In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were central to the religious practices of ancient Israel. They offered burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings as ways to atone for sins, give thanks to God, or petition God. The animal sacrifices were commanded by God and served as a way for the Israelites to draw near to Him.
However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, it became impossible for the Jewish people to continue offering animal sacrifices. The Temple was the only place where sacrifices could be offered, so with its destruction, the entire sacrificial system came to an end. This raised an important theological question – how can Jews receive atonement without sacrifices?
Over the centuries since the destruction of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism has offered various answers to this question. Here are some of the main ways modern Judaism believes forgiveness can still be achieved:
With no possibility of offering sacrifices, prayer became the new vehicle for obtaining forgiveness in Judaism. In rabbinic literature, prayers like the Amidah are compared to sacrifices, being regarded as having atoning power. Heartfelt prayer itself is seen as a sacrificial offering to God. The prophet Hosea said “we will offer our lips as sacrifices of bulls” (Hosea 14:2), suggesting prayer as a replacement for sacrifice. Sincere prayer and repentance came to be seen as achieving for Jews what the Temple sacrifices once did.
In addition to prayer, performing good deeds, or mitzvot, came to be regarded as a means of gaining atonement. This was based on verses like Proverbs 16:6 – “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for”. The Talmud teaches that through charity, kindness, ethical behavior, and deeds of lovingkindness, sins can find atonement. In this way, repentance achieved through prayer is actualized in tangible righteous acts.
Sincere repentance on its own is seen as a powerful route to forgiveness in Judaism. This refers not just to feeling regret, but to verbally confessing sins, desisting from wrongdoing, and committing wholeheartedly to live a more righteous life. In the Jewish understanding, God is merciful and will accept those who truly repent into His favor again. Heartfelt teshuvah (repentance) thus obviates the need for a Temple sacrifice.
The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is considered the holy day of the year in Judaism. It is believed that on this day, if Jews sincerely repent, pray, and practice self-denial, God will forgive their sins from the previous year. The rituals of Yom Kippur – fasting, prayer services, confessing sins – are a means of purifying oneself and making atonement without a Temple sacrifice.
Some Jewish thinkers believe that suffering itself can be a form of atonement for sins, if borne patiently. Suffering ‘cleanses’ a person from iniquity and allows them to pay for their misdeeds. This belief draws on texts like Isaiah 53 about the ‘suffering servant’, and helps explain JewishViews on why bad things happen. Patient endurance of trials is thus seen as vicariously atoning.
In some traditions, the death of righteous Jews is understood to achieve forgiveness for the people. This draws on the idea of vicarious atonement – that the merits or death of a righteous person can reconcile others to God. Jewish martyrs throughout history were seen as having atoned for Jews as a whole. Their deaths meant the community survived, metaphorically cleansing Israel of its sins.
Giving charity, or tzedakah, is very highly regarded in Judaism. The Hebrew word literally means ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, implying its centrality. The Talmud teaches that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so does tzedakah. Giving money to the poor expiates sin, enabling God’s mercy. Therefore, charity has evolved to become one of the chief means of finding forgiveness without sacrifice.
Immersing oneself in the sacred texts of Judaism is believed to be spiritually purifying and atoning. Studying Torah, understanding its wisdom, and following its instructions allows a person to repent and emblem themselves in what is good. Learning and practicing Torah is said to grant atonement equivalent to that once gained through sacrifices.
Sanctity of Life
Some Jewish thinkers propose that the sanctity of life itself has replaced animal sacrifice as an atoning concept in Judaism. They argue that if human life is seen as supremely holy, then its preservation and protection represent the highest offerings to God. Concern for human dignity thus leads to righteousness that finds favor with God like the old sacrifices once did.
In some traditions, on the Day of Atonement there is a ritual called ‘kapparot’ where money or a fowl is ritually waved around the head three times and then donated or slaughtered. This symbolically ‘transfers’ sins to this offering, which substitutes for the worshipper. While controversial today, for some this practice retains a memory of vicarious atonement through sacrifice.
In summary, while animal sacrifices are no longer practiced in Judaism, there are diverse ways modern Jews believe they can still attain forgiveness from God. These include prayer, repentance, good deeds, enduring suffering, giving charity, studying Torah, and traditions like Yom Kippur and kapparot. Forgiveness in Judaism today is sought through faith in God’s mercy, sincere repentance, and living righteously. The rituals may have changed, but the desire to make atonement remains strong.