Atonement in Judaism

Atonement in Judaism is the process of causing a transgression to be forgiven or pardoned.

In the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible the idea of atonement (Hebrew כפּרת kaphoreth) is connected with “covering.”

In Rabbinic Judaism

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through some combination of 

  • repentance
  • Temple service (e.g. bringing a sacrifice, now not possible)
  • confession
  • restitution
  • the occurrence of Yom Kippur (the day itself, as distinct from the Temple service performed on it)
  • tribulations (unpleasant life experiences)
  • the carrying out of a sentence of lashes or execution imposed by an ordained court (not now in existence)
  • the experience of dying.

Which of these 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.

The following table, based on Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva 1:1-4), gives an outline of the requirements for atonement in sins between man and God:

Duress

Error

Willfulness

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. It is important to note that once a person has repented, he can be close to and beloved of God, even if his atonement is not yet complete (ibid. 7:7).

Lashes (Makkot)

The third chapter of tractate Makkot enumerates fifty-nine offenses, each entailing lashes. Of these, three are marital sins of priests; four, prohibited inter-marriages; seven, sexual relations of an incestuousnature; eight, violations of dietary laws; twelve, various violations of the negative precepts; twenty-five, abuses of Levitical laws and vows. When the offense has been persisted in, the punishment depends on the number of forewarnings (see Hatra’ah). The Mishnah gives thirty-nine as the maximum number of stripes the court may impose for any one misdemeanor; but the convict must be examined as to his physical ability to endure the full count without endangering his life. The convict is bound in bent position to a post, and the public executioner administers the punishment with a leather strap while one of the judges recites appropriate Scriptural verses (Deut. xxviii. 15, 29; xxix. 8; Ps. lxxviii. 38). Any one guilty of a sin which is punished by Kateth (“excision”) may be cleared by flagellation. The author of this midrash, Ḥanina b. Gamaliel, adds, “If by the commission of a sin one forfeits his soul before God, so much the more reason is there for the belief that, by a meritorious deed, such as voluntary submission to punishment, his soul is saved.”

Execution

Warrants for the infliction of capital punishment, as opposed to private retribution or vengeance, are found in the Pentateuchal codes for the commission of any one of the following crimes: adultery (Lev. xx. 10; Deut. xxii. 22); bestiality (Ex. xxii. 18 [A. V. 19]; Lev. xx. 15); blasphemy (Lev. xxiv. 16); false evidence in capital cases (Deut. xix. 16-19); false prophecy (Deut. xiii. 6, xviii. 20); idolatry, actual or virtual (Lev. xx. 2; Deut. xiii. 7-19, xvii. 2-7); incestuous or unnatural connections (Lev. xviii. 22, xx. 11-14); insubordination to supreme authority (Deut. xvii. 12); kidnaping (Ex. xxi. 16; Deut. xxiv. 7); licentiousness of a priest’s daughter (Lev. xxi. 9); murder (Ex. xxi. 12; Lev. xxiv. 17; Num. xxxv. 16 et seq.); rape committed on a betrothed woman (Deut. xxii. 25); striking or cursing a parent, or otherwise rebelling against parental authority (Ex. xxi. 15, 17; Lev. xx. 9; Deut. xxi. 18-21); Sabbath-breaking (Ex. xxxi. 14, xxxv. 2; Num. xv. 32-36); witchcraft and augury (Ex. xxii. 17; Lev. xx. 27).[2]

Modes of Punishment

Only in comparatively few instances is the particular mode of death incurred by the commission of a crime prescribed. Blasphemy, idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, witchcraft, prostitution by a betrothed virgin, or deceiving her husband at marriage as to her chastity (Deut. xxii. 21), and the rebellious son are, according to the Pentateuchal laws, to be punished with death by stoning; bigamous marriage with a wife’s mother and the prostitution of a priest’s daughter are punished by burning; communal apostasy is punished by the sword. With reference to all other capital offenses, the law ordains that the perpetrator shall die a violent death, occasionally adding the expression, “His (their) blood shall be upon him (them).” This expression, as we shall see presently, post-Biblical legislation applies to death by stoning. The Torah speaks also of hanging (Deut. xxi. 22), but, according to the rabbinical interpretation, not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death (Sanh. vi. 4, 75b).[3]

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.

Compared with Christian idea of atonement

While Christianity developed its concept of atonement out of the same roots in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), the different theology of Christianity led it to develop that concept in ways distinctly different from Judaism. In Christianity atonement refers to the forgiving or pardoning of sin through the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion. To some, this death is viewed as human sacrifice, and since the Hebrew Bible states that human sacrifice is an abomination in the sight of God (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, Deu. 12:31, Jer. 32:34-35), is a problematic view of atonement. However, Christians believe that Jesus is God and therefore, no “human” sacrifice exists and Jewish law does not apply. According to Jewish law, the blood of the atoning sacrifice was to be offered on the altar of the temple (Ex. 30:10, Lev. 16) and Jesus was crucified outside the temple. Moreover, the prophet Ezekiel speaks out against the idea of vicarious atonement, where one person can suffer punishment for another person’s sin: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Eze. 18:20). Thus although the Mosaic law prescribes animal sacrifices for ritual worship, this is by no means viewed as supporting the idea of vicarious atonement.

Repentance

Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong and gain forgiveness from a person who is wronged. In religious contexts it usually refers to confession to God, ceasing sin against God, and resolving to live a more responsible and humane life. It typically includes an admission of guilt, a promise or resolve not to repeat the offense; an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.

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Repentance in Islam

The word Tawbah (Repentance) in Arabic literally means ‘to return’. In an Islamic context, it refers to the act of leaving what God has prohibited and returning to what He has commanded. The subject of repentance is one which concerns all people who believe in God, and is central to Islamic belief as well. It is mentioned in the Qur’an.

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Repentance in Christianity

Repentance is a theological term that describes a stage in salvation where the believer turns away from sin. As a distinct stage in the ordo salutis its position is disputed, with some theological traditions arguing it occurs prior to faith and the Reformed theological tradition arguing it occurs after faith. In Roman Catholic theology repentance is a secondary part of the larger theological concept of penance. Generally in the Old Testament the term ‘repentance’ comes from the Hebrew word group that means “turn away from.” Sometimes this word group is employed to request a turning from sinful activity (Jeremiah 8:6). In the New Testament the metanoeo word group can mean remorse but is generally translated as a turning away from sin (Matthew 3:2). Theologically ‘repentance’, the turning away from sin is linked to a corresponding turn to faith in God.

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Repentance, sincere penitence and turning to God in contrition

Repentance, sincere penitence and turning to God in contritionRepentance means that one feels regret and filled with remorse for his or her sins turns to God with the intention to obey Him. According to truth-seeking scholars repentance signifies a sincere effort to no longer oppose the Divine Essence in one’s feelings thoughts intentions and acts and to comply sincerely with His commands and prohibitions. Repentance does not mean being disgusted with what is bad or prohibited and thus no longer engaging in it; rather it means remaining aloof from whatever God hates and prohibits even if it seems agreeable to sense and reason.

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