Atonement: Jewish Concepts

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Jewish conceptions of atonement consist of various strands reflecting the plurality of connotations of the Hebrew term kipper ("to make atonement"). Etymologically, the biblical term may mean (1) "covering up" (Ex. 25:17, Lv. 16:2), (2) "purging" or "wiping off" (Is. 27:9, Jer. 18:23), or (3) "ransoming" (Ex. 30:12, Nm. 35:3132). Correspondingly, atonement may represent (1) the process of covering up sins to forestall retribution, (2) a form of catharsis that decontaminates individuals from impurities induced by sinful behavior, or (3) expiatory or propiatory acts designed to avert divine wrath and bring about reconciliation by redressing the imbalance caused by offenses against the deity.

Although the term kipper is also employed in the Torah (Pentateuch) with reference to the removal of ritual impurity, there is no suggestion whatsoever that the rites themselves are endowed with magical power. The desired results of expiation or purification are not viewed as the effect caused by the performance of rites. Atonement can only be granted by God; it is not the direct effect of any human action (see, for example, Leviticus 16:30).

Confession is specifically mandated by the Torah in conjunction with the expiatory rites performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement as well as with the sacrifice called the asham (guilt offering). Rabbinic Judaism construes this latter requirement as paradigmatic for all types of sacrifices offered with the intent to secure forgiveness, expiation, or atonement for sins. Unless preceded by confession, any aʾat (sin offering) or asham would be stigmatized as "a sacrifice of the wicked which is an abomination" (B.T., Shav. 12b).


Although the Torah refers only to confession, the rabbis of the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashic works cite various biblical verses from the rest of the Hebrew Bible to interpret this formal requirement in a much broader sense. The act of confession is construed as verbalization of an internal process of teshuvah, the act of "turning" that involves not only remorse but a sincere effort to make reparation and the resolve to mend ways. The very possibility of teshuvah as the re-creation of the human self presupposes freedom of the will. Judaism maintains that human beings have the capacity to extricate themselves from the causal nexus and determine freely their conduct.

For all the emphasis upon teshuvah the psychological transformation of the self wrought by human effortone essential component of the traditional view is the notion that divine mercy is necessary to heal or redeem man from the dire aftereffects of sin. Because any transgression of a divine commandment through sins of omission or commission constitutes an offense against God and damages a person's relationship with the Creator, divine grace is required to achieve full atonement. It is for this reason that prayers for atonement are an integral part of the teshuvah process. There are, however, sins of such severity that teshuvah by itself cannot completely remove the stains of guilt. According to the classical formulation of the second-century tanna Rabbi Yishmaʾel:

He who transgressed a positive commandment and repented, is forgiven before he has moved from his place: as it is said, "Return, O backsliding children" [Jer. 3:14]. He who has transgressed a negative commandment and repented, repentance merely suspends [punishment] and only the Day of Atonement secures atonement. As it is said: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you from all your sins" [Lv. 16:30]. He who has violated a law punishable by extirpation or capital punishment and has repented, repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend and only suffering completes the atonement, as it is said: "Then will I visit their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with strokes" [Ps. 89:33]. But he who has been guilty of the desecration of the divine name, repentance is incapable of suspending punishment, the Day of Atonement cannot secure atonement, and suffering cannot complete it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death completes atonement, as it is said: "And the Lord of hosts revealed himself in my ears. Surely, this iniquity shall not be expiated till you die" [Is. 12:14]. (B.T., Yomaʾ 86a)

Expiation and Grace

The rabbinic tenet that "the dead require atonement" (Sifrei Shoftim 210) is further evidence that atonement is not merely a function of repentance. Repentance is only feasible for the living, yet Judaism encourages practices such as offering of charity, prayer, or Torah study in behalf of the deceased. Significantly, vicarious expiatory significance is attributed to the death of the high priest (J.T., Yomaʾ 7.3) or that of the righteous (B.T., Moʿed Q. 28a). Similarly, according to a number of tannaitic opinions, the occurrence of the Day of Atonement in itself, and especially the performance of the rites of the scapegoat, may expiate some sins even of the nonrepentant (B.T., Yomaʾ 65b). It should, however, be noted that Menaem Meʾiri (12491306/1310), a prominent French-Jewish authority, categorically rejects the possibility of atonement in the absence of at least minimal repentance (ibbur hateshuvah 2.13). But while Jewish theology attributes expiatory efficacy to fasting, charity, and other cultic or ritual practices and for that matter to death and suffering, overriding importance is attached to catharsis. Significantly, tractate Yomaʾ 8.9 of the Mishnah concludes with ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef's exclamation, "How happy are you Israelites! Before whom do you cleanse yourselves, and who cleanses you? Your father who is in Heaven."

Proper atonement calls for human initiative in returning to God, who will respond by completing the process of purification, ultimately leading to the reintegration of the fragmented human self and resulting in the restoration of a wholesome relationship between man and God. According to a Talmudic opinion, repentance is a necessary condition of the messianic redemption, In qabbalistic thought, repentance is not only deemed indispensable to national redemption but acquires metaphysical significance as a preeminent aspect of the process of tiqqun ʿolam ("mending the world")the returning of the alienated creation to its Creator.

See Also

Ashkenazic Hasidism; Biblical Temple; Hasidism, overview article; Roʾsh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.


Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century by Adolf Büchler (Oxford, 1928) is a pioneering but somewhat dated exposition of rabbinic conceptions of atonement. A thorough analysis of biblical conceptions in the light of recent research may be found in Herbert Chanan Brichto's "On Slaughter and Sacrifice, Blood and Atonement," Hebrew Union College Annual 47 (1976): 1955. Two pieces by Jacob Milgrom, "Kipper" and "Repentance," in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971), are very useful as introductions to biblical and postbiblical conceptions of atonement. A phenomenological study of Jewish conceptions of atonement and repentance by preeminent philosopher and authority on Jewish law is Joseph Ber Soloveitchik's ʿAl hateshuvah, edited by Pinchas H. Peli (Jerusalem, 1974). This work has been recently translated into English by Pinchas H. Peli as Soloveitchik: On Repentance (Ramsey, N.J., 1984).

New Sources

Althann, Robert. "Atonement and Reconciliation in Psalms 3, 6 and 83." JNSL 25 (1999): 7582.

Bautch, Richard J. Developments in Genre between Post-Exilic Penitential Prayers and the Psalms of Communal Lament. Academia Biblica, no. 7. Atlanta, 2003.

Douglas, Mary. "Atonement in Leviticus." Jewish Studies Quarterly 1, no. 2 (19931994): 109130.

Grayston, Kenneth. "Atonement and Martyrdom." In Early Christian Thought in Its Jewish Context, edited by John Barclay and John Sweet, pp. 250263. Cambridge, 1996.

Neusner, Jacob. "Sin, Repentance, Atonement and Resurrection: The Perspective of Rabbinic Theology on the Views of James 12 and Paul in Romans 34." Annali di Storia dell'Esegesi 18 (2001): 409431.

Walter S. Wurzburger (1987)

Revised Bibliography