I can’t have been the only child who, having learnt the rule that once you’ve asked someone for forgiveness three times the sin then falls on the other person if they don’t forgive you, tended to apologise by asking: “do you forgive me, do you forgive me, do you forgive me?” I don’t think it did much for my atonement, nor did it incline the person I had wronged to really forgive, but I admit it did give me a certain smug satisfaction.
But where does this principle come from, and is it really as simple as asking the other person for forgiveness three times in a row?
The first stage in the history of this idea comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 87a:
‘Rabbi Yosei bar Chanina said: Anyone who asks forgiveness from their fellow should not ask more than three times, as it is stated: “Please, please forgive… And now, please forgive.” (Gen 50:17)’.
Rabbi Yosei is quoting Joseph’s brothers, when they say that their father Jacob asked Joseph to forgive them. From the fact that the Torah uses the word ‘please’ three times, he deduces that you are obligated to ask no more than three times.
This comes surprisingly close to my childhood requests, and perhaps it’s no surprise that the principle developed from this passage. More than a thousand years later, the Shulhan Aruch tells us (Orach Chayim, 606):
‘If one cannot effect appeasement at first, one must return a second and a third time…. If the offended party will not be appeased after three visits, one may desist….’
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema), who adapted the Sephardi Shulhan Aruch for Ashkenazi communities, adds: ‘One should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness, unless it is for the benefit of the one seeking forgiveness. If one was a victim of slander, one need not forgive’.
So the Shulchan Aruch adds a bunch of stipulations. First, that the second and third times should involve a ‘return’, and thus must be separated by at least a little bit of time. This gives space for the offended person to process what happened and come around.
Then the Rema adds two extra categories – that you don’t need to forgive someone if this will benefit them. This relies a great deal on the judgement of the person in question, and is probably not something to be recommended unless you’re very sure.
Finally, the Rema adds a category of sin that doesn’t need to be forgiven. Slander is an interesting case because it goes far beyond the two people in this conversation. Unless the slanderer can go around and speak to all those who heard the untruths then there is no way to really take it back. There are just some sins that you can’t easily apologise for, that draw so many people into their web, that you aren’t obliged to forgive. While forgiveness in such a situation may be praiseworthy, it can’t be mandated.
Forgiveness is a complex thing, but with the guidance of the halachic system we are guided through its intricacies. You have to ask on multiple occasions, and understand that forgiveness can take time. You must understand that not everything can be forgiven, that some sins spread ripples too wide and too far to take them back. But in the end, we are obliged to forgive if we can – to do otherwise is considered a cruelty.
Rabbi Roni Tabick is rabbi of New Stoke Newington Shul