Atonement in Judaism

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

In Rabbinic JudaismEdit

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through repentance, which can be followed by some combination of the following:

  • confession
  • restitution
  • the occurrence of Yom Kippur (the day itself, as distinct from the Temple service performed on it)
  • tribulations (unpleasant life experiences)
  • the experience of dying.
  • the carrying out of a sentence of lashes or execution imposed by an ordained court (not now in existence)
  • Temple service (not now in existence, e.g. bringing a sacrifice).

Which of these additions 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.

According to Maimonides, the requirements for atonement of various sins between man and God are as follows:[1]

Sinned under duress Sinned in error Sinned willfully
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.

In Judaism, once a person has repented, they can be close to and beloved of God, even if their atonement is not yet complete.[2]

True repentanceEdit

The Mishnah states:

To a man who says, 'I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent', Yom Kippur brings no atonement. For sins against God, Yom Kippur brings atonement. For sins against one's fellow man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement until he has become reconciled with the fellow man he wronged.[3]

According to Maimonides, in order to achieve true repentance the sinner must abandon their sin, remove it from their thoughts, and resolve in their heart never to repeat it, as it is said, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts" (Isaiah 55:7). Likewise, they must regret the past, as it is said, "Surely after I turned I repented" (Jeremiah 31:18). They must also call Him who knows all secrets to witness that they will never return to this sin again.[4]

Lashes (Makkot)Edit

The third chapter of tractate Makkot enumerates 59 offenses, each entailing lashes. Anyone guilty of a sin which is punished by Kareth ("excision") may be atoned by receiving these lashes. The author of this teaching, Hanina bar Gamaliel, adds: "If by the commission of a single sin one forfeits his soul before God, then all the more so by a single meritorious deed (such as voluntary submission to punishment) his soul should be saved."[5]


The Pentateuch specifies capital punishment, as opposed to private retribution or vengeance, for the following crimes: adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22); bestiality (Ex. 22:18 [A. V. 19]; Lev. 20:15); blasphemy (Lev. 24:16); false evidence (intended to lead to a conviction) in capital cases (Deut. 19:16-19); false prophecy (Deut. 13:6, 18:20); idolatry or inciting others to the same (Lev. 20:2; Deut. 13:7-19, 17:2-7); incestuous or unnatural connections (Lev. 18:22, 20:11-14); insubordination to supreme authority (Deut. 17:12); kidnapping (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7); licentiousness of a priest's daughter (Lev. 21:9); murder (Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:16 et seq.); rape committed on a betrothed woman (Deut. 22:25-27) or fornication by or with her (Deut. 22:20, 23–24); striking or cursing a parent, or otherwise rebelling against parental authority (Ex. 21:15,17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18-21); Sabbath-breaking (Ex. 31:14, 35:2; Num. 15:32-36); witchcraft and augury (Ex. 22:17; Lev. 20:27).[6]

In other Jewish denominationsEdit

Some Jewish denominations may differ with Rabbinic Judaism on the importance or mechanics of atonement. Consult the articles on specific denominations for details.


  1. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1–4.
  2. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 7:7.
  3. ^ Mishnah Yoma 8:9.
  4. ^ "OzTorah » Blog Archive » Penitence, Prayer & Charity – an anthology for Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur".
  5. ^ Mishnah, Makkot 3:15.
  6. ^ Paraphrased from CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, Jewish Encyclopedia on Makkot (1906, PD).

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "CAPITAL PUNISHMENT". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.