How Much Forgiveness Can We Expect From God?
Although the noun teshuvah is never found in the Bible in the sense of repentance, personal and communal teshuvah is very much part of biblical theology, and is often expressed through the root shuv “to (re)turn,” the basis of the word teshuvah. Teshuvah is not, however, emphasized in the few biblical texts that deal with Yom Kippur. The longest such text, Leviticus 16, outlining the detailed Tabernacle (mishkan) and later Temple rites connected with Yom Kippur, notes (v. 30): “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord (כִּי־בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה תִּטְהָרוּ).” Nevertheless, the chapter suggests that this is accomplished via a complex set of rituals, not via teshuvah.
V. 21 of that chapter mentions a confession—“and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins (וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־כָּל־פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל־חַטֹּאתָם)”—but it is Aaron, not the individual Israelite, who confesses. Only once the Temple was destroyed did Yom Kippur as we know it develop, with its emphasis on personal, individual repentance. It has become the day that culminates a period of deep introspection about our relationship with God, that is supposed to be preceded by a period in which we ask individuals that we have wronged to forgive us (see Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuva 2:9).
But what does it mean for God to forgive? Asked differently, when we interrupt the longer acrostic viddui (confession) on Yom Kippur to say
ועל כלם אלו-ה הסליחות סלח לנו מחל לנו כפר לנו, “for all of these sins, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement,” for what are we asking? Are these three imperatives (isn’t it remarkable that we command God!) simply synonyms, and we are piling up synonyms because we really want to be forgiven? Or, at least in their classical usages, are there differences between these verbs?
The Meaning of Forgiveness
Let’s think for a moment about English “forgive.” There are cases of “forgive and forget,” when the wrong is truly erased, but there are many cases where something is forgiven for now, but not totally forgotten, to say nothing of cases where something is forgiven, but the damage is already done and cannot be totally undone. What type of forgiveness are we asking of God on Yom Kippur? Are we asking for our sins and their consequential punishment to be erased, for total forgiveness in lieu of punishment? Or are we asking “only” for our deserved punishment to be mitigated or moderated?
I think of such issues in terms of what the roots מחל ,סלח, and כפר mean in classical Hebrew. Two central guides of a word’s meaning in the Bible are etymology and context. Interpretation based on etymology—how a word is related to similar words in other ancient languages—was already practiced by medieval Jewish commentators who used the two other Semitic languages they knew, Aramaic and Arabic, to elucidate the Bible. We now know many more Semitic languages, and often the meaning of a word in Ugaritic, a language close to Hebrew, spoken in Syria in the late second millennium, or Akkadian (the language of Hammurabi and the Gilgamesh Epic), a more distant relative to Hebrew, spoken in Mesopotamia for several millennia, clarifies an obscure biblical word or sheds light on a better-known word.
Term 1 – סלח
In several Semitic languages, the root “s-l-ḥ” is related to words concerning stripping off or sprinkling, actions that lend themselves well to removal of sin. But what happens when sin is stripped off or sprinkled away from a person? Does it disappear, or is it just moved elsewhere? As is often the case, the biblical answer is “yes”—some contexts suggest total removal, while others, displacement.
For example, Jeremiah 50:20 notes:
בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וּבָעֵת הַהִיא נְאֻם יְ-הוָה יְבֻקַּשׁ אֶת עֲוֹן יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵינֶנּוּ וְאֶת־חַטֹּאת יְהוּדָה וְלֹא תִמָּצֶאינָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַאֲשֶׁר אַשְׁאִיר
In those days and at that time — declares the Lord — the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, and there shall be none; the sins of Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon those I allow to survive.”
In Jeremiah’s ideal future, the sin totally disappears. But that is not always the case. After the sin of the spies in Numbers, Moses asks God (Numbers 14:19-20):
סְלַח־נָא לַעֲוֹן הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד־הֵנָּה׃ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ׃
Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt. And the Lord said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked.’
Indeed, the latter verse appears in the selichot prayers, as a precedent for God forgiving us. However, this forgiveness is unlike that of Jeremiah; as the following verses make clear, the sin is in some sense forgiven—the entire nation is not destroyed, but the sin is not erased, but “dispersed” (like water) among the elder generation, who had seen (v. 22), “My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness (אֶת־כְּבֹדִי וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂיתִי בְמִצְרַיִם וּבַמִּדְבָּר)”—they will all be punished. Thus, s-l-ḥ need not imply total forgiveness.
The Bible elsewhere offers a sense that sins must be redressed, and a blanket erasure is not possible. One of the clearest examples of this is in the final chapter of Samuel. David counts the population; he realizes that he has sinned by organizing a census (more on what is wrong with censuses on another occasion), and confesses his guilt (2 Samuel 24:10):
וַיַּךְ לֵב־דָּוִד אֹתוֹ אַחֲרֵי־כֵן סָפַר אֶת־הָעָם. וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל יְ-הוָה חָטָאתִי מְאֹד אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי וְעַתָּה יְ-הוָה הַעֲבֶר־נָא אֶת־עֲוֹן עַבְדְּךָ כִּי נִסְכַּלְתִּי מְאֹד׃
But afterward David reproached himself for having numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned grievously in what I have done. Please, O Lord, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.’
The word translated as “remit” is הַעֲבֶר, which really means “transfer,” and that is exactly what the rest of the chapter deals with. The prophet Gad gives David three choices:
הֲתָבוֹא לְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים רָעָב בְּאַרְצֶךָ אִם־שְׁלֹשָׁה חֳדָשִׁים נֻסְךָ לִפְנֵי־צָרֶיךָ וְהוּא רֹדְפֶךָ וְאִם־הֱיוֹת שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים דֶּבֶר בְּאַרְצֶךָ
Shall a seven-year famine come upon you in the land, or shall you be in flight from your adversaries for three months while they pursue you, or shall there be three days of pestilence in your land?
David may avoid personal punishment for the sin he initiated, but the sin must be punished, and he must choose between three equivalent punishments that will befall others. David realizes (of his own initiative!) that he is wrong, and confesses, and his confession is heard and heeded, but punishment is not averted. We usually do not think of sincere, successful teshuvah in those terms.
Term 2 – מחל
The root “m-ḥ-l” is post-biblical; it can mean “forgive,” and is used with both people and God as its subject, but it also means “to remit or cancel a debt.” Thus, we may ask forgiveness for sin just as we may ask a bank to forgive a loan. As the biblical scholar, Gary Anderson, has noted in his wonderful book Sin: A History, the image of sin as a debt developed only in the rabbinic period, supplementing the common biblical image of sin as a weight or burden, which might be removed.
See, for example, Genesis 50:17 where the brothers plead with Joseph שָׂא נָא פֶּשַׁע אַחֶיךָ, Forgive [literally “lift”], I urge you, the offense… of your brothers”. See also the case of David in 2 Samuel 24, discussed above, where the sin is transferred to other people, as well as 2 Samuel 12:13-18, when David’s capital punishment for adultery with Bathsheba is meted upon their newborn son.
Term 3 – כפר
The final verb, “k-p-r”, is often not connected to atonement as we understand it. The root is closely related in meaning to its Akkadian cognate, which can mean “to cleanse ritually,” and that is precisely its main use in Leviticus 16, where it is used in reference to various objects, as in v. 16:
וְכִפֶּר עַל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל־חַטֹּאתָם וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם׃
Thus he [Aaron, the high priest] shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
On the basis of this context, Yom Kippur has sometimes been called “the Day of Purgation,” related to the notion that certain types of sins make the tabernacle (mishkan) or Temple ritually polluted (טמא), and they need to be removed by what the late Jacob Milgrom called “ritual detergent”—blood of the chatat sacrifice. (That sacrifice is better rendered “purification offering,” not “sin offering.”)
Thus, the primary meaning of k-p-r has little to do with forgiving sins; it is connected to the ritual decontamination of a holy place. The importance of this decontamination, however, cannot be overestimated, since according to this conception God will only reside with Israel if God’s physical house is in order.
The non-Temple related meaning of k-p-r, as “to forgive,” is also found in the Bible, and once the Temple was destroyed, “to forgive” rather than “to purge” became the main sense of the word, and so for us, living in a non-Temple world, Yom Kippur evokes a day of forgiveness, and not a day or Temple cleansing and purgation. (The importance of purgation remains through the vivid, detailed reenactment of the Temple cleansing ritual in the avodah section of the Yom Kippur musaf service.)
Term 4 – עבר
The formula ועל כלם אלוה הסליחות סלח לנו מחל לנו כפר לנו does not exhaust the classical Hebrew terminology for forgiveness. Micah 7:18, used in the tashlich ceremony, introduces another conception:
מִי אֵ-ל כָּמוֹךָ נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וְעֹבֵר עַל־פֶּשַׁע לִשְׁאֵרִית נַחֲלָתוֹ
Who is a God like You, Forgiving [literally ‘lifting up’] iniquity and remitting [literally ‘passing over’] transgression.”
Sins can remain, but can be passed over—root “῾-b-r”—by God. I assume that this conception allows God to return to them and punish the sinner at some later point.
Term 5 – מחה
A still different, more comforting idea is found in the Bible with the verb root m-ḥ-h, “to wipe clean” (of a dish in 2 Kings 21:13) or “annihilate” (e.g. concerning Amalek, in Exodus 17:14). This term is used of sins, for example, in Isaiah 43:25:
אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מֹחֶה פְשָׁעֶיךָ לְמַעֲנִי וְחַטֹּאתֶיךָ לֹא אֶזְכֹּר:
It is I, I who — for My own sake — Wipe your transgressions away And remember your sins no more.
Of all the terms we have looked at, only here does the sin totally disappear, obviating any need for punishment.
The prayer after the amidah for Yom Kippur requests:
ומה שׁחטאתי לפניך מרק (או מחק) ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי יסורים וחלים רעים
and concerning the sins I have committed before you, scour them in Your great compassion, but not through chastisement and severe illness.
The above survey of biblical forgiveness clarifies this request: It is not always reasonable to ask for complete forgiveness, for sins to be totally scoured away. Confession of sin, even of the most sincere type, does not automatically imply full and complete forgiveness. Some sins have lasting consequences, and the most we can hope for is that the consequences be mitigated through divine compassion.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I would like to thank all of the readers of TheTorah.com for using the site; I hope it has enhanced your understanding of the Bible and your Jewish commitment. I wish you all a גמר חתימה טובה, a final, positive inscription in the book of life, so we may continue to study and engage together in Torah and מעשים טובים, good deeds.
Marc Zvi Brettler, Ph.D.
Read Our short series on the Historical Dimensions of Yom Kippur
1 Yom Kippur: A Celebration of Liberty on the Jubilee Year
2 Yom Kippur: A Festival of Dancing Maidens
3 The Absence of Yom Kippur in Nevi’im and Ketuvim
4 Does Ezekiel in 572 B.C.E Know of Yom Kippur?
Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer, all published by Oxford University Press. He is cofounder of Torah and Biblical Scholarship -TheTorah.com
 Here and elsewhere I follow the New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation.)