During the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, we customarily pray that G-d forgive all our sins. These prayers use three different Hebrew words for forgiveness: selichah (whose verb form is soleach), mechilah (whose verb form is mochel), and kapparah (whose verb form is mechaper). In the paragraphs that follow, we will explore the roots and etymologies of the three words for “forgiveness,” and explain how they differ from one another.
The term selichah and cognates thereof appear close to fifty times in the Bible. Most famously, after Moshe prayed for G-d’s forgiveness after the Ten Spies debacle, G-d responds “I have forgiven (salachti) according to your words” (Num. 14:20). Linguists connect the Hebrew word selicha to the Akkadian word salahu and the Aramaic zelicha which mean “sprinkling.” This may be a reference to the main component of ritual sacrifices, which is “sprinkling” their blood upon the altar. Indeed, cognates of selichah appear numerous times in regards to the “forgiveness” resulting from offering sacrifices (e.g. Lev. 4:20–35, Lev. 5:10–26).
The word selichah also refers to a type of liturgical poem, or piyyut, which begs for forgiveness. These poems were originally recited in the slach lanu blessing of the Shemonah Esrei, hence they are called selichot. Nowadays, they are recited before the prayers commence or after the Shemonah Esrei.
The word mechilah and its related forms do not appear anywhere in the Bible. In fact, Ernest Klein’s A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language writes that the root MEM-CHET-LAMMED is of uncertain etymology. However, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) notes that mechilah does appear in rabbinic literature and traditional Jewish liturgy. Besides referring to “forgiveness,” mechilah also refers to cancelling a debt or otherwise forgoing what one deserves.
Rabbi Moshe Meth (1551–1606) in Matteh Moshe and Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik of Tirna (circa. 1425) in Sefer ha-Minhagim write that the three terms for forgiveness are associated with three different words for sin. For example, selichah is associated with avon (Num. 14:19) and mechilah, with pesha. (Last year, we wrote about those three words in an essay entitled “Degrees of Sin.”)
When adducing Scriptural proof to the connection between mechilah and pesha, Rabbi Moshe Meth and Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik of Tirna could not cite any Biblical verses which use the two in tandem because mechilah does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Instead, they connect the word mechilah to a similar word which does appear in the Bible; thus, they cite the following verse to support the connection between mechilah and pesha: “I—[only] I—am He who wipes away (mocheh) your rebellious sins (pesha)” (Isa. 43:25). In this way, the two rabbis in question seem to equate mochel with mocheh (“wipe away”). Similarly, Rabbi Aharon Fuld (1791–1840), in his glosses to HaBachur, suggests that that the Hebrew root mochel/mechilah is derived from a portmanteau of mocheh and al (“on top of”).
Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Avigdor (1801–1865)—who served as the Chief Rabbi of various communities in Lithuania including Slonim, Kovno, and Shkolv—and Rabbi Yehuda Aszad (1794–1866) write that mechilah is related to the Biblical word yachel (Num. 30:3), which Targum translates as “cancel” or “nullify.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) offers a fascinating theory which is quite germane to this discussion. He proposes that many three-letter roots which begin with the letter MEM are really derivatives of the two-letter roots made up of the remaining two letters, with the letter MEM serving as a means of flipping the meaning of the root to its exact opposite. He cites several examples of such a phenomenon: the two-letter root CHET-KUF (chok) means “engrave,” while the three letter root MEM-CHET-KUF (machak) means “erase;” the two-letter root LAMMED-TZADI (leitz) means “scorn/mockery,” while MEM-LAMMED-TZADI (meilitz) means “justification/defense;” NUN-AYIN (na) refers to “movement,” while MEM-NUN-AYIN (mana) means “withholding;” REISH-DALET (rad) refers to “governing/ruling,” while MEM-REISH-DALET (marad) means “rebellion.” He continues to list many more examples of this phenomenon.
Although Rabbi Pappenheim does not use this theory to explain mechilah, perhaps we can apply his theory to this case. The two-letter root CHET-LAMMED primarily refers to the creation of something hollow. Some familiar conjugations of this root include challil, “flute,” and chillul “desecration.” In many cases, it refers to the concept of “defiling/profaning” something holy by emptying it of its holiness. When a Jew sins, he is essentially making himself a hollow vessel by emptying himself of his own holiness. Using Rabbi Pappenheim’s theory, mechilah, forgiveness — composed of the root MEM-CHET-LAMMED — is the mechanism by which G-d re-infuses the penitent sinner with holiness. In this way, MEM-CHET-LAMMED means to fill the hollow, thus it is the polar opposite of CHET-LAMMED.
Our third word for “forgiveness” is kapparah. Rabbi Moshe Meth and Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik of Tirna assert that kapparah is especially associated with chet, “inadvertent sin” (e.g., Ex. 32:30). Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (1713–1793) notes that even though in other parts of the Bible, kapparah is associated with avon (e.g., Prov. 16:6, Isa. 27:9, and Ps. 78:38), since in the Pentateuch (i.e. the Five Books of Moses) it is associated with chet (as mentioned above), that connection remains the most important.
As you may have realized, the popular name of the high-holiday Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), and its Biblical name Yom HaKippurim (“Day of Atonements”) are derived from the word kapparah.
Malbim writes that some explain that the word kapparah is related to kofer/pidyon (“redeem” or “ransom”). To explain this approach, Malbim writes that kapparah involves “paying a price” for forgiveness that usually takes the form of a ritual sacrifice (indeed we find many places in the Bible where the word kapparah applies to a sacrifice). Nowadays, there is a custom to perform a ritual on Erev Yom Kippur called kapparot in which one seeks atonement by giving a slaughtered chicken or alms to the poor.
Alternatively, Malbim notes that others explain that kapparah is related to the word kapporet (“cover”). In elaborating on this idea, Malbim explains that kapparah is a form of forgiveness which simply “covers up” one’s sin on the surface, rendering it no longer “visible,” it but does not completely remove or wipe away said sin.
We may harmonize these two approaches by noting that in English one “covers” one’s costs by somehow offsetting the expenditure. In this way, “covering” and “paying a price” can be different facets of the same idea. All in all, Malbim notes that the term kapparah recalls the price paid for sin and focuses on the transcationary nature of forgiveness/atonement. [I would have thought that the English cover is related to kapparah, but linguists trace its etymology to the Latin operio.]
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) writes that while selichah may be quantitatively stronger than mechilah, mechilah is qualitatively stronger than selichah. In other words, selichah affects the entirety of one’s sin by completely delaying punishment to a later time. In this way, it affects the entire quantity of the sin. On the other hand, mechilah is qualitatively stronger because it can completely erase at least part of one’s sin, even though it does not necessarily affect the entirety of the sin. In this way, mechilah effects a change in the quality of one’s sin (as opposed to simply deferring punishment for a qualitatively static sin).
Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) writes that the word selichah refers to a temporary reprieve by which a sinner is not punished for his misdeeds all at once, but is given time to slowly repay his debt. The word mechilah, on the other hand, connotes immediate and complete forgiveness. Neither Rabbi Mecklenburg nor Rabbi Wertheimer address how these two terms differ from kapparah.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) offers a slightly more comprehensive explanation. He writes that mechilah refers to commuting the punishment that the guilty party deserves, selichah refers to correcting the relationship between the sinner and the one (or One) to whom he sinned, and kapparah refers to the total negation of any negative ramifications of the sin.