In Talmud and Jewish Thought


The theme of God’s forgiveness for man’s sins is recurrent in talmudic and midrashic literature and reappears in later rabbinic writings and the synagogue liturgy. Its main theological purport is to counterbalance, and indeed outweigh, the strongly entrenched rabbinic belief in the inevitable punishment of sin. The rabbinic outlook on the subject may be most simply expressed as “God is just”; He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (Principle number 11 of Maimonides’ 13 principles of the Jewish faith). Only the unrepentant sinner incurs His wrath; the sinner who repents is always forgiven. Thus the Talmud states, “He who sins and regrets his act is at once forgiven” (Ḥag. 5a; Ber. 12b) and the Midrash states, “Says the Holy One, even if they [your sins] should reach to Heaven, if you repent I will forgive” (Pes. Rab. 44:185a; see Yal. Ps. 835). The Tosefta even gives a statistical figure to the matter, basing itself on Exodus 34:6–7, and says that God’s quality of forgiveness is five hundred fold that of His wrath (Tosef., Sot 4:1).
The idea is more picturesquely expressed in the talmudic image of God praying to Himself that His mercy should prevail over His anger and that He should deal with His children “li-fenim mi-shurat ha-din,” i.e., that He should forgive them even though strict justice would demand their punishment (Ber. 7a). The whole of Jewish thought on the subject stems from the forgiving character of God depicted in the 13 Divine attributes as revealed to Moses (Ex. 34:6–7). The rabbinic mind embroiders the fundamental biblical idea in a homiletic way, thus giving encouragement and hope to the sinner who would turn to God but is troubled by the burden of his past deeds. The liturgy of the Day of Atonement, and indeed its very role, bear eminent testimony to the central role that the idea of God’s forgiveness plays within Jewish religious practice.
Maimonides formulates the breadth of the Jewish attitude on Divine forgiveness thus: “Even if a man has sinned his whole life and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven him” (Yad, Teshuvah 2:1). Though this forgiveness is always ultimately forthcoming, for various categories of sin it only comes into effect when the Day of Atonement, or the sinner’s death, or both have finalized the atonement (Yoma 85bff.; Yad, loc. cit., 1:4).
In later rabbinic literature, ideas about God’s forgiveness are variations on the original theme outlined above, though now and again, the emphasis is changed. In ḥasidic writings, for example, where the dominant notion of God is that of a merciful father, there is a tendency to overstress His quality of forgiveness at the expense of His quality of justice. Naḥman of Bratslav, one of the early ḥasidic leaders, writes: “There is no sin that will not be forgiven by sincere repentance. Every saying to the contrary in the Talmud and the Zohar is not to be understood literally” (Likkutei Eẓot ha-Shalem (1913), 119). R. Naḥman is adverting here to certain categories of sinners who, it is claimed, will never be forgiven because of the nature of their crimes, however genuine their repentance. Among those said to be excluded from God’s grace are those whose sins involved a desecration of God’s name or [who] caused an evil repute to fall on their fellow, or even those who indulged in evil language in general (TJ, BK 8:10, 6c; ARN1 39, 116; Zohar, Num. 161a). But R. Naḥman’s interpretation is according to the tradition that no sinner was ever absolutely excluded from the sphere of God’s forgiveness (see Yad, Teshuvah, 1:4; RH 18a; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, ch. 18 and references cited). The intention of those texts that do seem to exclude certain classes of sinner can be interpreted as a way of emphasizing the gravity of the sins involved.
There are two further general points. Rabbinic literature is on the whole concerned with God’s forgiveness for the individual sinner, rather than for Israel as a nation (the latter is more characteristic of the prophetic ethos than the rabbinic, for during most of the creative period of rabbinic thought, Israel had ceased to exist as a cohesive national entity). Forgiveness is always and only consequent on repentance (the idea of an arbitrary grace is almost totally absent; but see Ber. 7a on Ex. 33:19). Similarly the doctrine of the merit of the fathers, zekhut avot, was given an ethical interpretation (Sanh. 27b.).
The place of a forgiving God within the Jewish weltanschauung has been of interest in modern times and is discussed by both Jewish and Christian scholars. The immediate causes of this interest were partly a desire to uncover the rabbinic roots of New Testament theology and partly an attempt to rectify the widespread but distorted image of the Jewish conception of God, according to which the Jewish God was seen as a legalistic and strict overlord who rewards and punishes according to man’s deeds, and the Jew was thus thought to inhabit a somber religious world devoid of Divine compassion. A more thorough acquaintance with the sources shows how wrong such a picture was.


God’s forgiveness, however extensive, only encompasses those sins which man commits directly against Him, “bein adam la-Makom”; those in which an injury is caused to one’s fellow man, “bein adam le-ḥavero” are not forgiven until the injured party has himself forgiven the perpetrator. Hence the custom of seeking forgiveness from those one may have wronged on the eve of the Day of Atonement, without which proper atonement cannot be made (Yoma 8:9, basing itself on Lev. 16:30 “… all your sins before the Lord,” i.e., and not to man; Yad, loc. cit., 2:9; Sh. Ar., OḤ, 605:1; see also RH 17b; Sifra, Aḥarei Mot, Perek 8).
The law regarding physical injury, for example, is explicit in that even after the various compensatory payments have been made, the inflicter of the damage must seek the forgiveness of the injured party for the suffering caused (BK 92a; Yad, Ḥovel u-Mazzik 5:9; Sh. Ar., ḤM, 422). Not only must he who sins against his fellow seek forgiveness from him, but the one sinned against is duty bound to forgive. “Man should be pliant as a reed, not hard like the cedar” in granting forgiveness (Ta’an. 20a). As the Talmud puts it: “All who act mercifully (i.e., forgivingly) toward their fellow creatures will be treated mercifully by Heaven, and all who do not act mercifully toward their fellow creatures will not be treated mercifully by Heaven” (Shab. 151b; see also RH, 17a; Meg. 28a). If the injured party refuses to forgive even when the sinner has come before him three times in the presence of others and asked for forgiveness, then he is in turn deemed to have sinned (see Tanh. Hukkat 19). He is called akhzari (“cruel”). The unforgiving man is not of the seed of Abraham (Beẓ. 32b), since one of the distinguishing marks of all of Abraham’s descendants is that they are forgiving. The quality of forgiveness was one of the gifts God bestowed on Abraham and his seed (Yer. 79a; Num. R. 8:4; Yad, Teshuvah 2:10).
The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg forgiveness (Yad, loc. cit.; Tosef., BK 9:29; Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by R. Margalioth 1957, 267 no. 360). This demand is based on the example of Abraham, who prayed to God to forgive Abimelech (Gen. 20:17). The reasons the injured party should be ready to forgive the injurer are mixed. On the one hand is the self-regarding consideration, already mentioned, that forgiveness [of] one’s fellow wins forgiveness from Heaven. As Philo states: “If you ask pardon for your sins, do you also forgive those who have trespassed against you? For remission is granted for remission” (ed. by Mangey, 2 (1742), 670; see also Yoma 23a). On the other hand there is the purer motive of imitatio dei. Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured him (Shab. 133b; see Lev. 19:2). R. Naḥman combines both motives when he says: “Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you, and pardon your offenses” (op. cit. 81–91).

[Alan Unterman]


J. Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1 (1917), 139–67;
G.F. Moore, Judaism, 1 (1927), 535–45; 2 (1927), 153–5;
S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293ff.;
R.T. Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha (1933), 157–61;
E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal. Pirkei Emunot ve-De’ot (1969), 396ff.;
K. Kohler; Jewish Theology (1918), 112–7, 246–55;
C.G. Montefiore and R. Loewe (eds.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), 460–469.