Achieving complete atonement, the type that cleanses a person of sin, leaving no trace, is a complex matter that depends on the severity of the sin and the quality of the repentance. For example, complete repentance on its own can fully atone for failure to fulfill a positive mitzva. However, for serious transgressions that involve desecration of God’s name, atonement requires a combination of repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering, and death.
Regular repentance is motivated by fear – fear of being punished or fear of losing one’s reward, in this world or the next. This type of repentance transforms knowing sins into unknowing ones. However, in order to erase the impression left by unknowing sins, atonement must include regret, sorrow, and suffering in accordance with the severity of the sin. In the times of the Rishonim, many people would undertake fasts and ascetic practices to ensure complete atonement. The more a person studies Torah diligently, gives charity, and performs acts of kindness, the fewer tribulations he must undergo to cleanse himself of sin (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:11). One who desecrated God’s name must make a point of sanctifying it and bringing greater glory to God (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:47 and 4:16).
A higher level of repentance is motivated by love. It is done out of love for God, identification with divine ideals, and concern for the Jewish people. This repentance is accomplished by studying Torah in order to repair the world by its light; giving charity and acting kindly in order to enable the poor to be self-reliant; settling Eretz Yisrael; sanctifying God’s name; and doing everything possible to draw the Shekhina and redemption closer. When one repents from love, even his unknowing sins become merits, so his atonement is complete. As a rule, though, even someone who repents from love does not attain its highest level, so he must still repent out of fear, which involves some mortification. It is better for one to accept upon himself that these mortifications will come through toiling in Torah and making do with little, in order to give more charity.
- Yishmael says: There are four grades of atonement. If one fails to perform a positive mitzva and later repents, he is forgiven on the spot, as we read, “Turn back, O rebellious children, I will heal your afflictions!” (Yirmiyahu 3:22). If one transgresses a negative mitzva and later repents, repentance holds his punishment in abeyance, and Yom Kippur atones, as we read, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you…” (Vayikra 16:30). If one committed sins that incur karet and the death penalty and repented, repentance and Yom Kippur hold the punishment in abeyance, and suffering during the rest of the year cleanses, as we read, “I will punish their transgression with the rod, their iniquity with plagues” (Tehilim 89:33). If, however, one knowingly desecrates the name of God, repentance does not hold the punishment in abeyance, nor does Yom Kippur atone. Rather, repentance and Yom Kippur atone for a third, suffering atones for a third, and death cleanses (together with the suffering). This is the meaning of “This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die” (Yeshayahu 22:14). We see that the day of death cleanses.
There are many disagreements about the details of these levels of atonement. The Rishonim debate whether atonement for transgressing a positive or negative mitzva is complete or not (Tosafot, Shevu’ot 12b, s.v. “lo”; Roke’aḥ, Hilkhot Teshuva §28; Sha’arei Teshuva 4:6). They also disagree about the Sages’ statement that the transgression of a negative mitzva is not atoned for by repentance alone, but requires Yom Kippur as well. According to Rambam (in his Commentary to the Mishna), this refers specifically to knowing transgressions, but according to Minḥat Ḥinukh, it applies to unknowing transgressions as well. There are other mitzvot whose level is debated by the Rishonim, for example, the punishment for transgressing a positive mitzva that entails karet. (See MT, Laws of Repentance 1:4; Tosefet Yom Ha-Kippurim 85b.) According to a student of Rashba, these distinctions are not absolute, as some positive and negative mitzvot are severe – publicly embarrassing someone, for example – and atonement for them is as difficult to achieve as for a transgression whose punishment is karet. Other severe sins, such as abrogating the covenant of circumcision or misrepresenting the Torah, do not involve the public desecration of God’s name, yet are as severe as sins that involve the desecration of God’s name (Ḥidushei Talmid Ha-Rashba, Inyanim Shonim §2). Rosh adds that numerous mild transgressions have the status of a severe transgression (Rosh, Yoma 8:17). Me’iri suggests that in certain circumstances it is possible to achieve atonement without going through all of the stages delineated above (Me’iri, Yoma 86a). Mabit writes that since the destruction of the Temple, transgressions are considered less severe than they were. Since the Divine Presence is in exile, less damage is done to the honor of heaven when someone sins (Beit Elokim, Sha’ar Ha-teshuva, end of ch. 2).
It is important to know that repentance, at the most basic level, takes place in the mind. The Sages therefore ruled that if a man betroths a woman “on condition that I am righteous,” they are considered betrothed even if he is wicked, as he may have entertained thoughts of repentance (Kiddushin 49b). This means it is uncertain whether they are betrothed, as we do not know whether he considered repentance (MT, Laws of Marriage 8:5).
All of the above ways of achieving atonement (repentance, Yom Kippur, suffering, and death) are relevant to repentance from fear; but when repentance is motivated by love, atonement is achieved more easily. This is mentioned by R. Elazar Azikri (Sefer Ḥaredim, ch. 65); Ḥida in many places; and our master Rav Kook (Olat Re’iya, vol. 2, p. 357). Rav Kook adds that repentance emerging from “eternal love” transforms unknowing sins into merits, but the sin still leaves an impression; in contrast, repentance which arises out of “great love” uproots the sin retroactively (Me’orot Ha-Re’iya, Yeraḥ Ha-eitanim, p. 73). It is further said that increasing one’s Torah study as well as giving charity and performing kind acts can be very helpful in achieving atonement for sins (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; Vayikra Rabba 25:1; Sha’arei Teshuva 4:11). Similarly, studying the offerings takes the place of sacrificing them (Menaḥot 110a).
Many Torah giants in recent times have encouraged repentance out of love. Accordingly, I did not go into details about all the gradations of atonement when repenting out of fear. Not only are there many such details, but they depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the sin, the degree of wantonness, the intensity of the regret, the degree of suffering, and the state of the generation. Even though each of these factors is very important, they are not connected with the atonement of Yom Kippur, which is primarily about communal atonement. As a collective, we pray for the world to experience God’s glory and for its repair at the hands of Israel. This extends to the repentance of the individual, who accepts the yoke of Torah and mitzvot generally and repents from, and experiences regret over, his personal sins.