I received a request for forgiveness in the spirit of Yom Kippur. I am not familiar with this process, as it is from someone who is new to the faith. My question is, does the person asking for forgiveness have to specify what the wrongs are? This person did not specify, just asked generally. I feel that I need to know what they felt they did wrong, otherwise how do they know what I'm forgiving them for? Specifically, I do not believe that some of the wrongs are understood. If I offer forgiveness in my heart, I don't see how that can resolve an issue if it's not understood fully.
Your question deserves a serious answer concerning as it does a major focus and component of our Judaism. As a matter of fact, such authorities as the truly great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, dealt with this question of Teshuvah -- Repentance as a primary concern of Torah Judaism; along with it Kappara-- Atonement (as with Yom Kippur)from the Divine and Forgiveness --Mechilah on the human level.
Of course, the great Maimonides (Egypt, 12th century), delineates all aspects of these matters in his 14 volume Mishneh Torah compendium on Jewish Law.
We might expect to hear of such questions primarily prior to and during the Ten Days of Repentance, the days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, however, clearly, any time is the right time for sinners to repent and ask for forgiveness, both from the Almighty and from human beings.
This entire subject of Sin, Repentance and Forgiveness is so big that it can only be touched upon in the briefest fashion in this response.
Allow me to highlight some of the rules by means of quotations from the Rambam's (Maimonides') Laws of Repentance, Chapter One, addressing primarily the sins between a person and his/her friend, rather than between a person and his/her God.
Law (Halachah) 1. " If a person has transgressed any one of the Torah precepts, affirmative or negative, willfully or unintentionally, they must confess before God, blessed be he . . . How does one confess? He says: 'O God, I have sinned, I have done evil, I have rebelled against you and have done this . . . I regret now and am ashamed of my acts; I will never do it again.' This represents the essential part of confession. The more anyone confesses the more praise he/she deserves."
Law (Halachah) 9. "Repentance and Yom Kippur effect atonement only for sins committed against God . . . sins committed against a fellow human . . . are never pardoned unless he/she compensates his/her neighbor and makes an apology. Even though he/she made the compensation, the wrongdoer must appease the injured person and ask his/her forgiveness."
From this it is uncontestable that one must make confession of one's sin, give compensation and apologize. While one may begin with the usual formula for sinners as found in the High Holy DayMahzor [Prayer Book], yet our recitation is still not specific to the degree where the individual recites on his/her own the actual wrongdoing or transgression. Rather it seems to fall into general categories of sins.
When it comes time for the nullification of vows -- Hatarat Nedarim on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and during the Ten Days of Repentance, there too, we state that, "According to the law, the one offering apology and requesting absolution must specify the vow. However, please note, 'my Rabbis, that it is impossible for me to specify them, for they are too numerous . . . therefore may they be in your eyes as if I did specify them."
This, I would think, places the burden upon you when receiving a sincere request for forgiveness whether from a seasoned Jew or one new to Judaism; you must forgive even without the sinner having specified his or her wrongdoings against you.
Furthermore, we are all called upon in our Judaism not to be cruel, but rather accepting, thus offering our forgiveness immediately and easily. This is capacity to forgive is highlighted by Maimonides in his exposition, to be an ingrained Jewish trait.
Let us continue reading in Maimonides' Laws of Repentance, Chapter One:
Law (Halachah) 10. "One must not show himself or herself as cruel by not accepting an apology; he/she should be easily pacified, and provoked only with difficulty. When an offender asks one's forgiveness, he/she should forgive wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit. Even if he/she has caused him or her much trouble wrongfully, they must not avenge himself or herself, he/she must not bear a grudge. This is the way of the stock of Israel [the Jewish People] and their upright hearts ...."
It may be surprising, but largely this trait of the Jewish People to be forgiving has made its way into the Jewish Daily Prayer Book --The Siddur, where many as they close their eyes to sleep each night, about to recite The Shema -- "Hear, O' Israel, God is our Lord, God is One" (Deut. 6), begin by reciting the following words, which I wholeheartedly recommend that you consider. With this I will conclude:
"I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or caused me trouble or sinned against me, whether to my body or my finances or by failing to show me honor, or in any other matter relating to me, whether under duress or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether verbally or through an act. Let no one be punished because of me."
Your question regarding forgiveness goes to the very heart of the High Holy Days. At some point during the High Holy Days, most rabbis remind their congregants that repentance is not possible if one is not sincere and remorseful, and if one has not asked for forgiveness from the aggrieved party, whether it be God or one’s fellow. The Mishnah (Yoma 10:1) tells us Yom Kippur only affects atonement for sins between a person and God. The Mishnah states: “For transgressions between a person and one’s neighbor Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until one first appeases one’s neighbor.”
The rabbis and commentators of the Middle Ages offered strategies for seeking forgiveness. Moses Maimonides, possibly the greatest Jewish mind of the Middle Ages, devotes an entire section of his great code, the Mishnah Torah, to the subject of repentance: “Repentance and the Day of Atonement atone only for sins which are committed against God… Sins such as injuring, cursing, stealing etcetera, which are committed against one's fellow man are never atoned for until one has paid any necessary fines to the person against whom one sinned, and sought his forgiveness (from the wronged party.) Even though one may have paid back any due money, one still has to appease him and ask for forgiveness. Even if one teased someone else just verbally, one has to appease him and make up for it, in order that he will forgive one.” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:9)
The process of seeking forgiveness is the same whether we are seeking forgiveness from God or one’s neighbor. According to Maimonides it must include not only remorse and resolve not to perform the transgression again, but also an explicit confession of one’s deeds. He writes: Of one transgressed any commandment of the Torah… then when one repents, one must confess…this means verbal confession which is a positive commandment…” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1) If we must confess our wrong doings before God who is All-knowing, how much more important is it to acknowledge our wrong doings against our fellow human beings?
Why is verbal confession so important? It is easy to cover up our wrong doings with a generic apology or a statement in which we say that we regret ‘our actions they have offended others,’ (this is not an apology). An apology must be based on self-awareness and an acknowledgment of the nature of the wrong doing. If you can’t admit it, then you are not really remorseful.
The most disconcerting part of the High Holy Days for me is that often I can’t remember all the wrongs that I’ve committed over the course of the year, so how can I seek forgiveness from family, friends and congregants whom I may have offended. In many ways Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are too late to seek forgiveness: we need to apologize and ask for forgiveness as soon as we become aware of our misdeed.
A person, then, who apologizes, must have some level of understanding of what they did wrong and how they have offended or hurt us. They must also feel some remorse for their former actions and they must be prepared to make a sincere promise that they will try and not commit that wrong again. They must also offer compensation for the loss or damages that they caused the victim.
That said, Maimonides adds: “It is forbidden for one to be harsh and non-appeasing. One should rather be forgiving and slow to anger, and whenever a sinner asks one for forgiveness one should grant it wholeheartedly. Even if the sinner had distressed one considerably and sinned against one a lot, one should/may not take revenge or bear a grudge, in the manner of a true Jew…” As long as the person who committed the transgression is sincere and remorseful we should be prepared to forgive. Will they ever truly understand the depth of our hurt? Probably not. But as long as their intentions are good we should be willing to forgive. (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:10)
One final caveat: what happens if I can no longer apologize to the offended party? For instance, what happens if the person I insulted or harmed passed away? Joseph Caro, in his great code of law, suggests that one must go to the grave of the offended party and confess one’s transgressions, and then seek their forgiveness. One should be accompanied by a Minyan when doing so. (Rabbi Joseph Caro, Shulchan Orech, Orech Chaim, 606) This is the actual basis of visiting the graves of ones parents and loved ones during the High Holy Day season. Even after the death of our loved ones, we are obligated to acknowledge and articulate our wrong doings to the offended party.
This Mishnah teaches (Yoma 9:8) that Yom Kippur effects atonement for sins of a person against another person only if the offender has “appeased his fellow.” This is understood as requiring one to undo the impact of the offence (by restoring damaged property for example) and by asking for and receiving forgiveness for the offence.
I believe that a blanket request such as “if there’s anything I’ve done in the past year to offend you, please forgive me,” falls short of the spirit of this tradition. For you to genuinely forgive someone, you should understand the offence and believe that the person is specifically asking forgiveness from this offence. Significantly, Jewish tradition requires you to offer forgiveness if it is sincerely requested.
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