Asking for Forgiveness

A selection from the Mishnah which teaches the importance of asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


For transgressions between people and God, Yom Kippur effects atonement, but for transgressions between people, Yom Kippur does not effect atonement, until one has pacified their friend.

Mishnah, tractate Yoma, 8:9

עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם,
יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר,
וְשֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ,
אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר,
עַד שֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ.

משנה, מסכת יומא, פרק ח, משנה ט

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How can I be the best “me” this year: in class, at home, and in life in general?
  • How do I grow as a result of the Jewish calendrical cycle?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is my responsibility toward others?

Background for Teacher

One of the main themes of Yom Kippur is the process of cheshbon nefesh or soul-searching that all Jews are expected to undergo during the day. Cheshbon nefesh is a term that refers to a process of self-criticism, reflection by a person on their...

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One of the main themes of Yom Kippur is the process of cheshbon nefesh or soul-searching that all Jews are expected to undergo during the day. Cheshbon nefesh is a term that refers to a process of self-criticism, reflection by a person on their life, and a summary and evaluation of their actions over the past year. If someone feels they have committed transgressions, they must repent for them. 

The source from the Mishnah makes a distinction between two types of transgressions – between two humans, and between a human and God. Transgressions between a human and God belong to the sphere of ritual, involving commandments that do not have a social function (for example keeping kosher or keeping Shabbat). In these offenses, no other person has been harmed, so that the discourse is between the individual and God. If someone repents on Yom Kippur, confesses their sins and expresses remorse through prayer, they will be forgiven. This does not apply to transgressions between humans. In these cases, the source emphasizes, someone cannot be forgiven until they have asked the person they hurt to forgive them.

The Mishnah is a collection of commandments and rules teaching people how to behave in their daily lives. The content of the Mishnah was transmitted by word of mouth for many generations, in a disorganized way. Around the year 200 CE, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi brought all the content together (but still by word of mouth). The Mishnah was only set down in writing several centuries later.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  • Play a short word association game. Write a word down on the board. The students have to write down their associations with this word. Do a quick round of the class and ask the students to say what they wrote down. After a few words, write  the word “forgiveness” and write down all the associations the students mention. 
  • Prepare an “association sun” on the subject of forgiveness. The students write down the word “forgiveness” in a circle in the middle of the page, with arrows pointing towards the word and arrows pointing out from it. By the arrows pointing out, the students write down the associations that come to mind when they think about asking others for forgiveness. By the arrows pointing inwards, they write down the associations that come to mind when they think about situations where other people ask them for forgiveness.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Why is it important to ask for forgiveness if we have hurt someone else? Why is it important to the person who asks for forgiveness, and why is it important for the person they ask to forgive them?
  2. Why do you think the source says that “for transgressions between people, Yom Kippur does not affect atonement, until one has pacified their friend”?
  3. In your opinion, which is harder: asking someone you hurt to forgive you, or asking God to forgive you? Why? (What is required in each situation?)
  4. What things can sometimes make it hard for us to ask others to forgive us?
    For older students: To what extent do the following factors influence the difficulty in asking for forgiveness: the nature of the offense; the person we are asking to forgive us; how much time has passed since the offense… etc.
  5. It is important to ask for forgiveness at any time of year. Why do you think Jewish tradition set aside specific days on the calendar when we concentrate on asking for forgiveness?
    For older students: what advantage does this offer, and what risk does it create?
  6. Ask the students to think about the past year and share with the student next to them: Did you at some point over the year ask for forgiveness? Did other people ask you for forgiveness? Was there a time when you think you should have asked someone to forgive you but didn’t do so? Was there a time when you think someone should have asked you to forgive them but didn’t do so?

Take the examples the students raised in their answers to question 6 above as the basis for a drama activity. Divide the students into groups, and ask each group to think of a situation where someone needs to ask someone else to forgive them. One student plays the person who needs to ask for forgiveness. On either side of this student, other students represent that person’s thoughts or the “voices” in their mind: one side whispers reasons why the person should ask for forgiveness, even though it is hard; the other side whispers reasons why they should not ask for forgiveness. Each time, the student in the middle responds to these internal voices. For example: Amir took his big brother’s backpack without asking for permission. Someone spilt juice on the backpack by mistake and the stain won’t come out. Now Amir is wondering whether he needs to ask his brother to forgive him – and how to do so.

  • Read together the poem Happy New Year, Ruti by Dalia Bar-El. The poem raises a question that is meaningful at any age: should people ask for forgiveness overtly, in words, or can they also do so in indirect ways?
  • Learn about the Yom Kippur Viduy prayer
  • It’s important to know how to ask for forgiveness and express remorse, but it’s also important to know how to forgive. You could study Maimonides’ warning that “a person must not be cruel and refuse to make peace.”
  • Look at the painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur by Maurycy Gottlieb. The artist depicts himself at different stages of his life in the painting. What meaning does this convey? (An alternative is Oppenheim’s Yom Kippur Eve).
  • Everyone has their own way of saying sorry. Show the students a clip (in Hebrew) that uses typography to illustrate different forms of the word “sorry.” You could then ask the students to come up with their own visual expressions of the word “sorry.”