July 19, 2024
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Does Hashem Extend ‘Partial Credit’ on Yom Kippur?

The Acharonim debate if Hashem forgives aveirot bein adam laMakom (sins between Hashem and us) if one did not appease those against whom he sinned. These commentaries base their debate on the last mishna in Masechet Yoma (Yoma 8:9).

For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person. Similarly, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught that point from the verse: “From all your sins, you shall be cleansed before the Lord,” (Leviticus 16:30). For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between a person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases the other person. In conclusion, Rabbi Akiva said: “How fortunate are you, Israel; before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? It is your Father in Heaven,” as it is stated: “And I will sprinkle purifying water upon you, and you shall be purified,” (Ezekiel 36:25). And it says: “The ritual bath of Israel is God,” (Jeremiah 17:13). Just as a ritual bath purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, purifies Israel (translation from the Sefaria.org).

One may hinge the debate between the Acharonim on the argument between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and Rabbi Akiva. The former separates aveirot bein adam laMakom from aveirot bein adam l’chaveiro (interpersonal sins). Thus, even if one has not atoned for the latter, he can nonetheless attain atonement for the former.

On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva presents Yom Kippur as a mikvah-like purifying (tahara) process. Tahara in a mikvah is an all-or-nothing activity. There is no such thing as partial purification. Either one is entirely tahor, or he is completely tamei. Thus, one could argue that according to Rabbi Akiva, if one is not purified from interpersonal sins — he is not forgiven for his sins with regards to Hashem.


Answering Bluria’s Question

The Acharonim also cite a most interesting mashal offered by Rabbi Yossi HaKohen (Rosh Hashanah 17b) as possible evidence to both sides of our debate:

Bluria the convert once asked Rabban Gamliel: It is written in your Torah: “The great, mighty, and awesome God who favors no one,” (Deuteronomy 10:17), and elsewhere it is written: “The Lord shall show favor to you and give you peace,” (Numbers 6: 26). How can this contradiction be resolved?

Rabbi Yossi the Kohen joined in the conversation with Bluria and said: “I will tell you a parable… To what is this matter comparable? To a person who lent his friend 100 dinars and fixed a time for repayment of the loan before the king, and the borrower took an oath by the life of the king that he would repay the money. The time arrived, and he did not repay the loan. The delinquent borrower came to appease the king for not fulfilling the oath that he had sworn by the life of the king, and the king said to him: ‘For my insult I forgive you, but you must still go and appease your friend.’”

Here also, the same is true: Here, the verse that states: “The Lord shall show favor to you,” is referring to sins committed between man and God, which God will forgive. There, the verse that states: “God favors no one,” is referring to sins committed between a person and another — which God will not forgive until the offender appeases the one he hurt (a slightly modified William Davidson edition of the Talmud).

On the one hand, we may understand Rabbi Yossi as separating forgiveness from Hashem from forgiveness from people. Thus, one may achieve without the other. On the other hand, Hashem may be understood as saying I forgive you only if you also appease your friend. The fact that He instructs the sinner to settle accounts with the one he offended, might indicate that His forgiveness hinges on settling his accounts with his fellow.

Moreover, Rabbi Yossi casts interpersonal obligations as obligations to Hashem as well. Thus, the two are intertwined to the extent that one cannot attain atonement without the other.


A Blended View

Our classic debate among the Acharonim is challenging to resolve. One may marshal proofs in either direction. The opinions of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva and the story with Bluria may be interpreted in various ways, and could support both sides of our classic debate. Perhaps, Chazal are deliberately vague about this issue to signal that we should blend the two opinions.

I suggest a blended view based on an idea I heard from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The Rav taught that there are different experiences of Yom Kippur. Some are much richer than others. The power of one’s Yom Kippur depends on his investment in preparation for the day.

Thus, on a very basic level, Hashem forgives one on Yom Kippur, even if he does not settle with those with whom he acted wrongly. Hashem is not about being “all or nothing.” Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 5:44) finds it highly counterintuitive to say that Hashem does not partially forgive someone who has atoned for only some of his sins.

However, achieving partial achievement is hardly a Yom Kippur in all its potential greatness and richness. Therefore, we should scarcely be satisfied with the most basic Yom Kippur. Instead, we should seek to achieve a Yom Kippur like the one described by Rabbi Akiva — immersion in a mikvah.

To reach a higher level of Yom Kippur, one should first work things out with those against whom he has sinned. Then, after doing so, he can complete the day by “cleansing himself before Hashem,” resolving his offenses against God.

Rav George Silfen, in his excellent work, “Vayevarech Shlomo,” observes that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 606) presents the custom to immerse on Yom Kippur, after setting forth the halachot about attaining forgiveness from others. Thus, the Shulchan Aruch indicates an order — first seek forgiveness from one’s fellow men, and only then, is he ready to immerse in Hashem’s “Yom Kippur mikvah.”



The midrash (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 46) famously compares us to malachim (angels) on Yom Kippur. “Just as angels are clean of sin, so too, Am Yisrael is clean on Yom Kippur; just as peace reigns between the malachim, so too, peace reigns amongst Am Yisrael on Yom Kippur.” Accordingly, to experience Yom Kippur in all its grand splendor (and not merely a “basic economy Yom Kippur”), one must beforehand appease those he has wronged.

Hashem does extend “partial credit” on Yom Kippur for partial teshuva. However, we should aspire to experience Yom Kippur to its fullest — reaching the level of a malach. May we all merit reaching the status of a malach on Yom Kippur and be described as clean, and amongst whom peace resides.


Postscript — Why Did Rabban Gamliel Answer Bluria?

It seems odd that Rabban Gamliel did not answer Bluria’s question. Rabbi Yossi HaKohen’s answer appears to have been an approach that Rabban Gamliel could have articulated himself.

Binyamin Jachter suggests that Bluria asked with audacity, and therefore, Rabban Gamliel refused to respond. This answer fits well with the version of the story in which Bluria says, “it is written in your Torah.” By Bluria referring to our Torah as “your Torah,” she (like the ben rasha at the Seder) excluded herself from the Torah. Thus, Bluria might have been viewed as posing a hostile question from the “outside looking in,” instead of an insider honestly and earnestly seeking to understand the Torah better. Rabbi Yossi provided an answer for her, once Rabban Gamliel’s silence subtly rebuked her.

I suggest that Bluria was — before her conversion — part of the Roman aristocracy. How else could she have had access to Rabban Gamliel, the leader of our people? I also suggest that Rabban Gamliel — with his close ties to the Roman aristocracy (with whom he advocated for our people) — feared that if Bluria shared this idea with her former associates, it would offend the Romans and jeopardize Rabban Gamliel’s efforts on our behalf.

Rabbi Yossi accurately presented Hashem as a just and benevolent leader who is willing to forgive and is concerned for His subjects’ welfare. Unfortunately, the Roman leadership was anything but kind and forgiving. They were ruthless, self-serving and brutal.

Accordingly, Rabban Gamliel thought it better to remain silent and allow a far less prominent scholar (with no connections to the Roman leadership) to respond to Bluria’s question. He did not want to risk appearing like he was criticizing the Roman administration.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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