Ask the Rabbi: ‘Does God ever forgive a murderer?’

Ask the Rabbi: ‘Does God ever forgive a murderer?’

Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet answers readers’ questions in his weekly column, Ask the Rabbi.

Ask the Rabbi

Only the victim can forgive

Dear Rabbi,

Does God ever forgive a murderer?


Dear Joanna,

That’s a compelling question – definitely in my top 10 since starting this column all those years ago.

The Mishnah states: “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) brings forgiveness. For sins against another, the Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness until one has become reconciled with the other.”ASK THE RABBI 2

Think about the irony. The awesome day of pardoning holds the power to absolve one of all of their sins towards God, but proves utterly useless in the face of crimes committed against one’s fellow.

Surely the opposite should be true. Sins against one’s fellow man should rank lower than sins against God such that Yom Kippur should work at least for the former rather than the latter.

The point being conveyed by the rabbis is a simple yet powerful one. Even on the unique day of extreme clemency God forgives any sin He can, but He does not forgive those he “cannot.”

To be sure, the notion of “cannot” in relation to God only applies in those areas where He willed it so. In other words, God gave the offended party a power that He withheld from Himself. He willed it that only the one who has suffered, against whom a crime has been committed, is entitled to forgive if they so desire.

Reverting back therefore to your question, God does not forgive the murderer because it is not His right to do so, for so He willed it.

It is only the murdered that can forgive, only of course they are no longer here to do so. Hence murder is considered a capital crime – for which, in Temple times, subject to meeting with all the strict criteria in determining guilt, the perpetrator would be put to death. His sin is so severe for which forgiveness cannot be attained that he has, to all intent and purposes, forfeited his right to existence. A paramount principle in Jewish philosophy is that there is a world beyond this one and that is where ultimate justice and reconciliation would take place.

The obvious lesson however, for lesser crimes is that the one domain that God handed over to us, providing us with total autonomy, is the sphere of forgiveness – for those acts committed against us personally. Undeniably, this is a huge honour, coupled with an even greater responsibility. We should not treat that lightly and perhaps look to be more forgiving.

The source of our sickness

Dear Rabbi,

Who causes sickness – Satan or God?


Dear Jessica,

All these philosophical questions this week! Beats the asinine ones.

The first and most obvious point to consider is, what is the notion of Satan in Jewish belief? Satan can mean “provoke” or “oppose” in Hebrew (see Numbers 22-22). Typically it refers to an angel created by God (see Job ch.1) whose job it is to provoke people to disobey God which is where the concept of free choice comes into play.

The Zohar compares the Satan to a harlot who is hired by a king to try to seduce his son, because the king wants to test his son’s morality and worthiness. Both the king and the harlot (who is devoted to the king) truly want the son to stand firm and reject the harlot’s advances. Similarly, the Satan is just another one of the many spiritual messengers (angels) that God sends to accomplish His purpose in the creation of man.

To be sure, this is not Satan’s entire job description. The Talmud states Satan and the angel of death are one and the same personality. He descends from heaven and leads astray, then ascends and brings accusations against humankind, and then carries out the verdict.

There is no indication whatsoever that Satan is responsible for illness or anything else other than death when the time comes.

But, to be clear, your question presupposes that Satan is a separate entity to God and it is an either or situation.

Fundamental to Jewish belief is that Satan is merely acting at God’s behest, so ultimately, regardless, it is God who enables illness and death to occur, just as He does everything else.
Of course, we don’t always understand why – but that’s another question altogether.

Should I be cheesed off?

Dear Rabbi,

For the first time I didn’t have cheesecake during Shavuot. It is usually served in the office but as the festival was on a bank holiday this year all the kosher bakeries were closed. How guilty should I feel?


Dear Freddy,

Thank God. I was worried I’d have three sensible questions to answer this week. Don’t sweat it Freddy. There’s more to Jewish life than cheesecake. But tell me, did you make it to syangogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments? Priorities my boy!

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