According to the Talmud...

"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." - Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

1a. May I ask for the Jewish definition/elucidation of "destroy a soul" please?

1b. How do I make amends if I have destroyed a person's soul inadvertently (since I doubt I ever did it intentionally)? Is a genuine personal apology sufficient, or does the kind of recompense depend on the measure of transgression? I hope I can still remember every mistake and I hope I live long enough to undo as many as possible.

Greatly appreciate any advice, thanks.

2 Answers 2


I had understood this Mishna to be speaking of an actual physical life, so unless you murdered somebody c'v... There are surely other understandings, and maybe somebody more versed in the commentaries will bring one.

As to your other question, Judaism teaches that you can always repent, no matter what. Rebbe Nachman of Breslev zy'a stated this principle in a very clear and concise way: if you believe that you can harm, you must also believe that you can fix.

That said, Judaism recognizes different kinds of sin, especially insofar as repenting is concerned. There are sins between you and G-d, and to repair these sins you only have to beg G-d sincerely to forgive you and He will. With sins between you and your fellow man, you have to ask G-d for forgiveness, but only after you've sought the forgiveness of the one you wronged. That person is obligated to forgive you if you are sincere, so all you have to do is try sincerely to repent to them. If they reject you, you tried. All of this hinges on sincerity. Insincere repentance is worse than worthless.

Since we are potentially discussing murder, it is worth pointing out that in extreme circumstances, it is possible to seek forgiveness even from the dead. For this you should certainly consult a rabbi, as you really should for any practical application of these concepts.

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    @Sam speech is in fact a very serious thing for Jews and non-Jews alike. I would recommend you study the Chofetz Chaim (which is available in English) to learn the rules of proper speech. Often, engrossing ourselves in the laws surrounding areas in which we have struggled in the past can be an excellent path to repentance. Note that the Chofetz Chaim does in fact state that certain kinds of speech are "equivalent to murder", whatever that means, but we cannot change the past. We can only repair the damage, and I can assure you there is no damage that cannot be repaired.
    – yoel
    Mar 9, 2012 at 17:02
  • Thanks for the answer yoel. I assure you I haven't murdered anyone. I was more specifically concerned with how my past violent speech towards some people may have caused them psychological harm that could possibly contribute to a damaged soul (maybe for me "the speaker" as well as them "the recipient"). I have never harmed anyone physically, but I'm concerned because I personally regard psychological harm "bad" as well... even though I'm not even Jewish and I'm not necessarily bound by Jewish law (I merely use it as a guide to better myself in certain aspects). Shalom.
    – Sam
    Mar 9, 2012 at 17:04
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    @Sam I'm sure there are sources dealing with the correct approach when one really cannot get in contact with a person they have wronged, but if nothing else one can at least make sure to act correctly in the future.
    – yoel
    Mar 9, 2012 at 17:43
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    A Jew who abandoned Judaism completely once came to the Vilna Gaon and was about to take a bite of the food he was offered, and the Vilna Gaon said "don't forget to make a blessing first". The Jew said "I would have thought that having totally abandoned Judaism and having transgressed very seriously, a blessing on food is like nothing!" "No," said the Gaon. "Just because one has sinned does not mean one is exempt from even the smallest precept."
    – yoel
    Mar 9, 2012 at 17:44
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    @Sam in matters of forgiveness, there is no statute of limitations. If you feel under pressure to apologize by some set deadline, then do your best to find the person, but don't let failure to meet that deadline stop you from seeking the person and apologizing at some later date.
    – Seth J
    Mar 9, 2012 at 20:30

With respect to what constitutes destroying a soul:

Primarily it is referring to taking a life. There are other meanings, especially in the reverse (rescuing a soul), that refer to spiritual matters, but these are things having to do with one's spiritual growth and development. If you act as a mentor to someone who seems lost and wandering in life and assist them to become good, upstanding members of society, particularly if this person is Jewish and your guidance leads to their living a more religious and spiritual life (and assuming this is a positive and uplifting experience for them) and this carries forward to their family and children and grandchildren, then I've seen people apply this concept to that mentor (or those mentors) who helped facilitate this.

With respect to making amends:

One can only do what is in one's abilities. If you have driven someone away from living a positive and fulfilling life, Ḥas VeShalom, then you certainly ought to do your best to find the person and make amends. However, if you cannot find the person, I would advise you to speak with a religious leader about ways to repent without apologizing. Even if you can find this person, it is possible that the impact you had on his or her life was so detrimental (as implied by the question) that he or she may not forgive you. There are rules about seeking forgiveness on 3 separate occasions and, afterward, the sin reverting to the other party who won't forgive (RaMBa"M Hil. Teshuvah 2:9). However, I would caution you that seeking forgiveness from someone who was deeply hurt, and doesn't just have some unreasonable grudge for some slight years ago, is not likely to be met with appreciation, and that person is not likely to forgive at all, and this rule may not apply. Again, I would advise you to seek guidance from a religious leader whom you trust.

Although taking someone's life is considered something for which one cannot really make amends, and which Yom Kippur itself does not atone, if one is truly remorseful and repents for it to the best of one's ability, then, according to the RaMBa"M (ibid., 1:4) any suffering experienced one's life will provide provisional atonement, which will be granted at the end of one's life.

Finally, RaMBa"M advises (ibid., 2:11), that if someone sins against his fellow, and the fellow dies before the sinner can ask forgiveness, that the sinner go to the person's grave with 10 other people and confess his sin to them.

A free translation of the formula for the above request for forgiveness at a grave: "I have sinned to HaShem, the G-d of Israel, and to this person named [so-and-so], in that I did [such-and-such]." At that point, if he owed the victim money, per the RaMBa"M, he should pay it to an heir; if there is no heir, so far as he knows, he should deposit it with a Beith Din and confess.

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