Isaiah 53:4
Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed.
דאָכֵן חֳלָיֵנוּ הוּא נָשָׂא וּמַכְאֹבֵינוּ סְבָלָם וַאֲנַחְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱלֹהִים וּמְעֻנֶּה:

Rashi comments:

Indeed, he bore our illnesses: Heb. אָכֵן, an expression of ‘but’ in all places. But now we see that this came to him not because of his low state, but that he was chastised with pains so that all the nations be atoned for with Israel’s suffering. The illness that should rightfully have come upon us, he bore.

Is there indication in Scripture, prior to this passage in Isaiah 53, that suggests the suffering of one can atone for the sin of another? What leads Rashi to this understanding/interpretation? How can the suffering of one atone for the sins of another?

  • 1
    This concept is also said regarding Rebbi's suffering (BM 95a).
    – DonielF
    Jul 21, 2016 at 21:57
  • Who is Rebbi? I searched the reference you cite, but I don't even know what it is.
    – user2411
    Jul 21, 2016 at 22:17
  • 1
    Rebbi Yehudah Hanasi, redactor of the Mishna. BM is shorthand for Bava Metzi'a, a tractate of Gemara. On page *85a (typo in original post) there, it says that the ground was so moist that holes dug began puddling, to the point that no rain was necessary during Rebbi's lifetime. This was because of the suffering that Rebbi endured, described in the previous part of the Gemara. It makes a similar comment there regarding Rabbi Elazar, a contemporary of Rebbi, whose suffering allowed for nobody to die prematurely.
    – DonielF
    Jul 21, 2016 at 22:35

1 Answer 1


I don't have a thorough answer about the mechanism of substitutive atonement -- in general, in Judaism, a person dies for his own sin. In those instances where it LOOKS like one is dying for another, the rabbis explain that the death of a particular person is designed to inspire others to repent and avoid their own punishment. The death brings about atonement by driving a change in the other person or people.

However there are a few other important concepts which I am willing to piece together:

  1. [I don't have the medrashic source for this]

"Chazal tell us that if the nations knew how much the Bais HaMikdash benefited them they would not have destroyed it. They would have placed armed guards around it to protect it. "


So Israel's prayers and sacrifices (and one might assume, the continued prayers after the sacrificial system ended) had an effect on behalf of the world which would, I guess, include atonement through prayer.

  1. From www.drazin.com

Yet, amid all this persecution, the Jews have relentlessly "interceded for the [Gentile] transgressors," in compliance with:

Jeremiah 29:7

And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the L-rd on its behalf, for in its welfare you will have peace.

So despite suffering at the hands of the nations, by following the injunction to pray for the well being of the various governments, Israel has achieved results on behalf of others.

  1. The Drazin site also includes the following (though without a source for the idea):

The Jews have certainly borne the iniquities of the Gentiles: throughout history, they have been discriminated against, oppressed, tortured, raped, robbed, and murdered. By submitting themselves to this treatment and acknowledging it to be His will, they have justified and sanctified G-d's Name.

This goes back, somewhat, to the statement I made above -- one person/group's suffering should inspire others by showing the suffering/death as a statement of piety which drives others to try and be more pious.

  • 2
    Sacrifice (which is occasionally animal, but not necessarily so) was about losing something of value and reminding oneself of subservience to God. But atonement existed without animals because other things can be lost, and there are other ways of expressing an understanding that one has rebelled by violating a law.
    – rosends
    Jul 25, 2016 at 16:30
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    That's problematic, not the least because humans aren't fit to be sacrificed, crucifixion isn't a proper method of execution, let alone sacrifice, and there was no prophecy about a human sacrifice. Also, if you check the Drazin site, you will see many other problems.
    – rosends
    Jul 25, 2016 at 17:47
  • 1
    "Why would we not see this to be true also of the Nazarene who was a Jew? " Because the text is not speaking of a single individual, but on the suffering of a nation. It is the collective suffering, not one instance. The holocaust was an action against a group.
    – rosends
    Jul 25, 2016 at 21:25
  • 1
    often, the singualr is used to make a point about the unity of the people as a singular unit, other times to show the relationship between God and the people as the metaphorical relationship between individuals (look at Ex 4:22 and the rashi on Ex 19:2)
    – rosends
    Aug 10, 2016 at 17:06
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    Prophecy is more often a message to people living at a particular time about why it is important to do tshuva at that time. Prophecy is simply a message from God and most of those messages aren't predictions per se, rather warnings. Some are predictions but we aren't supposed to live in fear of, or trying to interpret or predict that potential.
    – rosends
    Aug 11, 2016 at 1:29

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