Why Forgive?

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A seemingly lopsided dispute between leading Mussar thinkers may be more even than initially appears, finding basis in an oddly placed Medieval polemic. When R. Yisrael Meir Kagan brought his Chafetz Chaim before publication to R. Yisrael Salanter, seeking an approbation, the elderly founder of the Mussar Movement declined. Chafetz Chaim, the book that would become a classic work on the laws of forbidden speech and lend its name to its author, contained a single ruling that R. Yisrael Salanter found so objectionable that he could not approve the manuscript.

In part 1 (4:12), the book requires someone who spread lashon ha-ra about another to seek forgiveness, without exception. R. Yisrael Salanter reportedly objected, arguing that this will only spread bad will. If you do not know that I badmouthed you, you will certainly react negatively when I approach you with this information and ask for your forgiveness (see R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good, p. 153 n. 66, 154 n. 76). However, the man who would soon become known as the Chafetz Chaim refused to change this ruling. After all, he responded, Rabbenu Yonah records this obligation explicitly in his Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:207). Who are they to object to this clear Medieval ruling? And so he published the book without the approbation of the founder of the Mussar Movement.

Two Approaches to Forgiveness

Perhaps we can find support for R. Yisrael Salanter’s position in R. Yitzchak of Corbeil’s Semak. First, let us discuss the underlying reason for seeking forgiveness for an interpersonal sin. One way of thinking about this is to compare wrongdoing to monetary damage. Just like you owe money to someone you damaged until you repay the debt or he waives it, you also owe someone whom you damaged through a sin until you pay for it with punishment or he waives it. Indeed, in English we use the word “forgive” to refer to waiving a monetary debt.

Another approach is that interpersonal sin damages a relationship between the two, the perpetrator and the victim. Forgiveness is repairing the relationship, undoing the personal harm, restoring the peace. Rather than being a waiver, forgiveness is an act of healing.

The Semak (no. 8), in discussing the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself, includes restoring peace between fighting parties. Presumably, just as you want to be at peace with others, you must help your fellow reach this state. Semak continues by quoting classic Rabbinic statements about the importance of peace, including the explanation that the Second Temple was destroyed due to unnecessary hatred. Semak then discusses the importance of forgiveness. Even an important person must ask forgiveness from an ordinary layman.

The transition from love and peace to forgiveness is unclear. Isn’t its proper place in a discussion of repentance? Part of the teshuvah process is achieving forgiveness, becoming whole again. I have not found any other Medieval text that connects forgiveness with peace; they connect it to repentance (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 2:9). The most likely explanation is that the Semak adopts the second explanation of forgiveness we offered above. Forgiveness is an act of restoring peace, healing the relationship. Rather than a matter of repayment, it is appeasement.

Practical Implications

Perhaps this explains the disagreement between R. Yisrael Salanter and R. Yisrael Meir Kagan. If forgiveness is about repayment, then you must ask for forgiveness even if your victim is unaware of the sin. The debt exists and must be remedied, even if the victim is unaware. This is presumably the approach of Rabbenu Yonah, which the Chafetz Chaim adopted. However, if forgiveness is about restoring peace between, then informing an unaware victim of the verbal sins against him is counterproductive. Rather than healing, it harms. Rather than increasing peace, it diminishes it. R. Yisrael Salanter followed the Semak‘s approach to forgiveness and therefore could not approve the requirement to inform the victim. (Note also that R. Salanter would not issue an approbation if he disagreed with even one ruling in the book!)

An additional distinction between these two views is whether you may delay requesting forgiveness if doing so will allow the victim’s anger to subside. If the goal of forgiveness is appeasement then the delay is helpful and permitted. However, if the goal is repayment then the delay serves no purpose and the mitzvah must be done immediately. Apparently siding with R. Yisrael Salanter, the Eshel Avraham (Orach Chaim 606:2) permits delaying the request if doing so enhances the appeasement.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Re: “Note also that R. Salanter would not issue an approbation if he disagreed with even one ruling in the book!”

    This is indeed interesting, but how can we know that there was only one point he disagreed on? He only needed one to refuse, but perhaps there were others.

    I am not am expert, but the Chafetz Chaim raises many questions for me. Is his restrictive framework on interpersonal communication actually necessitated by the halachic sources? Is it too restrictive to permit socially necessary critical activities?

    • Whether or not Rav Yisrael Salanter actually had another problem among the pesaqim of the Chafetz Chaim, this one was presented as though it would be naturally accepted as sufficient, and indeed it was. Other problems weren’t discussed — they were irrelevant once there was one. So apparently everyone thought RYS was fully capable of not writing a haskamah because of one point. Perhaps for the reason Joel Rich gives.

      Related to the Semaq on ahavah and restoring peace is the Ramban on tokhachah. The pasuq reads, “Do not hate you brother in your heart; you shall surely give tokhachah to your compatriot; and do not carry for him a sin.” The middle clause, or perhaps the last two, are the source of the obligation to rebuke a sinner when you know you can get them to stop sinning. As if to say: You shall surely rebuke your compatriot for otherwise you will share culpability for his future sin.

      But the Ramban and a number of other commentaries on the verse comment on the continuity in one verse. The Ramban reads tokhachah as an obligation to clear the air — Do not hate your neighbor, you shall air your grievances with him, and thereby you won’t carry the sin of hating him.

      An obligation to set up a situation where forgiveness and rapprochement are possible. Clearly in a situation where they hadn’t even yet realized how they wronged me, never mind asked mechilah or started repentance.

  2. Michael, you raise a good point. Perhaps he disagreed with more. I guess we’ll never know.

    I’m not convinced that the Chafetz Chaim’s framework is overly restrictive. There is a lot of nuance in the book that people overlook. But his sources are clearly halachic.

  3. I’ve heard the story told over many times and the vast majority tell it with the statement that this was the single issue that kept the approbation from being provided. The C”C reputedly offered to put a disclaimer in with the approbation but R’YS stated that no one reads the approbation pages, they just see who gave them.

  4. This is a very serious problem. For example: Imagine that someone had criminally breached the privacy of a person by spying on them, or recording their image, in private moments. The victim is unaware of what has occurred. If the criminal were to tell the victim about his crime, this would result in the victim suffering terrible and incurable humiliation. Putting aside the small likelihood of being forgiven, the criminal compounds his crime by telling his victim what he did. Does his selfish hope to be forgiven justify causing this degree of excruciating pain? Rabbeinu Yonah’s psak applies where others are aware of the lashon hara; only the victim is unaware of it. Here, the only person aware of the crime is the criminal. It could be argued that the very character of the crime is aggravated by informing the victim.

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