Atonement in Judaism

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

In Rabbinic Judaism

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.

The following table, based on Maimonides,[1] gives an outline of the requirements for atonement in sins between man and God:

Duress Error Willfulness
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. It is important to note that once a person has repented, he can be close to and beloved of God, even if his atonement is not yet complete.[2]

True repentance

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 his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his 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, he must regret the past, as it is said, "Surely after I turned I repented" (Jeremiah 31:18). He must also call Him who knows all secrets to witness that he will never return to this sin again.[4]

Lashes (Makkot)

The third chapter of tractate Makkot enumerates 59 offenses, each entailing lashes. Of these, three are marital sins of priests; four, prohibited inter-marriages; seven, sexual relations of an incestuous nature; eight, violations of dietary laws; twelve, various violations of the negative precepts; twenty-five, abuses of Levitical laws and vows. When the offense has been persisted in, the punishment depends on the number of forewarnings (see Hatra'ah). The Mishnah gives 39 as the maximum number of stripes the court may impose for any one misdemeanor; but the convict must be examined as to his physical ability to endure the full count without endangering his life. The convict is bound in bent position to a post, and the public executioner administers the punishment with a leather strap while one of the judges recites appropriate Scriptural verses (Deut. 28:58-59; 29:8; Psalm 78:38). Anyone guilty of a sin which is punished by Kareth ("excision") may be cleared by flagellation. The author of this midrash, Ḥanina b. Gamaliel, adds, "If by the commission of a sin one forfeits his soul before God, so much the more reason is there for the belief that, by a meritorious deed, such as voluntary submission to punishment, his soul is saved."[5]


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

Modes of punishment

For a minority of capital crimes, the particular mode of death is specified. Blasphemy, idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, witchcraft, fornication by or with a betrothed virgin or the rape thereof, and the rebellious son are punished with death by stoning. Bigamous marriage with a wife's mother or daughter, and the prostitution of a priest's daughter, are punished by burning. Murder and communal apostasy are punished by the sword. With reference to all other capital offenses, the law ordains that the perpetrator shall die a violent death, which traditionally was understood as strangulation. Occasionally the Biblical text adds the expression, "His (their) blood shall be upon him (them)," which traditionally was understood as prescribing death by stoning. The Torah speaks also of hanging (Deut. xxi. 22), but, according to the rabbinical interpretation, not as a mode of execution, but rather of exposure after death (Sanh. vi. 4, 75b).[7]

In other Jewish denominations

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. ibid. 7:7)
  3. Mishnah Yoma 8:9
  4. paraphrased from Jewish Encyclopedia on Makkot (1906, PD),
  5. paraphrased from Jewish Encyclopedia on Makkot (1906, PD),
  6. paraphrased from Jewish Encyclopedia on Makkot (1906, PD), See also Maimonides, Hil. Sanhedrin, ch.14.
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