Can There Be a Prohibition Against Asking for Forgiveness?

The obligation to apologize to my friend at this time of year (Yoma 85a; see Shulchan Arukh 606:1) raises a common but knotty conundrum: Imagine that I have said something harmful about another person, but that individual does not know that I did so. Does piyyus, the obligation to do my best to earn my friend’s forgiveness, apply in this case? Or does halakha in fact require just the opposite, namely that I refrain from apologizing? After all, informing my friend of the incident may ironically cause him or her greater pain. This intriguing problem is debated between R. Yisrael Meir Kagan in his classic work Chafetz Chaim, and R. Yisrael Salanter. Let’s review each position.

Chafetz Chaim (4:12) considers two cases. In the first, the listeners do not believe my harmful words. In this instance, I am not committing any sin toward my fellow human and thus need not ask forgiveness. I need only ask God for forgiveness for my sin between man and heaven. In a case in which I hurt my friend without his knowledge, however, such as if his business prospects or overall reputation might have been damaged by my words, even if the victim knows nothing of the incident, I am required to ask forgiveness.

R. Yisrael Salanter’s dissenting view is cited in two slightly different variations. R. Binyamin Zilber (Az Nidberu 7:66) quotes R. Salanter as asserting that if my friend does not know of the harmful behavior, and will be more hurt if I inform him or her of the incident than if I say nothing, it is prohibited for me to mention the incident to my friend. In his Moadim u-Zemanim (1:54), on the other hand, R. Moshe Shternbach cites in the name of R. Dessler a somewhat different presentation of R. Yisrael Salanter’s opinion: rather than detailing the sin, I should approach my friend on Erev Yom Kippur and generally apologize for anything I might have done to hurt him or her. Since the friend will likely assume that this is a generic request for mechila, rather than connected to any particular incident, I am thus able to receive atonement without being required to reveal the harmful behavior that actually led to the apology.

Whichever variation we accept, at first glance R. Salanter’s logic seems compelling: if the entire purpose of asking mechila is to smooth over the relationship with my friend, why should I mention the hurtful behavior? Won’t that simply lead to hard feelings?

Indeed, for this reason, some have suggested alternative, if forced, readings of R. Kagan’s view. In the aforementioned responsum, for example, R. Zilber suggests that Chafetz Chaim is in fact in agreement with R. Salanter, and only suggested that one must apologize if the friend knew that he or she had been hurt, but merely didn’t know who had spoken ill. Only in that case must one apologize explicitly. If, however, one’s friend didn’t know about the harmful behavior at all, even the Chafetz Chaim would agree that an apology is inappropriate. Alternatively, one might suggest that Chafetz Chaim refers only to a case in which I can state with confidence that my friend will react relatively favorably to the information. If the individual will likely be upset, perhaps Chafetz Chaim would agree with R. Salanter. These readings, however, do not seem to accord with the face meaning of the passage in Chafetz Chaim, and so the problem remains.

What, then, could possibly be the reasoning for Chafetz Chaim’s position? I’d like to propose that the debate can be understood as follows: R. Salanter makes the simple point that my friend will be more hurt if I inform him or her of my behavior. Chafetz Chaim perhaps disputes this very point. Quite often, when there remains some unresolved tension between two parties, additional conflict may threaten the relationship over the long term. Even if my friend knows nothing of the hurtful behavior, there remains something in the air that continues to cloud the friendship moving forward. Chafetz Chaim’s view, in other words, is rooted in a profound psychological insight. On the one hand, there are painful scenarios in which honesty can irreparably damage a relationship. On the other hand, however, there are many situations in which despite the short-term difficulty, over the long term it is wisest to mention the damaging behavior in the hopes of fostering an open and honest relationship. While every case is different, and it is manifestly not universally true that honesty is the best policy, Chafetz Chaim would urge us to look beyond our friend’s immediate reaction. In many instances, although it is uncomfortable and even painful for my friend to receive such news, in the long run, my honesty and transparency can ironically foster a deeper, longer-lasting relationship.

On this interpretation, Chafetz Chaim reminds us of a profound truth in regard to our apologies at this time of year. Very often we walk around asking mechila mostly of our friends. All too often, in doing so we take the easy way out. The harder task is to open ourselves up to painful conversations that, while difficult in the short term, in the long term are precisely the kind of hard work the Torah urges us to tackle at this time of year.

In the merit of our investment in building open, honest, and healthy relationships, may we merit a year of joy and blessing for ourselves, our family, community, klal yisrael and all humankind.