I find the liturgical and rabbinic descriptions of the atonement process on Yom Kippur challenging. Without a Sanhedrin to mete out punishments for intentional sins, and no altar to bring offerings to atone for unintentional or un-witnessed sins, the chance of ever starting the year with a clean slate seems bleak. But we are also led to believe that sincere repentence wipes out all sins. Can we ever start with a truly clean slate? Or will we still be held liable for sins we don't get punished for in this world?

  • 2
    I suggest Igeres HaTeshuva for a lengthy discussion on this very topic.
    – Yishai
    Jun 18, 2014 at 3:22
  • The misdeed is not wiped clean on the slate by G-d. Yom Kippur does not suggest this. Think of an archer who shoots an arrow and misses his target. Does he beat his chest and cry or attempt to know why he missed his target, reach into his quiver, and try again. This is the rational concept for repentance.
    – Jonathan
    Feb 23, 2020 at 4:48

3 Answers 3


To summarize Rambam Hilkhot Teshuva ch. 1 and ch. 2.

Repentance absolves all sins. However, depending on the nature of the sin, full atonement may be immediate or may be contingent on something else.

  • Violation of a positive commandment (that does not carry karet) is forgiven immediately upon repentance. (1:9)
  • Violation of a negative commandment (that does not carry karet) is partially forgiven upon repentance, but only fully forgiven on Yom HaKippurim. (1:10)

  • Violation of capital offenses or offenses that carry the penalty of karet, are partially forgiven through repentance and Yom HaKippurim, and are fully forgiven through suffering. (1:11)

  • Violations that cause desecration of God's name are only fully forgiven upon death. (1:12). These are sins which are done to anger God (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:13).

  • Interpersonal sins require restitution to the damaged party as well as his forgiveness. (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:11)

So as far as positive and negative commandments, one will indeed start the year with a clean slate (provide that he repents). Even the more severe sins carrying the death penalty or karet do not require the Sanhedrin or the sacrificial service to achieve atonement.

  • What's the difference between "absolv[ing] sins" and "full atonement"?
    – Double AA
    Sep 19, 2016 at 15:12
  • @DoubleAA Good question. Rambam himself does not clarify this (obviously using the Henrew terms תולה and מכפר; not my English translations). At the minimum, even if repentance alone accomplishes nothing, it is the primary source of forgiveness when coupled with Yom Kipur + suffering + death, as applicable. I suspect that Rambam means more than this; that partial forgiveness is achieved even alone, but the minimal interpretation would be as I stated.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 19, 2016 at 15:17
  • What about Yom Kippur effects the atonement? If I do teshuva in December does the teshuva happen on Yom Kippur simply by dint of calendar? Do I have to wait and complete (or repeat) my teshuva on Y"K for it to count? If I am liable to karet (category 3) might that be levied against me between December and Y"K before Y"K has done it's "part"?
    – rosends
    May 11, 2017 at 12:44

In summary, no, not ALL sins.

There are several aspects to answering your question, and I couldn't get to all of them, here.

But to start, Talmud Yevamot (don't know exact page) explains that Yom Kippur never atones for sins between one person and another until that person requests forgiveness, personally. The method becomes a bit more complex if the wronged person is unreachable or dead.

Another more difficult example is atonement for lashon hara and rechilut (gossip, slander). How would you now how many people got the bard word about someone, and how could you really recover the damage already done?

Yet another concept is inferred from your mentioning that we don't have a Bet Hamikdash and we carry the sins of our ancestors. This concept is hinted to in a few places in our daily prayers (esp. Tachanun) and the fact that we still don't have a Bet Hamikdash is an indication that we have not yet been forgiven.

Finally, what about all those sins that we did during the year, but on Yom Kippur, we forgot about them and didn't mention them in our confession? We're still responsible.


The first perek of Shevuos, summarized in Rambam's first perek of Hilchos Teshuvah, says that certain sins are atoned for immediately by teshuvah, certain ones are atoned for by Yom Kippur, though Teshuvah delays the punishment in Olam HaBa, and certain sins are atoned for with suffering, though Teshuvah and Yom Kippur delay the ultimate punishment. Chillul Hashem is the harshest of all; its atonement comes only with death, and the above three delay the punishment until then.

Also, as discussed in the last Mishnah in Yoma, there's another requirement for sins between man and his friend, which is asking for forgiveness.

As the Rambam (ibid.) notes, none of these sources say anything about karbanos. To the contrary, our Teshuvah takes the place of the karbanos, and, as the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 7:2) points out, is even better than karbanos:

One who does Teshuvah is as if he went to Yerushalayim, built the Beis HaMikdash, built the Mizbeiach, and offered upon it all the karbanos in the Torah, as the passuk says, "The offerings of Hashem are a broken heart."

Emphasis mine: not just the applicable karbanos to the sin in question, but every last one of them.

  • As the Rambam (ibid.) notes, none of these sources say anything about karbanos. To the contrary, our Teshuvah takes the place of the karbanos, and, as the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 7:2) points out, is even better than karbanos: Not sure what you mean. The Se'ir HaMishtaleh atones for minor sins even if a person does not repent. Rambam writes this in the first chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva. Where does Rambam note that "none of the sources say anything about korbanos"?
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 20, 2016 at 23:40
  • I read that as referring to when the Bayis stood, but that when it was destroyed, "we have no path to atonement besides Teshuvah," which, possibly accompanied by Yom Kippur, suffering, and death c"v, will accomplish atonement.
    – DonielF
    Sep 21, 2016 at 22:02
  • Not sure what you mean (I read that as referring read what as referring? If you mean that the korbanot offered in the beit hamikdash were only effective while they existed, that goes without saying. It in no way deemphasizes the role of korbanot). And I still don't know which Rambam notes that "none of these sources say anything about karbanos". At the minimum, your implication that korbanot have no role in teshuva is misleading, for as I noted, sometimes the korban removes the need to even do teshuva.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 21, 2016 at 22:50
  • @mevaqesh He doesn't note it explicitly. In respect to b'zman hazeh, it's possible to do Teshuvah even without karbanos. And, as you noted, it's obvious that non-existent karbanos have no role in a Teshuvah process during the times in which they can't be brought.
    – DonielF
    Sep 22, 2016 at 0:02
  • If he does not note it, then consider clarifying that, and that the korbanot do make repentance easier, but even without them it is still possible to do teshuvah.
    – mevaqesh
    Sep 22, 2016 at 0:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .