The month of Elul, which we currently find ourselves in, is a time for repentance, forgiveness, and atonement, as we have already discussed. Let us now discuss various categories of sin, which are more severe than others, and how to completely erase these sins.
The Four Categories of Atonement
The Baraita (Yoma, 86a) tells us that there are four categories of atonement, meaning that there are four categories of sins and each category possesses a different rectification process in order to completely rectify the sin. The order of the various kinds of sins, based on the words of our Sages, is broken up into four categories, each category ranging in level of severity beginning from the least severe, as we shall now explain:
Transgressing a Positive Commandment
The first level is one who “transgresses a positive commandment” and repents about which the Baraita states, that “one does not move from there until he is forgiven.” This means that the least severe category of sin is when one does not actively transgress a prohibition but merely does so passively. An example of this is not reciting Kiddush on Shabbat night or not reciting Keri’at Shema at its proper time; after one repents by feeling remorse for his iniquity, confessing it, and accepting upon himself completely not to repeat this sin, his sin is immediately forgiven and it is if it never existed, as the verse states, “Return wayward children, I shall heal your ailments.” (Nevertheless, the Poskim write that if one transgresses even a “light” prohibition may times, it is considered a great blemish and is as if one has transgressed a prohibition for which one is liable for Karet or death by Bet Din.)
Transgressing a Negative Torah Commandment
The second level is one who “transgresses a negative Torah commandment,” for instance, if one eats a fruit that requires checking for worms without checking it first and it turns out that it did indeed contain worms and repents fully, the repentance is “on standby” until Yom Kippur; Yom Kippur will then atone for his sin completely, as the verse states, “For on this day will He atone for you from all of your sins.” (Let us all pay attention how awesome is the day of Yom Kippur, for the very fact that one lives through Yom Kippur in addition to repenting fully atones for one’s sins!)
Transgressing a Negative Torah Commandment for Which One is Liable for Karet or Death by Bet Din
The third level is one who “transgresses a negative commandment for which one is liable for Karet or death by Bet Din (for instance, not keeping Shabbat or the laws of family purity), even after one has repented and Yom Kippur has passed, one is still in a standby situation until suffering and hardships befall him, at which point his sin will be completely forgiven, as the verse states, “I shall remember their iniquities with a staff and with afflictions their sins.” (We shall soon discuss what one should do in order to be spared from suffering.)
Desecration of Hashem’s Name
The fourth and most severe level is one who “desecrates Hashem’s name,” which includes mocking the laws of our holy Torah caused by deriding and causing the Torah and those who learn it to be hated by unaffiliated Jews who are far from Torah observance or if one who appears to be a G-d-fearing person acts in a manner which causes those far from Torah observance to become even further from religion. For such sins, neither one’s repentance, Yom Kippur, or suffering are powerful enough to grant one forgiveness for the desecration of Hashem’s name which one has caused; rather, one can only hope for complete atonement upon his death, for complete forgiveness for this sin can only be obtained on the day one dies, as the verse states, “It is revealed in the ears of Hashem, G-d of Hosts, if this sin shall be atoned for you until you die.” We see from here that there is no atonement for the desecration of Hashem’s name until the day one dies. (Nevertheless, one may rectify this sin by sanctifying Hashem’s name; see Kaf Ha’Chaim, end of the Laws of Rosh Chodesh, for an order of rectification for this sin.)
We shall continue with this topic in the next Halacha, G-d-willing, where we will quote the words of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l regarding a wise piece of advice for atonement of sin and cleaving to Hashem in our generation.