Yom Kippur: Atonement By Any Other Name… Just Ain’t the Same ~ The Wonders of the Holy Tongue





Num. 14:19 – Please forgive (סלח) the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness.


Moses, the indefatigable shepherd, begs for mercy on behalf of his nation as is his wont, in this instance concerning the sin of the Spies. The Holy One, ever slow to anger, answers immediately in the affirmative:  Num. 14:20 – And the Lord said, “I have forgiven them in accordance with your word. ” Although as mentioned, the context here is the case of the Spies charged with reporting on the Land of Israel, our sages comment that G-d’s benevolent utterance applies to the sin of the Golden Calf as well (see Ex. Rabba 29:7).


One may ask however, if in fact every vestige of these egregious sins was thereby obliterated through this pronouncement of forgiveness or not? For we find numerous atonements for the Calf mentioned afterwards: 1. The acacia wood (שטים) atones for the foolishness (שטות) of the Calf (Tanch. Teruma 10). 2. The gold in the Tabernacle atones for the gold of the Calf (Ex. Rabba 51:8). 3. The calf brought for the Sin-Offering atones for the Calf (Sifra Shmini). 4. “But on the day I make an accounting [of sins upon them], I will bring their sin to account against them” (Ex. 32:34); Rashi – Now I have listened to you not to destroy them all at once, but always, always, when I take an accounting of their sins, I will also account a little of this sin with the other sins. [This means that] no punishment befalls Israel in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the [golden] calf. (See also Ex. 38:21 with Ohr Hachayim). Likewise, we find additional atonements associated with the sin of the Spies (See notes to Chashukei Chemed, Bechoros 30b).


With so many atonements required, one is led to wonder what precisely was the result of Hashem’s forgiveness for which Moses begged and entreated?


We begin by noting that in addition to the root סלח (forgiveness) under discussion, another two roots bear similar general meanings: 1. כפר (atonement) 2. מחל (pardon).


Regarding כפר, refer to our article on Parshas Teruma, wherein we dwelt at length on the numerous seemingly disparate meanings of the word. In short, Ibn Ezra explains כפרה to mean covering (although Rashi appears to disagree – see article for full analysis); according to which the sin is not “erased,” but rather hidden from view.


The root מחל actually never appears in Scripture in the sense of forgiveness and atonement at all (rather it means a tunnel or shelter; see Is. 2:19). However, its derivative מחילה is a very common word in the Talmudic vernacular. But our Sages have left hints as to the origin of this word, in the Midrashim. For example, Midrash Tan. (Shmini 6) states that מחילה is granted after death sans animal sacrifice. However, the proof-text brought appears unconnected: “I, yea I erase (מוחה) your transgressions for My sake” (Is. 43:25). Note that the word מוחה quoted derives from the root מחה, whereas מחילה stems from the seemingly unrelated מחל!


Two points may be gleaned from this anomaly immediately, however: 1. there is no Scriptural root מחל connected to pardon, as stated. 2. מחילה in Talmudic parlance refers to the utter erasure, obliteration of sins (“absolution”; see also Midrash Tan. [ibid. 4]), in contradistinction to כפרה which means covering, as above.


Despite the fact that מחה is found in the context of the pardoning of sin in the verse cited in Isaiah (and ibid. 44:22, Ps. 51:3, 11), the primary meaning (and the only meaning in the Pentateuch; vis. Gen. 6:7, Ex. 17:14, Deut. 9:14, 29:19) is clearly general destruction. Since the word itself therefore bears ominous overtones, the Sages may have sought a similar term to refer exclusively to the erasure of sin. Additionally, the word מחילות in the sense of tunnels is used in Scripture (Is. 2:19) to describe a place of refuge. The combination of eradication of sin and refuge from G-d’s wrath is exactly what the potential penitent seeks, and this is precisely the mechanism of pardon conveyed by the word מחילה.


We now return to the root סלח; given that the word certainly does not imply total absolution as we’ve seen, what then is the unique meaning of this word in the system of forgiveness?


Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Num. 14:20) as per his custom, comments that סלח is phonetically related to שלח (dispatching) and צלח (overcoming). סלח therefore means to proceed without delay. Hashem was in effect telling Moses that the nation must avoid getting stuck, must forge ahead spiritually, despite the momentous sins which had transpired. The nation was mired in the mud, was sinking fast in quicksand, and this was not the time to seek perfect absolution of sin. The road to obliteration of certain sins may be long and arduous, and may not even be completed in this lifetime. But the road to ultimate pardon begins with סליחה – “forge on”!


The three roots סלח, כפר, מחל therefore would represent three different mechanisms, three stages of forgiveness and atonement. These stages could be compared to the stages of repentance described by Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance, beginning with acknowledging the sin and resolving never to repeat it, without which one is stuck. The next stage is כפרה, atonement which comes in stages, depending on the nature of the sin. Ultimate absolution –מחילה in Rabbinic parlance, as we have seen– for certain sins can be attained only in the World to Come.


May the Lord grant us strength to forge ahead from peak to pinnacle, to attain ever greater spiritual heights all the days of our lives.











For full Hebrew sources and previous posts, see https://www.facebook.com/groups/1669565696664822/.


Yehoshua Steinberg Complacency is tantamount to complicity; Serenity is prerequisite to accomplishment.


Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg