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I am looking for a possible etymological root for the word מחילה as meaning forgiveness.

The word מחל does not appear in Tanach1, and neither does מחילה, nor does מוחל, and I was unable to find any word that seems to have the root מ-ח-ל. The Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew does not have an entry for מחל. The ספר הכרמל (of the Malbim) has a word מחילה, but it refers to a type of tunnel, and he has no מחל. The Konkordantzia has no entry for מחל.

I found explicitly Rabbeinu Yehuda Ben Yakar on his commentary to the 6th beracha of Shemoneh Esrei says that מחילה is לשון חכמים, Rabbinical language.

Is there any source that gives a Biblical etymological root for מחילה, or explains the implications (through other similar words or through usage) of the word?


I do have one lead - Etymological Dictionary refers to an interpretation of ואיש אחר יחללנו (Devarim 20:6) as "releasing." R' Hirsch chumash does not explain it there, and I don't know where this would be found in his writings, but that could be a possible connection. Any info on this would also be appreciated.


1 מחל in Yirmiyahu 25:29 means starting, and from context clearly cannot mean forgiving.

  • 1
    Of course, in Yirmiyahu its 'מֵחֵל' from the word תחילה. But maybe that's what the word is hinting at - starting from the begining. – user3113 Apr 1 '14 at 19:31
  • @BackseatChazan I don't know how to type vowels, otherwise I would have pointed that out. But I like the suggestion. (Of course, in halachic literature מחילה is commonly not understood as such - just סילוק הטענה) – Y     e     z Apr 1 '14 at 19:40
  • "explains the implications (through other similar words or through usage)": do you mean to restrict to explanations that use Tanach? – msh210 Apr 1 '14 at 19:45
  • Is it just me, or are the first three links broken? – msh210 Apr 1 '14 at 19:45
  • @msh210 they work when I click them. – Y     e     z Apr 1 '14 at 19:47
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The sefer שו"ת נודע ביהודה מהדורה קמא - או"ח סימן לג writes:

That which the Magen Avraham writes in Siman 607 in the name of the Shelah Hakodosh to say סליחה לעונות ומחילה לפשעים is certainly a copyist error, because in the sefer שני לוחות הברית itself he writes the opposite, and it is impossible to suggest that there it is a copyist error since he explains the reasoning behind the wording.

However, if not for the words of the Shelah it seems to me that we should say סליחה לעונות ומחילה לפשעים, because we should always use the language of Torah whenever we can, and we never find the word מחילה anywhere in the Tanach, but we do find that כפרה us used in connection with חטא, as it says אכפרה בעד חטאתכם and וכפר עליו הכהן מחטאתו, and in many other places in the Torah, but we never find in the Torah כפרה used with עון or פשע. It’s true that in the Prophets and the Writings we find כפרה used with עון many times, for example, בחסד ואמת יכופר עון and בזאת יכופר עון יעקב and והוא רחום יכפר עון, and so too we find כפרה used with פשע once in Tehillim - פשעינו אתה תכפרם, nevertheless, in the Torah we only find it used in connection with חטא.

And סליחה we find in the Torah used with the word עון, as it says, סלח נא לעון העם הזה and וסלחת לעוננו and we also find סליחה used with חטא many times, for example, מחטאתו ונסלח לו, but with all of them כפרה us written beforehand. But we never find either כפרה or סליחה used with פשע. And even in the Prophets and the Writings we do not find סליחה used with פשע, except one time in Megillas Eichah - נחנו פשענו ומרינו, אתה לא סלחת, but there it is used negatively.

Therefore, we should use the language of the Torah - כפרה with חטא, and סליחה with עון. But we never find that סליחה is used with פשע, and therefore we should use the word מחילה in connection with פשע since we cannot say it in the way that it is written in the Torah.

And regarding what the Shelah wrote that the word סלח signifies lengthiness, this is what I have to say: When I searched for some support for the word מחילה in לשון הקדש, I did not find the root of this word - it is not from the root חול, nor from the root חלה. Nor can it be compared to the root אחל which is an expression of requesting. The only support I found is that it might be from the root יחול which connotes "looking forward to", like יחל ישראל. If so, unlike what the Shelah says, it is the word מחילה which signifies lengthiness, but the word סלח is translated by Onkelos as שבוק - abandon.

Thus, it would seem to me that we should say סליחה לעונות ומחילה לפשעים, but since the Shelah testifies in the name of the Rema to say מחילה לעונות וסליחה לפשעים, far be it from me to argue with him. Also, in the Piyut which we say after each סליחה the text is מחילה לחטאים וסליחה לפושעים, which implies that מחילה us more than סליחה, like the Shelah said. And indeed, in the gemara Yerushalmi at the end of mesechta Yoma the text is כפרה לפשעים, מחילה לעונות, סליחה לחטאים.

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According to Balashon, the oldest usage is Mishnaic for "remission of debt" and says that according to Jastrow and Steinberg, it originates from a presumed root, "to wipe, wipe out". On the other hand, Klein states that the etymology is unknown (see above).

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Nachal Eshkol at the end of his introduction to Sefer HaEshkol says that מחילה comes from the root חלל, which he says means to weaken or loosen:

טעמו להחליש ולרפה העוון כהוראת שורש חלל וחללה שטעמו נקוב וחלול, נתרוקן ונחלש, ונתגזר מזה שם כלי שיר 'חליל' בהיותו ריק וחלול ונקרא הגוף במותו חלל כשנתרוקן מנפש ורוח

מחילה is accordingly to minimize the sin, as opposed to wiping it out entirely.

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Hold on to your hat, and get on the roller coaster!

  • The word is classically assumed to be Rabbinic, not biblical Hebrew, as you quoted from Rabbeinu Yehuda Ben Yakar. (Incidentally, it and החזירנו are said to be the only words of Mishnaic Hebrew in the Amidah). So no Biblical root.

However, the Yerushalmi Bikkurim (3:3) states:

וכי מחלת שמה והלא בשמת שמה אלא שנמחלו לו כל עונותיו.

So evidently, even in Biblical Hebrew, it means forgiveness!

  • But that is just a Midrash so it is not historic proof that the word is actually Biblical. Indeed, some, such as Rabbenu Avaham ben HaRambam dispute this Midrash (see this article which brings multiple views). Accordingly, we would return to not having any pre-rabbinic support for such a root.
  • However, in this article presents archaeological that forces us to reconsider this. First of all, there are several names in Tanakh that are rotted in מחל, these could be understood to be rooted in forgiveness (As in the aforementioned Yerushalmi), or they might be related to dance, music, or sickness. However, an incense altar from the the 5th century BCE was found with the name יאש בן מחליה. In the opinion of the author, it is most likely that this name connects forgiveness to God, rather than dancing or the other possibilities. Thus, he concludes that in reality the root does go back to (late) Biblical times, meaning forgiveness.

See the whole article at length for a discussion of related roots.

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