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Friday, September 11, 2015

Apologizing is Never Easy — Yoma 87a (part 3) — #4

R. Yose b. Chanina said: One who asks pardon of his neighbor needs to do so no more than three times, as [Jacob said in a message to Joseph], Please forgive the offense of your brothers, please, who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father [Genesis 50:17]…

When R. Zeira had a complaint against someone, he would repeatedly pass by him, showing himself to him, so that [the offender] could come out to [placate] him. Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher, who had mistreated him. When he saw that Yom Kippur was getting close, and the butcher had not come to him [to ask forgiveness], he said to himself: “I will go to him, to make it easy for him to apologize to me.” Rav Chuna ran into Rav on his way to the butcher and asked: “Where are you going?” Rav said: “To make amends with so-and-so.” Rav Chuna thought to himself: “Abba [Rav’s real name] is about to cause someone’s death.” [Rav] went and remained standing before [the butcher] while the butcher was sitting and chopping the head [of an animal]. [The butcher] looked up and saw [Rav], and said: “You are Abba! Go away! I have nothing to say to you!” While he was chopping, a bone flew off from the animal’s head, struck [the butcher’s] throat, and killed him.


Having told us how to go about doing teshuvah (repentance), we saw in TMT #3 that the Rabbis acknowledge that sometimes things happen differently than we plan, and we would be wise to take advantage of opportunities for reconciliation—however strange and “fowl”—to succeed, as R. Yirmiyahu and R. Abba wisely did.

The Rabbis understand in another way that things don’t always proceed according to a formula or plan. That is the subject of their second story. R. Yose has warned that apologies don’t always go smoothly and are not always accepted. Therefore, one needs to put a limit on apology: three sincere attempts suffice. But he goes a step further, telling us to stop after three attempts.


Rav (whose real name is Abba) scrupulously follows the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah, but not R. Zeira’s advice. Rav has been offended by the butcher. He goes out of his way to make himself available to the butcher to apologize in time for Yom Kippur. His timing assures us that his intentions are good: he wants the butcher to be free from the sin of the offense he had caused by Yom Kippur, the “deadline” for apology, so he will be written into the Book of Life for the coming year. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men.

If the Rabbis are correct, there should be an amicable reconciliation before Yom Kippur. Yet Rav Chuna knows this will not turn out well and, indeed, it’s a disaster. The butcher is still furiously angry, unwilling to talk, and certainly not inclined to apologize! Rav’s appearance in his abattoir—which the butcher interprets as pressure to apologize—makes him even angrier. In his fury, he hacks away at the animal head he’s working on, dislodging a shard of bone that flies into his throat, killing him.

Rav followed the procedure delineated by the Rabbis. One could say that he went above and beyond the requirements by making himself available to the butcher to apologize before Yom Kippur. Yet it didn’t work—just as R. Zeira warned us. The rules and procedures provide structure and possibility, but repentance is a quintessentially human emotional interchange—it cannot always be governed by rules and procedures, and relationships cannot always be resolved within a specified time frame. We need to be flexible and sensitive and sometimes, we simply need to give it more time.

  1. R. Zeira’s advice is really a warning that if three apologies don’t work, something far deeper and darker is going on. Have you ever been in such a situation? Were you able to resolve it?
  2. Prior to this story, on the same page of Talmud, we are treated to a litany of maxims by sages speaking to the power of repentance, including this: R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: “Great is repentance because it prolongs a person’s life.” The story of Rav and the butcher is the physical incarnation of that aphorism: In a sense, the butcher died prematurely because he did not repent. Do you believe that holding grudges affects our physical well being? Can teshuvah enhance our physical and mental health, or only our spiritual health? Are spiritual, mental, and physical health intertwined?
  3. R. Yitzhak, in the name of Rabbah b. Mari, compares God’s modus operandi with that of ordinary people (on the same page of Talmud): “If a person angers his friend, it is doubtful whether the friend can be placated or not. And even if he can be placated, it is doubtful whether he will be placated by mere words. But if a person commits a sin in secret, the Holy One of Blessing is placated by mere words…Still more, God accounts it to him as a good deed.” The Rabbis often compare our conduct with God’s. This
  4. Rabbi Yonatan said: Great is repentance, because it brings redemption nearer.reflects their understanding and compassion concerning our human limitations. At the same time, it raises the bar by encouraging us to stretch ourselves to be more godlike. How easily are you placated after someone offends or hurts you? How open to forgiving others are you?


  1. I've heard it said that holding a grudge is akin to giving one free rein in your thoughts. At times it is helpful to break down the aggrieved action into several parts so they can be more easily digested. Letting go enhances our lives in all ways. A good friend will forgive; it is easy to be friends when things are smooth, the test of character in a relationship is revealed when we can still show love through a difficult time. Interacting with strangers-we owe them nothing other than basic human kindness. When they take that away by insulting us through rudeness or arrogance, how are we obligated to respond?

  2. I think you provided the best answer to the question you posed about a stranger who insults in your first sentence: don't give them the power to direct your thoughts. How? I have always found that it's helpful to me — especially with people I don't know well — to keep in mind that I don't know what motivated them that has nothing to do with me, or what is truly bothering them. The Rabbis taught: והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות Judge everyone for merit (Pirke Avot 1:6) -- put another way: give people the benefit of the doubt.