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Repair and Apology: What Does Judaism Teach Us?

Jewish Food for Thought

Jewish Food for Thought is a series of animations that distill Jewish teachings into a form that is accessible, entertaining, funny, and fresh. Created by Hanan Harchol, with study guides authored by Rabbi Leora Kaye, the project is funded by The Covenant Foundation, with fiscal sponsorship by The Foundation for Jewish Culture.

When is the last time you genuinely apologized to someone for something you did? What makes an apology worthwhile? What steps do people need to take in order for an apology to be sincere? Do you think Judaism’s “opinion” will agree with yours?

Study Guide

Important note from the author and animator Hanan Harchol: The Hebrew word for repair is tikkun. And yet the four-step process I am describing in this story is actually that of teshuvah which is literally translated “to return” (to God) and is commonly translated as repentance. Why, then, did I not title the story “Repentance” and use the word repentance throughout? The reason was my personal feeling that the word repentance could be interpreted by some to have a judgmental, preachy tone, and might carry so much negative connotation that the viewer would possibly focus on the term rather than the concept itself. The essence behind teshuvah (as I understand it) is the process of fixing one’s relationship with other people and one’s relationship with God (to return to God). This Jewish teaching says that no matter how egregious the wrongdoing, one can always perform teshuvah. Further it states that the reason we are not perfect is specifically so we can then choose whether or not to go through the difficult, but nourishing, process of teshuvah. When trying to come up with a less preachy word that still embodies the essence of this process, I chose to use “repair.”

Repairing a broken relationship or trust takes work, commitment, and a desire to do what you can to fix what has been broken. “Repair” (teshuvah) is encouraged throughout Jewish teaching; in fact, it is required in most cases when people make mistakes. Judaism’s take is that repairing a mistake or apologizing for behavior is always an option, no matter the situation. The responsibility lies in your hands; the work of repair requires effort but is not impossible and has a value in and of itself.

Repair: Maimonides’ Four Steps

The most famous laws about repair come to us from the 12th century rabbi, philosopher, and physician Maimonides (1135-1204, Spain), or Rambam, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Maimonides wrote codes of law for the Jewish community, clarifying common Jewish practice and accepted standards of observance. He wrote for the simple “Jew on the street” as much as for scholars, and his codes have remained relevant across the spectrum of Jewish belief until today.

According to Maimonides, four of the most important steps of teshuvah are the following:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

The fourth concept originates in the Talmud:

How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? Rabbi Judah said: When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin once and once again and he refrains from committing it. - Yoma 86b

  1. Hanan’s father is confused by the actions of his friend. He doesn’t judge him for the mistake, but does seem to judge him for his response to the mistake. He desperately wants Shlomo to have tried to enact some level of teshuvah. Is this a realistic expectation?
  2. Hanan initially believed teshuvah would be essentially impossible because Shlomo would never be able to repay the money lost. According to his father, however, money was the least of the issues. The recognition, confession, and attempt to reimburse were far more important. With whom do you agree and why? Do you see a value in completing some of the steps but not all of them?
  3. Shlomo had the chance to change his actions with every new deal he brokered, yet he didn’t. If someone repeatedly makes the same mistake, how does that affect the nature of an apology?

Download the complete study guide.