For forgiveness to take place, the person who did wrong and the person who was wronged each have responsibilities. The person who did wrong needs to do teshuvah (recognize their wrongdoing, feel sincere regret, resolve never to repeat the action, make amends and ask for forgiveness). And Jewish law asks the person who was wronged to open their heart and grant forgiveness (assuming that the person who did wrong did teshuvah and asked for forgiveness). Even when there is no apology and request for forgiveness, it is often better to forgive or at least to let go of grudges and resentments. Jewish law specifies when forgiveness is required, optional and forbidden. Only the victim can forgive the act of wrongdoing, so we cannot forgive offenses committed against others.
Seek forgiveness up to three times
In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) 2:9, Rambam writes that a person who did wrong and has done teshuvah should ask for forgiveness up to three times, after which the person is no longer considered accountable for the wrongdoing.
לֹא רָצָה חֲבֵרוֹ לִמְחל לוֹ מֵבִיא לוֹ שׁוּרָה שֶׁל שְׁלֹשָׁה בְּנֵי אָדָם מֵרֵעָיו וּפוֹגְעִין בּוֹ וּמְבַקְּשִׁין מִמֶּנּוּ. לֹא נִתְרַצָּה לָהֶן מֵבִיא לוֹ שְׁנִיָּה וּשְׁלִישִׁית. לֹא רָצָה מְנִיחוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ וְזֶה שֶׁלֹּא מָחַל הוּא הַחוֹטֵא.
If his neighbor does not want to forgive him, he should bring a committee of three friends to implore and beg of him; if he still refuses he should bring a second, even a third committee, and if he remains obstinate, he may leave him to himself and pass on, for the sin then rests upon he who refuses forgiveness.
Be open-hearted and forgiving
In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) 2:10, Rambam writes:
אָסוּר לָאָדָם לִהְיוֹת אַכְזָרִי וְלֹא יִתְפַּיֵּס אֶלָּא יְהֵא נוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת וְקָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁמְּבַקֵּשׁ מִמֶּנּוּ הַחוֹטֵא לִמְחל מוֹחֵל בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם וּבְנֶפֶשׁ חֲפֵצָה. וַאֲפִלּוּ הֵצֵר לוֹ וְחָטָא לוֹ הַרְבֵּה לֹא יִקֹּם וְלֹא יִטֹּר. וְזֶהוּ דַּרְכָּם שֶׁל זֶרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלִבָּם הַנָּכוֹן.
It is forbidden for a person to be ill-natured and unforgiving, for he must be easily appeased but hard to anger; and when a sinner implores him for mechila (pardon), he should grant him mechila wholeheartedly and soulfully. Even if one persecuted him and sinned against him exceedingly he should not be vengeful and grudge-bearing, for such is the path of the seed of Israel and of their excellent heart.
You don’t always have to forgive
In his book, “A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explained when forgiveness is optional:
“You are not required to forgive those who do not ask you. However, although not obligated, the Talmud records that the rabbinic sage Mar Zutra used to offer the following prayer before going to sleep: ‘I forgive all those who pained me’ (Megillah 28a)…
We are not required to forgive one who has slandered us and damaged our good name (presumably because the damage will continue even after the offender apologizes; in other words, we are not required to forgive someone who has inflicted irrevocable damage)…
Even in instances in which we find it difficult to grant forgiveness, we should remember that forgiving those who have greatly wronged us — or at least letting go of intense anger — can be beneficial to us, the victims. Holding on to anger and grudges is almost always detrimental to our own well-being… Therefore it is sometimes worth forgiving not for the sake of the one who hurt us, but for our own.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks added, “You cannot forgive while evil is ongoing… Forgiveness is always something that accompanies a cease, a pause, an armistice… There has to be an end, a truce, let us say, in the hostilities before forgiveness can begin.”
When forgiveness is forbidden
When is forgiveness forbidden? Responding to the question, “Do you think it’s ever possible to forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust?” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said:
“In Judaism only the victim can forgive. Supposing somebody injures my next door neighbor. Can I forgive the person who did it? What have I got to do with it? I’m a third person. There is no vicarious forgiveness in Judaism… Only the victim can forgive… The trouble with the Holocaust is all the victims are dead. So we can’t forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin expanded on when forgiveness is forbidden: “Judaism’s perspective on not forgiving murderers has long distinguished it from many of the societies among whom the Jews have lived. As Maimonides explains, ‘The soul of the victim is not the property [of his family members] but the property of God’ (Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 1:4). Thus, from Judaism’s perspective, parents who forgive their child’s murderer are behaving as if the child were their property…What parents might say to the murderer is, ‘I forgive you for the terrible pain your act has caused us.’ It’s the act perpetrated against another that is not ours to forgive.”
Explore more topics from The Power of Series.