Meanings of repentance, forgiveness & atonement for Gentiles

A synopsis which includes some universal teachings from chapters 1-3 of Tanya, Book 3, as they apply for Noahides.
(Note: Almost all of Book 3 of Tanya is highly kabbalistic and applies only for Jews, so it is not recommended for Noahides.)

The residue of sin needs to be cleaned from a person’s soul

When a person sins, evil cleaves to his soul. Even a Gentile with faith in the One G-d may violate prohibitions of the Noahide Code due to temptations from his evil inclination (as opposed to heretics who deliberately rebel against G-d’s will). G-d forgives a person for the sins he regrets and correctly repents for, and does not punish him for doing those things.

After his lifetime, his soul cannot yet receive its reward if it still has a residue from unrepented sins, after the ones that are counterbalanced by his merits are forgiven. That residue must be removed from the soul, and then it receives its reward. It is highly beneficial if most or all of the insufficiently repented sins will be removed during his lifetime, so fewer will remain to be weighed against the person’s merits when the soul is brought before the Heavenly court for its judgment.

This process of cleaning the soul through difficulties in the physical world is called the “completion of the atonement”. Through this, the soul can receive the spiritual reward that is due for all the merits which the faithful person accumulated, even if he had unrepented sins.[1] The term in Hebrew for this cleaning of the soul is “kapara”, which is translated as “atonement”.

The meaning of repentance

“Repentance”, as G-d defines it in the Torah, is the person’s abandonment of sin.[2] He must sincerely resolve never again to revert to the folly of violating G-d’s will. This is clear in verses from the Hebrew Bible:

“Let the wicked abandon his way, and the sinful his thoughts, and return to G‑d…”[3]
“Return unto the L-rd your G‑d and hearken to His voice… with all your heart…”[4]
“Bring us back, L-rd, unto You…”[5]

Repentance must also include sincerely regretting the sin, and confessing it to G-d. Therefore Maimonides makes no mention in Mishneh Torah of fasting as part of repentance, even for the most serious transgressions. Rather, Maimonides cites confession and the plea for forgiveness, as it says, “They shall confess their sin…”[6]

This is sufficient for sins that a person does against G-d (e.g., idol worship, consentual forbidden relations, or wasteful emission of semen). For sins that a person does against another person, it is also required (if possible) to make restitution to the victim, along with apologizing and receiving forgiveness.

We learn this from the repentance of the Gentiles in the city of Nineveh who were warned by the prophet Jonah. It says [7], “G-d saw their deeds, that they repented of their evil way; and G-d relented…” They repented by returning all the items they had taken by extortion.[8] It does not say, “G-d saw their fasting… and G-d relented…”

All of this refers to forgiveness for the sin. When the person has done a full repentance, he is pardoned completely for having violated G-d’s will. No accusation is made against his soul that any punishment is due for his sin. He is completely exonerated from the judgment of the Heavenly court after his physical death, and from the final judgment in the future time of the resurrection.[9]

The first meaning of atonement

When the person does a complete repentance to G-d, the punishment that was due for the sin is commuted, and his soul is absolved from punishment. But severe sins need a deeper level of repentance, which he might not do, and there may also be sins that he forgets or ignores. Those are sins that still need atonement (“cleaning”). G-d may accomplish this by assigning some difficulty or an amount of suffering [1], as it says, “For G-d admonishes the one He loves”.[10] If this is provided in the physical world, the soul will be clean when the person dies. If this is not achieved, the soul may need to be cleansed in Gehinom (for less than one year).

Conversely, suffering also comes to remind a person that he needs to return to G-d through sincere repentance with all his heart. When the person understands this and makes that initiative, then “As water reflects the face…,” there is an awakening Above [11], arousing G-d’s kindness to remove the sin from the person’s soul. Thus it says, “My child, do not despise G-d’s discipline, and do not despise His reproof. For G-d admonishes the one He loves, and like a father He mollifies the child.”[10]

The second meaning of atonement, and the effect of giving charity

A person should also desire to repair his relationship with G‑d, to be as beloved of Him as before the sin. Therefore, it is fitting to restore his spiritual connection through a gift to G-d. If one displeases his king and appeases him through an intercessor, the king will forgive him. Then he will send an appropriate gift so the king will again be pleased with him. In this analogy, the king represents G-d, and the intercessor represents the person’s repentance.[12]

The gift represents an “atonement” that is different from the first type. It is not atonement for the sin, but rather the restoration (“at-one-ment”) of the person’s relationship with G-d, so G-d may again derive delight from him.

This resembles a voluntary burnt-offering that calls forth G-d’s pleasure. When Noah offered sacrifices after the flood, “G-d smelled the pleasing aroma…”[13] This is a euphemism for pleasure that G-d derived from Noah’s desire to connect with Him. Noah was completely righteous, so this was not done to gain forgiveness. Rather, Noah’s devotion to G-d was demonstrated by the sacrifices he brought. In our time, however, such sacrifices are no longer preferred for Gentiles. Instead, this is accomplished through giving proper charity.

What else is accomplished when a Gentile gives proper charity? It is written, “Redeem your sin through charity, and your iniquities through kindness to the poor.”[14] A person may especially give this charity generously within his means when he does so to release himself from a Divine judgment of affliction to accomplish the first type of atonement. This is analogous to spending money for his physical needs, such as medicine to heal his body. Therefore, it is proper for everyone who reveres the word of G-d to be generous in giving charity instead of being stingy.

Proactive atonement after repentance for the most severe types of sins

To repent for extremely grave sins such as murder [or for accidentally killing], the person should also exile himself. Scripture teaches that exile provides atonement for severe sins, because it chastens the person and helps him to become humble and self-effacing. See Rashi on Genesis 9:5

“of man for his brother”: who loves him like a brother and kills him unintentionally. I will demand [punishment], if he does not go into exile and seek that his sin be forgiven. For even one who sins unintentionally [through killing accidentally] requires atonement. And if there are no witnesses to obligate him to exile, and he does not submit [to do this voluntarily], G-d demands [expiation] from him, as our Rabbis expounded [on Exodus 21:13]: “And G-d brought it about into his hand,” in Tractate Makkot (10b): “the Holy One, blessed is He, summons them together to the same inn, etc.”

[The passage in Makkot reads: What is this verse speaking of? Of two men, each of whom killed a person; one killed intentionally and one killed unintentionally. This one had no witnesses, and that one had no witnesses. G-d causes them to meet at the same inn; the one who killed intentionally sits under a ladder, and the one who killed unintentionally climbs down the ladder and falls upon him, killing him. The one who killed intentionally is killed, and the one who killed unintentionally is exiled {to a City of Refuge}.]

When the repentant person exiles himself, it is additionally beneficial for him to change his name. This will impress upon him how much he needs to exile himself from his past, and it will give  him more motivation to repent so deeply that he is no longer the same person as the one who did the extremely grave sin.[15]



[1] See Rashi on Psalms 25:18.
[2] Tractate Sanhedrin 25b.
[3] Isaiah 55:7.
[4] Deuteronomy 30:2.
[5] Lamentations 5:21.
[6] Numbers 5:7. For the steps to follow and recommended prayers, click here.
[7] Jonah 3:10.
[8] Tractate Taanit 16a.
[9] See Seven Gates of Righteous Knowledge, last chapter of the Seventh Gate.
[10] Proverbs 3:11-12.
[11] Zohar II, 135b.
[12] Adapted from Tanya, Igeret Hateshuva ch. 2.
[13] Genesis 8:21.
[14] Daniel 4:24.
[15] Quoted from Seven Gates of Righteous Knowledge, ch. 2 of the Seventh Gate. See also The Divine Code, 4th edition, Part V, ch. 4.