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I was reading about Yom Kippur, and I came across this response to the traditional recitation of the Kol Nidre:

"May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault."
- From Numbers 15:26

If I am correct in thinking that "the strangers in their midst" refers to non-observant Jews and non-Jews, I am puzzled. The Jews are atoning for the sins of other people, but I have been led to believe that one of Judaism's complaints about Christianity is the Christian concept of vicarious atonement. Here, it seems that the non-observant Jews and non-Jews are being forgiven for their sins despite not doing anything to earn forgiveness. I'm being forgiven without expressing remorse, or asking for forgiveness. Someone else is doing all the work, but I'm still getting the reward. Isn't this a form of vicarious atonement?

  • @DanF - Am I mistaken in believing that the passage is used as a response to the Kol Nidre? – Wad Cheber Aug 25 '15 at 2:57
  • The quote is not directly connected to Kol Nidre itself. As a matter of fact, following the 1st par. which is "Kol Nidre" there are 2 or 3 Torah verses from different places. They share a common theme of forgiveness, but they are unconnected to the specific focus of vow annulment that is in the first paragraph. – DanF Aug 25 '15 at 3:01
  • @DanF - Here's what I was basing my questions on: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kol_Nidre – Wad Cheber Aug 25 '15 at 3:06
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    In general the word גר (here rendered "stranger") can have a number of meanings depending on context, such as convert or resident alien. – Double AA Aug 25 '15 at 3:47
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    I believe this line is intended to be personal forgiveness. It's us forgiving people who have wronged us. We don't have a right to forgive people for (e.g.) eating non-kosher food. – Daniel Aug 25 '15 at 13:29
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(I'll respond to the question as it applies to Yom Kippur, as asked. The verse in Numbers is actually talking about a different context, and the same question can be asked there — but wasn't.)

According to Maimonides (Yad, T'shuva 1:3–4):

T'shuva[1] atones for all sins. Even [if one was] an evildoer all his days and did t'shuva at the end, they do not mention to him any matter of his evil…. And Yom Kippur's self atones for those who do t'shuva….

Even though t'shuva atones for all and Yom Kippur's self atones, there are sins that gain atonement at the time and sins that don't gain atonement until after a while. How? [If] a man violated a thou-shalt command that has no kares [as punishment] and did t'shuva, [then] he does not move from that spot before they forgive him…. [If] he violated a thou-shalt-not command that has no kares and no court-imposed death [as punishment] and did t'shuva, t'shuva suspends [the sentence] and Yom Kippur atones….

It's pretty clear that Yom Kippur alone (without t'shuva) does not atone; the Kesef Mishne (to :3) clarifies that that is, indeed, Maimonides's intent.


[1] T'shuva: literally something like "return", it means, very briefly, leaving one's evil ways. There are more details of what qualifies as t'shuva; see that section of the Yad, or other works, for details.

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The Torah's subject here is explained by Rashi on verse 24:

אם מעיני העדה נעשתה לשגגה. אִם מֵעֵינֵי הָעֵדָה נֶעֶשְׂתָה עֲבֵרָה זוּ עַל יְדֵי שׁוֹגֵג — שֶׁשָּׁגוּ וְהוֹרוּ עַל אַחַת מִן הָעֲבוֹדוֹת שֶׁהִיא מוּתֶּרֶת לַעֲבֹד עֲ"זָ בְּכָךְ (שם ה'): —

This means: If it is by the eyes (the leaders) of the community that this sin has been committed in error, i.e., that they have mistakenly taught of a certain one of the rites associated with the worship of God that it is permissible to worship an idol in that manner, [then it shall be that all the congregation shall offer, etc.].

So we see that the leaders of the community mistakenly allowed the people to perform “avodah zorah” idol worship believing that the manner of the worship was permitted and the people followed the teaching of the leaders. and therefore verse 25 says

וְכִפֶּ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֗ן עַֽל־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְנִסְלַ֣ח לָהֶ֑ם כִּֽי־שְׁגָגָ֣ה הִ֔וא וְהֵם֩ הֵבִ֨יאוּ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָ֜ם אִשֶּׁ֣ה לַֽיהוָ֗ה וְחַטָּאתָ֛ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה עַל־שִׁגְגָתָֽם׃

The priest shall make expiation for the whole Israelite community and they shall be forgiven; for it was an error, and for their error they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD and their sin offering before the LORD.

The leaders were at fault in issuing their teaching. The people erred by following the teaching. So, verse 26

וְנִסְלַ֗ח לְכָל־עֲדַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֣ר בְּתוֹכָ֑ם כִּ֥י לְכָל־הָעָ֖ם בִּשְׁגָגָֽה׃

The whole Israelite community and the stranger residing among them shall be forgiven, for it happened to the entire people through error.

And the meaning of “ stranger residing among them” will be as pointed out by @Double AA either a convert or resident alien who has certain religious obligations through his resident status including a prohibition of idol worship.

The leaders of the community bring the offering and must do Teshuva for their sin, as Rambam lays down in Hilchos Teshuva 1 (1).

Their sacrifices will not atone for their sins until they repent and make a verbal confession as [Leviticus 5:5] states: "He shall confess the sin he has committed upon it."

The people who erred by following the teaching of the leaders get atonement for that error (admittedly somewhat vicariously) through the repentance and offering of the leaders.

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