When Forgiveness Is Optional Or Forbidden

Will Gotkin
When Forgiveness Is Optional Or Forbidden
September 5, 2010

As we gear up for the High Holidays, many of us are reflecting on our actions in the past year. Throughout the month of Elul we increase in teshuva and during Yomim Noarim (the ten ‘Days of Awe’ between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), we ask others to forgive us for sins we have committed against them in the past year. Confessing and asking forgiveness for our sins before G-d during Elul and in shul on Yom Kippur will atone for many of our sins, but not the ones we commit against other people. G-d does not forgive us for the wrongs we committed toward others. Instead, we are obligated to ask for forgiveness directly from the people we have victimized. In complying with the mitzvah of judging our neighbors favorably (Vayikra 19:15), it is important that we forgive those who ask our forgiveness. However, there are times when it is optional and even forbidden to forgive.

Jewish law does not mandate that we forgive one who has not asked us for forgiveness. However, before retiring for the night many Jews recite the following: “I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me, or sinned against me, either physically or financially, against my honor or anything that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other – any Israelite; may no man be punished on my account.”[1] This is a very thorough prayer and we should have in mind that we are forgiving all who may have wronged us during the day. It is my personal opinion that one who utters this prayer at night before going to bed and still holds a grudge must be mouthing the words mindlessly. In fact, it is in the spirit of the law that Jews must forgive others whether or not they have received an apology. Forgiving others allows us to let go of negative feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness. Forgiving those who wronged us also helps us to fulfill the mitzvah of “Do not hate your fellow in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17).

From a Jewish legal standpoint, one who asks forgiveness of another must make three attempts at reconciliation. If the other party is still unwilling to forgive, Hashem grants atonement to the one asking to be forgiven. It is then the unforgiving person who is at fault. In practice it is actually forbidden to ask for forgiveness a third time so as not to cause the other Jew to sin. However, this still teaches us the importance of forgiveness.

According to Jewish law, forgiveness is also optional and not required when one slanders our name. We are not obligated to forgive, because it can be safely assumed that the damage done to our reputations will continue even after we forgive the perpetrator. However, Judaism still teaches that we should forgive the person if the offending party seems sincere.[2] Sometimes when others wrong us we must use take the perpetrator to court. In some cases we are not obligated to drop our charges even if we forgive the person privately.[3]

When is it forbidden to forgive? According to Jewish law, Hashem cannot or rather, will not forgive us for the following three sins: murder, idolatry, and adultery. We are forbidden to forgive any crime committed against someone else.[4] Because we are not the victims, it is therefore not our right to forgive the perpetrator. The main reason why Hashem does not forgive a murderer is because the only one who has a right to forgive the murderer is dead and thus, no longer able to forgive. We are also forbidden from forgiving another person’s rapist.

The only people who have the ability to forgive are the victims themselves. That is why the following particularly aroused my ire. Last Yom Kippur a rabbi at a large synagogue in DC urged his congregants to forgive Bernie Madoff, the operator of one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. Mr. Madoff financially crippled numerous charities and caused many trusting families to go bankrupt. Many of his victims were congregants of this very synagogue and were understandably outraged at the rabbi’s statements. While it is true that those who had invested with Madoff are obligated forgive him if he personally beseeches their forgiveness, those who were not directly cheated by Bernie Madoff have no right to say that all Jews must forgive him.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I hope we will all apologize to those who we have wronged in the past and that in the coming year there will be more reconciliation and peace between Jews. May we all be granted atonement from Hashem and forgiveness from those whom we have wronged! I also hope we all are able to let go of negative feelings and forgive others with an open heart when the situation calls for it. L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem!

Will Gotkin is a contributing writer for Gather The Jews.


[1] Tefilat Mincha and Tefilat Arvit. Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, page 78

[2] A Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 1 Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, page 199

[3] Ibid, 198

[4] Ibid, 201