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Atonement in Judaism: Wikis


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Return in Judaism:
repentance, atonement,
higher ascent
Yom Kippur in the Jerusalem Temple
In the Hebrew Bible:
Biblical Altars
Temple in Jerusalem
Prophecy in the Temple
Jacob wrestling the angelPrayerDveikut
Confession in Judaism
Atonement in Judaism
Love of God
Awe of God
Mystical approach
Ethical approach
Jewish meditation
Jewish services
Torah study
In the Jewish calendar:
Rosh HashanahMikveh before Yom KippurMourning on Tisha B'Av
Month of Elul · Selichot
Rosh Hashanah
Shofar · Tashlikh
Ten Days of Repentance
Kapparot · Mikveh
Yom Kippur
Sukkot · Simchat Torah
Ta'anit · Tisha B'Av
Passover · The Omer
Contemporary Judaism:
Baal teshuva movement
Jewish Renewal

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


In Biblical Hebrew

The triliteral root of the verb "to atone" and the noun "atonement" (כפר) is also the root of the related verb "to cover" (Gen 6:14) and noun "a cover" (of a container, Ex. 25:17), the noun "a ransom" (Ex. 21:30, see also Ex. 30:11-16), and the names of things that normally cover or protect that which is within them (asphalt: Gen. 6:14, frost: Ps. 147:16, villages: Chron. I 27:25, cups or bowls: Ez. 1:10). In Mishnaic Hebrew, the same root often has the meaning "to annul" or "to deny" (כפר במלוה: deny having received a loan, כפר בעיקר: deny a principle of the faith, etc.); this meaning may also be interpretively read in some biblical usage, e.g. Is. 28:18.

The subject of the verb "to atone" may be the one whose forgiveness is sought (Deut. 21:8), the one seeking forgiveness (Gen. 32:21), or a third party. The last case, which is most common, usually (but not exclusively; cf. Ex. 32:30, Num. 25:13) refers to a kohen (priest) in performance of Temple service.

In Rabbinic Judaism

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through some combination of

  • repentance
  • Temple service (e.g. bringing a sacrifice, not now 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 corporal or capital punishment 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).

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. 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.



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