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Monday, September 7, 2015

'Tis the Season—Repent! — Yoma 87a — #2

MISHNAH: If a person said, “I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent,” he will be given no chance to repent.  If he said, “I will sin and Yom Kippur will effect atonement,” then Yom Kippur effects no atonement…For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur makes atonement, but for transgressions between two people, Yom Kippur does not atone until the one [who offended] has pacified the one [who was offended]…

GEMARA: R. Yitzhak said: Whoever offends his neighbor with words must placate him with words, as it is written: My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, if you have struck your hands for a stranger, you are snared by the words of your mouth, [you are caught by the words of your mouth]. Do this, now, my son, and deliver yourself, seeing that you have come into the hand of your neighbor; go, humble yourself, and urge your neighbor (Proverbs 6:1-3). If he has a claim of money on you, open the palm of your hand to him [i.e. pay him back], and if not, send many friends to him. R. Chisda said: He should try to placate him through three groups of three people each, as it said, He comes before me and says: I have sinned and perverted that which was right, and it did not profit me (Job 33:27).

Judaism famously provides a structure—a scaffold—for mourning: extensive customs concerning burial and mourning and concentric temporal circles of shiva, shloshim, and the first year (yahrzeit) that help us know what to do when, what to say or not say, how to behave, how to grieve, and (on the other side) how to help. By and large, they work exceedingly well, but they don’t always work for everyone.

After seven chapters defining, describing, and discussing the complex rituals of atonement practiced in the Second Temple long ago, tractate Yoma turns to the inner spiritual and emotional life of the people who gather each year on Yom Kippur to make atonement to God. Talmud attempts to teach us how to repent and atone, but just as in the case of mourning, no single formula works for everyone. In this edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud we look at the basics; in the next two editions we look at two remarkable stories that follow the passage above, which explore repentance and atonement on a deeper human level: What happens when the halakhah doesn’t work?

First the basics. Mishnah Yoma 8:9, quoted above, is among the most oft-quoted mishnayot, especially at this time of year. It tells us two thing: (1) For repentance to actually be repentance it must be sincere. Going through the motions without meaning them is meaningless; and (2) when I sin against another person, by hurting, cheating, deceiving, or otherwise offending them, I am committing a sin against God. Once I have repented and reconciled with that person I offended, only then can I atone to God and receive God’s forgiveness. I cannot do an end run around the person I have offended by going straight to God and seeking forgiveness or trying to atone. This, alone, is a marvelous treatise on the meaning of genuine repentance and atonement.

Traditionally the 44 confessions of Al Chait are recited ten times during Yom Kippur, divided into three sets, each followed by a chorus of “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.” The majority of the sins enumerated are committed through speech. Yet how easy it is to downplay the significance of what we say. How often do people say, “Oh, I didn’t really mean what I said,” or “Don’t take what I say so seriously.” R. Yitzhak, aware that our mouths are ever-available and our tongues often much too quick, wants us to take what we say to others—and the effect it has on them—with the utmost seriousness because this is the most likely way we have hurt someone in the past year. He therefore places verbal wrongs we have committed on par with material damage we have done. He uses a prooftext from Proverbs that demonstrates how intertwined monetary damages and words are, elevating verbal wrongs to the legal level of monetary wrongs.

When it comes to actually monetary wrongs, R. Yitzhak says succinctly: If you owe someone money, pay them back! He spends very little time dealing with financial wrongs. He then returns to verbal wrongs, because financial wrongdoing is more easily resolved than hurt feelings: If what is between you is not monetary, but rather about words, gather people to help you make the apology. R. Chisda details the extent one should go to to placate the injured party, and it sounds pretty extreme to us: three parties of three. The sense we get is that the injured party is not easily placated; it’s going to take a great deal of effort. That is precisely the problem with hurt feelings: they are not easily assuaged. R. Yitzhak’s prooftext from Job reinforces his earlier conjoining of verbal and monetary wrongs: lo shave li/it did not profit me could well have been translated “it didn’t benefit me” or “do me any good,” but has definite financial connotations so I chose “it did not profit me.”


  1. When you consider the last year of your life, is there an incident you can recall in which you said something hurtful to someone and then attempted to claim that it wasn’t meant seriously, or that they were too sensitive? Was there a time when someone hurt your feelings and claimed that you were taking their words too seriously or being overly sensitive?
  2. Why do you think R. Chisda advises bringing other people along to affect a reconciliation? What role or influence can you imagine them having in the situation? Have you ever brought a friend along when you’ve needed to apologize to someone?
  3. Are there situations when it is particularly difficult for you to avoid saying things you’ll come to regret? Do you have a strategy—especially in those situations—for guarding what you say?

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