Talmud

Bava Kamma 92

Does payment really make amends?

We have been discussing the monetary payments for personal injury, including compensation for embarrassment. But does payment take the place of the religious and social obligation to make amends? Or do you also need to regret your actions, apologize and seek forgiveness from the victim? Let’s turn to a mishnah:

Despite the fact that the assailant gives to the victim (all of the required payments), he is not forgiven for him (in the heavenly court) until he requests forgiveness from the victim, as it is stated (that God told Avimelech after he had taken Sarah from Abraham): “Now therefore restore the wife of the man…”  (Genesis 20:7)

And from where is it derived that if the victim does not forgive him that he is cruel? As it is stated: “And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Avimelech…”  (Genesis 20:7)

The basic position of the mishnah is clear: Monetary compensation does not replace the interpersonal religious obligation to ask for forgiveness. The mishnah implies that on Yom Kippur God will not forgive a wrong committed against another person unless the sinner has sought forgiveness from the victim. Interestingly, the prooftext for this point is not the laws of Yom Kippur, but a biblical story. So let’s rewind to Genesis:

While traveling through dangerous lands, Abraham asks his wife Sarah to pretend to be his sister, as he believed this would protect him from the murderous jealousy of the locals. Avimelech, thinking Sarah a single woman, promptly has her brought to him. 

God visits Avimelech in a dream and tells him that he has done wrong by taking another man’s wife; Avimelech must return Sarah to Abraham and, even though he had been misled by Abraham, he must ask Abraham to pray for his absolution — or else Avimelech will die. Our mishnah quotes these divine instructions, but how Avimelech implements them differs from the command:

Then Avimelech summoned Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.’” (Genesis 20:9)

Our mishnah quotes this story as a proof of the obligation to ask for forgiveness, but Avimelech doesn’t actually apologize! In fact, he blames Abraham for setting him up to unknowingly commit adultery. Avimelech summons him for a kind of reckoning and Abraham explains his fears of being killed on account of his wife. It is only then that Avimelech follows God’s instructions, but again, with a twist:

Avimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored his wife Sarah to him. And Avimelech said, ‘Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.’ And to Sarah he said, ‘I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you as vindication before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.’ Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed Avimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children.” (Genesis 20:14-17

Avimelech returns Sarah to Abraham, as God told him to, but of his own accord he also gives gifts and pays monetary restitution for Sarah’s embarrassment. (Some of the commentators suggest that this money was akin to a dowry to prove that Avimelech had intended to marry Sarah in a noble fashion.) His gifts prefigure the rabbinic system of restitution of damage, as well as additional compensation for pain and embarrassment. 

Though Avimelech never apologizes directly, perhaps the gifts and the invitation to settle in his land are themselves the attempt at appeasement. Of course we know Abraham does pray on Avimelech’s behalf, demonstrating, as our mishnah states, that ideally victims should accept a sincere apology. 

Interpersonal injuries are usually messy. Though one side may owe the other for concrete damages, often — as in this case — there needs to be a rapprochement between both sides. Accepting an apology serves to open a dialogue about what went wrong in a relationship. 

The Gemara adds a coda to this story. Abraham is rewarded for his generosity of spirit: Because he prayed on behalf of Avimelech, his own prayers for fertility are answered: 

“And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Avimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants, and they bore children” (Genesis 20:17), and it is written immediately following that: “And the Lord remembered Sarah, as He had said” (Genesis 21:1) — as Abraham said with regard to Avimelech. 

Abraham is cast as the hero who forgives his tormentor, but it’s noticeable that both men had a hand in Sarah’s hardship in this story. We are left to wonder: Is Sarah herself blessed for forgiving Abraham and Avimelech, or is she simply the conduit for Abraham’s reward? 

Read all of Bava Kamma 92 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 2nd, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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