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ATONEMENT (Heb. כִּפִֻּרים, kippurim, from the verb כפר). The English word atonement ("at-one-ment") significantly conveys the underlying Judaic concept of atonement, i.e., reconciliation with God. Both the Bible and rabbinical theology reflect the belief that as God is holy, man must be pure in order to remain in communion with Him. Sin and defilement damage the relationship between creature and Creator, and the process of atonement – through *repentance and reparation – restores this relationship.

In the Bible

The basic means of atonement is the sacrificial rite, which functions to purify man from both sin and uncleanliness (e.g., Lev. 5; Pederson, pp. 358–64). In its most spiritualized aspect, however, the sacrificial rite is only the outward form of atonement, and in order for it to be effective, man must first purify himself. This was the constantly reiterated message of the prophets during periods when Israel came close to viewing the atoning efficacy of the rite as automatic (Isa. 1:11–17; see de Vaux , Anc Isr, 454 ff.). Fasting and prayer are also specified as means of atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3; see *Kipper ).

In Rabbinic Literature

After the destruction of the Temple and the consequent cessation of sacrifices, the rabbis declared: "Prayer, repentance, and charity avert the evil decree" (TJ, Ta'an. 2:1, 65b). Suffering is also regarded as a means of atonement and is considered more effective than sacrifice to win God's favor (Ber. 5a). Exile and the destruction of the Temple (Sanh. 37b, Ex. R. 31:10) were also reputed to bring about the same effect. Above all, death is the final atonement for sins (Mekh. Jethro 7); "May my death be an expiation for all my sins" is a formula recited when the end is near (Sanh. 6:2). Atonement for some sins is achieved immediately after the individual repents, while for others repentance alone does not suffice. If a person transgresses a positive commandment and repents, he is immediately forgiven (Yoma 85b). For a negative commandment, repentance suspends the punishment, and the Day of Atonement procures atonement: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you… from all your sins" (Lev. 16:30). For a graver sin, punishable by death or extirpation, repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment and suffering completes the atonement (cf. Ps. 89:33). If one has been guilty of profaning the Divine Name, however, penitence, the Day of Atonement, and suffering merely suspend punishment, and death procures the final atonement: "The Lord of hosts revealed Himself in my ears; surely this iniquity shall not be expiated by you till ye die" (Isa. 22:4; Yoma 86a).

Atonement is only efficacious in the above way if the sin concerned does not involve suffering or material injury to a second party. If it did, full restitution must be made to the wronged party and his pardon must be sought. This law was derived from the verse "… all your sins before the Lord…" (Lev. 16:30), i.e., the Day of Atonement is effective for transgressions between man and God, but for sins against a fellow man, restitution and forgiveness are also necessary (Yoma 8:9). The general rabbinic approach was to deritualize atonement and center it more on the personal religious life of the individual in his relationship to God: "Now that we have no prophet or priest or sacrifice, who shall atone for us? In our hands is left only – prayer" (Tanḥ. Va-Yishlaḥ. 10). A similar idea is found in the dictum that after the destruction of the Temple a man's table atones in place of the altar, i.e., his everyday behavior is all important. Although a rite analogous to that of sacrificial atonement is found in the post-talmudic custom of slaughtering a cock on the eve of the Day of Atonement, as a symbolic replacement for the sinner himself ( *kapparot ), this practice was not universally accepted (Sh. Ar., OH 605).


J. Pederson, Israel, 2 vols. (1940), index; G.F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 1 (1927; repr. 1966), 445–546; S.R. Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, 1 (1956), 3–14, 142–52; S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 293–343; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century (1928); Faur, in: Sinai, 61 (1967), 259–66.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.