way that a determined person may return to what is good, and that God waits for that day too.

Role of animal sacrifice

Herod's Temple, as imagined in the Holyland Model of Jerusalem. It is currently situated adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was active, a Jew was required to bring animal sacrifices to atone for certain types of sins, and to perform a version of the viduy confession ritual as part of the sacrificial ritual. However, simply bringing an offering never automatically caused God to forgive the sin. The Hebrew Bible teaches:

Many places Rabbinic literature emphasizes that performing charitable deeds, praying, and studying Torah are more meritorious than animal sacrifice, and that the former can replace animal sacrifice when the Temple is not active:

A number of animal sacrifices were prescribed in the Torah (five books of Moses) as part of the atonement process. The sin-offering and guilt offering were offered for individual sins,[7] while the Yom Kippur Temple service helped achieve atonement at a national level.[8]

However, the role of sacrifices in atonement was strictly limited. Standard sin-offerings could only be offered for unintentional sins;[9] according to the rabbis, they could not be offered for all sins, but only for unintentional violations of some of the most serious sins.[10] In addition, sacrifices generally had no expiating effect without sincere repentance[11] and restitution to any person who was harmed by the violation.[12] The Hebrew Bible tells of people who returned to God through repentance and prayer alone, without sacrifices: for example, both Jews and non-Jews in the books of Jonah and Esther.[13] Additionally, in modern times, Jews do not perform animal sacrifices.

Later Biblical prophets made statements to the effect that the hearts of the people were more important than their sacrifices:

Other means

Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehoshua, they arrived at where the Temple now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehoshua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim ("the action of kindnesses"), as it is stated "I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).[14]

The Babylonian Talmud teaches that "as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]."[15]

The poem Unetanneh Tokef (recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (giving charity) atone for sin. Similarly, prayer can be a means of performing repentance: "Take with you words, and return to God... In place of sacrifices, we offer our lips"[16]

In other Jewish denominations

Some Jewish denominations may differ with Rabbinic Judaism on the importance or mechanics of atonement. Consult the articles on specific denominations for details.

References

  1. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1–4.
  2. ^ Mishnah, Makkot 3:15
  3. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 7:7.
  4. ^ See Ezekiel 33:11, 33:19, Jeremiah 36:3, etc.
  5. ^ Yoma 86b
  6. ^ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:3-8
  7. ^ Leviticus 4–5
  8. ^ Leviticus 16
  9. ^ Leviticus 4:2
  10. ^ Mishnah, Kritot 1:1-2
  11. ^ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:3,6
  12. ^ Mishnah, Yoma 8:9
  13. ^ {cite web |url=https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/documents/the-jewish-response-to-missionaries-8-page-booklet |title=The Jewish Response to Missionaries (8-Page Booklet) English |access-date=January 1, 2020))
  14. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 4:5
  15. ^ Berachot 55a
  16. ^ Hosea 14:3

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "CAPITAL PUNISHMENT". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.