Yom Kippur Definition: As the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, translated as Day of Atonement, approaches, Jewish law requires us to seek forgiveness from anyone we may have caused harm to, whether it was physical, social, emotional, or financial. The holiday of Yom Kippur itself will only atone for a man’s sins against G-d, but not his sins against his fellow man, making it imperative that all Jews grant and seek forgiveness from one another prior to Yom Kippur.
“Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and G-d, such as eating forbidden foods or engaging in forbidden relations. Sins between one man and his fellow, such as striking, cursing, or stealing are never forgiven until one pays up his debt and appeases his fellow.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:9-10)
Maimonides also sets forth conditions to asking forgiveness, writing that even when a person has repaid his debt, he must still ask for forgiveness. Even if one has only spoken badly of his fellow, he must still appease and beseech his fellow until he is forgiven. But one must not be cruel and withhold forgiveness. He should forgive willingly and wholeheartedly. The Talmud (Bava Kama 8:7) explicitly states, “From where do we learn that it is cruel not to forgive? For it says, ‘Abraham prayed to G-d and G-d healed Abimelech…’ (Genesis 20:17).
Forgiveness is the key to a happier future. Often when we think of forgiveness, we think of reconciliation. But sometimes, forgiveness does not always include reconciliation or perhaps even an encounter with the perpetrator. The definition of forgiveness is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or a group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (What is Forgiveness, 2004)
Forgiveness is both a character trait and a state of mind. There are important differences between the two. A person with the character trait of forgiveness can readily forgive others and move on. But a person whose forgiveness is but a state of mind will find himself or herself limited to practicing forgiveness as a one-time application whereas forgiveness as a character trait is more easily achieved.
Practicing forgiveness towards those who have hurt us will not only make us happier but healthier as well. Forgiveness allows societies to heal and function. The positive effects of forgiveness were found in studies to benefit those who forgive rather than those who are forgiven. One of those studies found that those who forgive have less stress, less anger, and less rumination. They also had lowered reactivity compared to those who held onto anger and pain (Harris et al., 2001)
Regardless of who may have hurt us in the past, we are advised to forgive regardless. The Mishna Berurah states that although there are cases where one can withhold forgiveness, we should forgive nonetheless. The Yom Kippur definition of forgiveness is the path towards the trait of an exalted person.