Talmud Class on Atonement – August 11

I’ve been really into Judaism lately – I just finished reading some great books about the topic by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Viktor Frankl, and Stephen J. Dubner – and I’ve been all over learning more. So, using new-age internetwork technology, I connected to the calendar at the Temple of Aaron and found some free Talmud classes. In case you don’t know, the Talmud (part of the Oral Torah) is a book of rabbinic discussions about Jewish law, customs, and beliefs. It comes in two parts – the Mishnah (which is oral law) and the Gemara (which discusses the Mishnah and other topics) – and I know very little about either.

Unfortunately, what I’m going to tell you next will be less well-documented than future posts on the topic. This is because I forgot to bring a note-taking materials on this day. I believe, though, we were in the Ta’anit, which is in the Mishnah. We were learning about the ideas of atonement and restitution.

The basic ideas of the class were these:

  1. If you’ve offended God, sacrifice, fast, and do whatever the law requires to make things right with Him.
  2. If you’ve offended man, don’t you dare simply go along sacrificing, fasting, and praying about it and think that fixes things. Make it right with the person you wronged! You didn’t offend God (except in offending your brother, which, of course, isn’t God’s favorite), so your debt isn’t with Him. Your debt is with your fellowman. Do what is necessary to repair the situation.
  3. Make right before someone dies. You can’t apologize to the dead. I’m not 100% sure how this works, but there is a workaround if you don’t get a chance to make restitution before someone dies. You can take a minyan (which is 10 men in traditional Judaism or just 10 people in less traditional Judaism) to the graveside and say Kaddish (which is a mourner’s prayer), and I think that lets you off the hook.

Also, we read a story that was quite interesting. Two rabbis were in a tiff, and one of them (who happened to be a butcher) was in the wrong. The victim-rabbi decided he didn’t want to wait around for butcher-rabbi to apologize, so he went over to the butcher shop to talk it out. The butcher rabbi was busy cutting up an ox and refused to talk about it. Unfortunately, as the other rabbi left, the butcher-rabbi had a butchery-mishap and was killed when a bone from the ox stabbed him in the neck. The moral: never delay restitution.

I loved how rational and utilitarian this lesson on restitution and atonement was. Debts ought to be paid to the person you’ve wronged. Even though God is unhappy when we offend our fellowmen, He doesn’t simply want you to apologize to Him and think things are cool. We ought to make amend to the wronged party, and we ought to do it promptly. And we can learn from the butcher-rabbi that we should make amends as soon as possible – it requires humility and perhaps taking time away from things that seem more important – but we’ll never regret mending a relationship with either our brother or our God.

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