The Rabbinic Concept of the Death of the Righteous Atones



There probably is not any Jewish concept that Christians have distorted to make appear consistent with their beliefs then the one dealing with the suffering or death of the righteous. They try to imply that the Jewish idea of the suffering of the righteous is the same or close to the Christian idea of a single man dying to bring individual atonement to all mankind who will believe in him. From this it is a short jump to saying that the messiah dies for our sins. The truth is that this cannot be further from the truth. The two ideas are significantly different, and neither implies the other.


I will discuss here a few Rabbinic teachings that are used by missionaries in order to illustrate why they are not similar. However before looking at the texts I need to introduce a few ideas that will aid us in understanding why they are not related.


First we need to deal with a definitional problem. The texts we are looking at are in Hebrew, and we are communicating in English. Because these two languages are so different, at times, the nuance of the Hebrew is lost to English speakers, and one can easily come to misunderstand what is being taught. Even worse is when the nuance of English does not correspond to that of the Hebrew. For that reason we need to examine what the Rabbis mean with regards to two key issues:

1.    What do they mean by atonement

2.    What do they mean that the suffering/death of the righteous atones

The first may not seem to be an issue. We all think we know what we mean by atonement. The English word is not ambiguous. But that is not always what the Rabbis mean. We shall see that they use atonement for two things:

1.    Where X sins and his sin is atoned for.

2.    Where X sins and punishment/suffering for him/them in this world is stopped.

The first is what is usually meant when you say atonement in English. In Rabbinic literature they use both. A confusion of the two leads to many misunderstandings. Berachos 62a is a good example of such a confusion which I will discuss at length later.


Another problem is what do we mean by the death of the righteous atones? If we refer to the first meaning of atonement the belief would be:


X, who is righteous, dies and Z has atonement WITHOUT any action on his part.


As we shall see, this is contrary to what the Rabbis meant when they discussed this. It is interesting to note that Christians do not maintain such a belief with regards to Jesus. They don’t believe that Jesus died and every person has his sins forgiven, and doesn’t need to do anything.


The Rabbinic belief is much closer to saying:


The death of the X opens up to Z the possibility to gain atonement if he does Y.


This seems to be a totally different view of the atoning power of the suffering of the righteous then we see claimed. While a Christian may see this as similar, we will shortly see how very different the two ideas are.


There is another issue of significance that needs to be kept in mind when looking at the Rabbinic teachings. This is the distinction between ‘national’ sin and individual sin.[1] The idea of national sin appears throughout the prophets and the basis for it is found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 where God says that he will punish the nation if they sin and do not follow His commandments. This involves the suffering of the nation and eventual exile from the land of Israel. Individual sin, on the other hand, effects the individual alone in this world and also the next.


What I believe will become obvious after examining these passages is that with regards to individuals and the death of the righteous, we are dealing with atonement, in the normally understood manner, which is type 1 above; and that under specific circumstances an individual’s sins are atoned for. With regards to Israel and its national sin, it is atonement as in the 2nd type, where it has to do with the suffering of Israel as a community[2].


I could have brought here many Rabbinic teachings on the subject but I have limited myself to a few that I believe are good examples of their thinking. They fulfill two conditions:

1.    They show the Rabbis thinking on the subject and the principles involved.

2.    They are among the more commonly used teachings by missionaries to try and ‘prove’ that Judaism and Christianity share a common theological belief in this regard.


* * *


I would like to start by looking at one of the most famous teachings on this subject. This is one quoted by both missionaries and Rabbinic works. It is probably the most quoted teaching of the Rabbis on this subject:


‘Rabbi Chiya Bar Abba said: The sons of Aaron died the first day of Nisan. Why then does the Torah mention their death in conjunction with the Day of Atonement? It is to teach that just as the Day of Atonement atones, so also the death of the righteous atones[3].


This is a well known teaching and there is no disagreement with the acceptability of it[4]. It is a fundamental teaching and is the basis for the custom of the reading for Yom Kippur starting with the words that relate the death of the two sons of Aharon. It should also be noted that it refers to the sins of an individual, and not the community as a whole. This is nowhere disputed.


Now this seems pretty simple, but it is not. In fact it is seriously misunderstood. We can see why when we ask the question: What does it mean ‘just as the Day of Atonement atones’? How is it that the death of the righteous is ‘like’ the Day of Atonement?


To answer this we need to examine what the Rabbis teach about the atonement of Yom Kippur:


The Chatas sacrifice and the Asham for a known sin atone; Death and Yom Kipper atone with repentance….[5]


Rashi makes a comment on the atonement of the Chatas and Asham which is quite significant. He explains why the Chatas and Asham atone:


It is assumed that he repented for if he did not regret what he did he would not have brought a sacrifice.[6]


We see from the Mishnah that repentance is a necessary condition to gain atonement for Yom Kippur. No repentance, no atonement. This is further emphasized by one of the most famous Rabbinic teachings on the subject of atonement:


Rabbi Masya ben Choresh asked of Rabbi Eluzer ben Azarya, “In Rome I heard there were four divisions of atonement that were taught by Rabbi Yishmoel.”


He answered, “There are three and repentance is with every one of them. If one violates a positive commandment and repents, he is immediately forgiven for that sin, as it says, ‘Return wayward sons [and I will heal you…’][7].


If one violates a negative command and repents, repentance suspends and Yom Kippur atones, as it says, ’Because on this day you will be atoned for [to purify you] from all your sins …’[8]


If one commits a sin which involves excision or a judicial death penalty and repents, repentance and Yom Kippur suspend and suffering wipes it out, as it says, ‘And I will punish their sins with the rod, and their iniquities with plagues.[9]


But if one of his sins is the desecration of HaShem’s name, there is no power in repentance to suspend, or Yom Kippur to atone, or suffering to wipe out, but all of them cause it to be suspended and death wipes it out as it says, ‘This was revealed to me [from] HaShem Lord of Hosts, this sin will not be atoned for you until you die.[10][11]’”


What do we see from this? For there to be atonement on Yom Kippur one has to repent. So if the death of the righteous is like Yom Kippur, it has no effect unless one repents.  This idea is found in many moralistic works. It is explicit in the Zohar dealing with the same issue as the Midrash, the relationship of the death of the two sons of Aharon and Yom Kippur:


We read [Yom Kippur] ‘After the death of the two sons of Aharon[12]’ so that the people should hear and be pained by the death of the righteous who are lost. Because all those that are pained from those righteous who have died, or who sheds tears for them, G-d proclaims over him, 'Your sins are removed, your iniquities forgiven[13].' Not just that, but his children will not die in his days as it says, 'He will see seed, and lengthen his days.[14]'[15]


This is not just a Kabbalistic/mystical understanding; it appears in the legal commentary of the Mogan Avraham on the code of Jewish law called the Shulchan Aruch[16] explaining about why we have this reading on the holiest day of the year. He brings this Zohar as the source and makes the clear relationship from this passage to the importance of repentance for atonement on Yom Kippur.


From this we see that there is an idea of the suffering/death of the righteous causing atonement, BUT, it is not a direct cause; only a catalyst, which has no effect UNLESS the person grieves and repents over that death.




Let me point out something important here. While there is a superficial similarity to Christian doctrine, the differences as I have shown here are so significant, that I cannot see it as a support for Christian doctrine.


To understand the significance we need to consider the ideas of necessary and sufficient conditions:


X is a necessary condition for Y if Y cannot occur without X.

X is a sufficient condition for Y if X occurs then Y must occur.


Here is simple example from the idea of a bachelor.:


A necessary condition for being a bachelor is that the person is male. A person cannot be a bachelor if that person is not male, but that is not enough. A married male, is not a bachelor, so being male (X) is necessary for being a bachelor (Y).


On the other hand if someone is a bachelor (X) it is a sufficient condition for that person to be a male (Y), as a bachelor MUST be a male. If someone is a bachelor, then that person is male.


Now we can turn to the issue of atonement and the significant differences between Judaism and Christianity:


1.    If X is the statement: “Jesus died for our sins” and Y the statement: “Z’s sins are atoned for.” Christian doctrine says X is a necessary condition for Y. Jesus’ death is a necessary condition for atonement. Without the death of Jesus, there can be no forgiveness of sin. However it is not sufficient, as one must also believe in the power of it.

2.    If X is the statement: “a righteous man suffers/dies” and Y the statement: “Z has atonement for his sins.” Jewish theology states that X is NOT necessary for Y. The death of a Tzaddik is not necessary for anyone’s atonement; there are many ways of achieving atonement without the righteous suffering and/or dying.

3.    If X is the statement: “a righteous man suffers/dies” and Y the statement: “Z has atonement for his sins.”  The death of a Tzaddik is not sufficient for anyone’s atonement as they must repent for there to be any effect from the righteous persons suffering.

4.    If X is the statement: “Z repents of his sins” and Y the statement: “Z has atonement for his sins.” According to Judaism X IS a necessary condition for Y.  Repentance is a necessary condition for Z to attain atonement, but it is not always sufficient for it, as there are some sins that require more than that.


We see clearly that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is significant. It is hard for me to see how the Jewish doctrine of the Atonement of the righteous can honestly be compared to the Christian doctrine of the atonement of Jesus. The paradigms are totally different.


* * *


The next Midrash[17] we will examine comes from the same place in the Midrash as the previous Midrash:


And whence that the death of the righteous effects atonement? From the fact that it is written, And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son[18], and it is also written, After that God was entreated for the land[19].[20]


There is a problem with this Midrash; it is unclear how it proves the idea that the death of the righteous brings atonement. According to that chapter in the Tenach, Saul died three years BEFORE he was buried and from the time he died there was a famine. After the three years of famine they buried Saul and God answered the prayers of Israel and ended the famine. How does this show the atonement of the righteous? It seems to show the opposite! The people were punished because of the death of Saul!


This Midrashic teaching appears in a number of Midrashim in conjunction with various other Midrashim dealing with the suffering of the righteous, but in none of the Midrashim is it explained actually how this was understood to be a proof.


The answer to this problem and a solution to understanding what the Midrash is getting at is to be found in a commentary on this Midrash called Perush HaMarZU. Here is what he says:


The drash is from the ‘bones of Saul’ as it is explained there[21] that because they showed honor and eulogized Saul, God listened to their prayers. The main reason that the death of the righteous atones is because of the eulogy and the honor that is given when they bury him. Because, if they do not do so it is not just the case that it doesn’t atone, they are also punished for it […] as it says with regards to the story of the burial of Saul in Perkei D’Rebbe Eliezer chapter 17. This is what it says there: ‘Since the Holy One Blessed is He saw that all of Israel showed mercy to him, (Saul) He was immediately filled with compassion and gave rain as it says, “God answered the prayer for the land”’ right after that.[22]


The chapter in Perkei D’Rebbe Eliezer deals with the character trait of compassion and mercy. In it there is a long passage where it describes how Israel was punished with famine after Saul died and he was not buried. After three years David took the bones of Saul and went all over Israel to allow for all the people to eulogize him and then buried him. After that the famine ended. As this commentary points out, the atoning effect was caused by the eulogies and honor shown, and not the death itself.


This makes this particular Midrash a difficult one to use for this concept of atonement for all of Israel, as it appears that the atonement only came when they rectified their sin of not showing honor to Saul at his death. And in fact, their actions, and not just the death of the righteous Saul was the cause of the atonement.


In this Midrash we see two key points.

1.    This Midrash deals with an instance of national sin and with regards to national sin there is a need for national action.

2.    We also see that ‘atonement’ here means the end of suffering caused by the rectification of a sin. In this case the sin of not burying Saul.


* * *


The next passage I want to address is from Berachos 62b. Here it is:


'And He said to the angel who was destroying the many (rav) people….'[23] Said Rabbi Eleazar: 'The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to the angel, "Take for me the greatest man (rav) among them, who is able to pay back their many debts.’ At that moment there died Abishai son of Zeruiah, who alone was equal to the majority of the Sanhedrin.


In a note #47 to the Artscroll Talmud this is clarified:


"i.e. his death will atone for many of the sins of Israel (Rashi). This accords with the Talmudic statement (Moed Katan 28a): "The death of the righteous atones [for the generation]”.


Before we can comment we need to look at what is going on in 2 Samuel 24 in order to place it in context. Here are the main verses and I have added bold to those words that are significant:


1. And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel and He moved David against them, saying, "Go count Israel and Judah."

2. And the king said to Joab the captain of the host that was with him, "Go please, to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan as far as Beer-sheba and take census of the people, so that I may know the number of the people."

3. And Joab said to the king, "May the Lord your God add to the people a hundredfold of whatsoever they may be, and the eyes of my lord, the king may see it; but my lord the king, why does he desire such a thing?"

4. But the word of the king prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host. And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people, the Israelites.

9. And Joab presented the sum of the number of the people to the king; And Israel consisted of eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men.

10. And David's heart smote him after he had counted the people. And David said to the Lord: I have sinned greatly in what I have done; and now, 'O Lord, put aside please, the iniquity of your servant, for I was very foolish!

11. And David rose up in the morning; and the word of the Lord came to Gad the Prophet, the seer of David, saying:

12. "Go and speak to David, 'So says the Lord, "Three things I offer you, choose for yourself one of them, and I shall do it to you".

13. And Gad came to David and he told him, and he said to him, "[Do you prefer] that seven years of famine in your land shall come upon you? or three months that you shall flee before your oppressor while he pursues you? or, that there be three days pestilence in your land? Now know and consider what I shall reply to Him that sent me.

14. And David said to Gad; "I am greatly oppressed; let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great; but into the hand of man let me not fall."

15. So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; And there died of the people from Dan to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men.

16. And the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, and the Lord regretted the evil, and he said to the angel that destroyed among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand." And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing-floor of Aravnah the Jebusite.

17. And David said to the Lord when he saw the angel that smote among the people, and he said, "Behold I have sinned, and have acted iniquitously; but these sheep, what have they done? I beg that Your hand be against me, and against my father's house."

18. And Gad came to David on that day, and said to him, "Go up to erect an altar to the Lord in the threshing-floor of Aravnah the Jebusite."

25. And David built there an altar to the Lord, and he offered up burnt-offerings and peace offerings. And the Lord was entreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.[24]


There are a two significant points here that need to be noted:

1.    This is a national event/sin and not one of the individual. Therefore the nation suffered.

2.    David’s sinning is the cause of the suffering of the nation. (Here we see that the sin of one man, the king, can cause the whole nation to be under judgment as if they had sinned.)

3.    The punishment comes only AFTER David had repented, and is punishment for that sin.[25]

What we see here is that again, the passage in the Talmud is taking the repression of suffering to the nation to mean atonement, and NOT forgiveness of sin. Neither David’s sin nor any sin of the people is mentioned in the Talmud. The Talmud and other Rabbinic literature, when dealing with national sin defines atonement as the end of suffering to the nation, Israel.




The reference to Moed Katan actually reinforces this idea, as there are two proofs of the righteous atoning. The first is from the red heifer and the second is from the garments of the priests. In both cases we are dealing with national sin. The Tosephus in Moed Katan is quite significant, and clear on this point:


Just as the Red Heifer atones: The explanation is that it refers to the sin of the Golden Calf as it says in the Midrash: ‘It can be compared to the son of a servant who dirtied up the palace of the king and the king said bring his mother…’


Tosephus came to this because he had a problem with the text. The problem was that the purpose of the Red Heifer was not for sin, but to purify someone who had come in contact with a dead body. Therefore he appeals to the Midrash, which deals with the national sin associated with the sin of the Golden Calf. There God was going to wipe out all of Israel, but the Red Heifer fulfilled the function of pacifying God, so that Israel was not wiped out. Here we clearly see an example of national sin.


As to the garments of the priest there is a long Tosephus in Zevachim 86b where he indicates that this also applies to national sin as opposed to individual sin.


Actual atonement for the national sin depends on national repentance and nothing else. This is the view of the Talmud in Sanhedrin[26]:


Rabbi Eliezer said, “If Israel repents they will be redeemed, and if not they will not be redeemed.”


Rabbi Yehoshua answered him, “If they don’t repent they will not be redeemed? Rather say that the Holy One Blessed is He will raise up for them a King whose decrees are worse than Haman’s, and Israel will repent and return to the right path.”


The Talmud then has an elaborate argument between the two where Rabbi Eliezer eventually concurs to the view of Rabbi Yehoshua. The Talmud’s view is consistent with what appears explicitly in the Tenach. We see in the Torah in Deuteronomy[27]:


1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you; the blessings and the curses, which I have placed before you, and you will consider in your heart when you are among all the nations where HaShem your God has driven you,

2 and you shall return to HaShem you God and listen to his voice according to everything I have commanded you today, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul;

3 then HaShem your God will return you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will return you and gather you from among all the nations where  HaShem your God has spread you.


For the nation, it is national repentance that atones, for the individual it is personal repentance.


* * *


There is a specific passage in the Zohar that relates to this issue that comes up so often that I need to discuss it here[28]. It will actually is a confirmation of what we have been saying until now about the suffering of the righteous and its effect on individual and national sin. It is from the Zohar: II 212a and here is how it is usually presented by missionaries[29]:


As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land the rituals and the sacrifices they performed [in the Temple] removed all those diseases from the world; now Messiah removes them from the children of the world.


This is used to make a claim that the Zohar advocates the idea that only the suffering of the Messiah has this power of bringing atonement. The problem is that this is a distorted excerpt and the whole passage teaches a much different lesson. Here it is in full:


After that they (i.e. these souls) journey and look upon those who are pained and sick and who have suffered for the Unity of their Master. They then return and tell this to the Messiah. When they tell to the Messiah about the suffering of Israel in exile and of the wicked ones who are among them who do not try to know their Master, he raises his voice and weeps because of the wicked ones among them, as it says. “He was pained because of our rebellion and oppressed because if our sins.”  Then the souls return to their place.


In Gan Eden (heaven) there is one hall; it is called the 'hall of the sick' (ill).  When the Messiah goes into this hall, he calls all the sicknesses, all the pains, and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him. If he wouldn't take them off Israel and put them on himself no man would be able to bear the sufferings of Israel, as it say 'our sicknesses he bore'. And just like that is Rabbi Eluzer in the Land.  Because there is no measure to the sufferings that come upon a man every day, and they all came to the world when the Torah was given.  When Israel was in the Holy Land those services and the sacrifices that they did took up from them all the sicknesses and sufferings of the world.  Now Messiah takes them from the world, until a man leaves the world and receives his punishments. As it says 'if his sins are more he is taken to Gehennim (hell) to the lowest of the levels and he receives there many punishments because of the greatness of the 'filth' that is on his soul.  Then they light the fire greater to burn this 'filth'.


When looking at the actual quote as opposed to the excerpt used by missionaries we see a few significant differences:

1.    They claim this shows that the death of the righteous atones. This is ONLY true if you define ‘atone’ as meaning that suffering is removed.

2.    They claim it applies to all sins, but the passage is clear that individual sin IS NOT atoned for by the suffering (unless there is repentance as we showed on a previous Midrashic teaching.)

3.    They claim it is unique to the Messiah, but in the Zohar it applies this power to all righteous men. (I would point out that this mention of the Messiah does not help Christians as it is a well known doctrine, in the Talmud as well as in Kabbalah sources that souls pre-exist, and also that the Messiah has some type of suffering due to his not being able to come into this world[30].)

So we see here again that with regards to national sin: atonement refers to the ending of suffering. And that seems to fit well with the Midrashim we have seen already.


* * *


To summarize what we have seen from various Rabbinic teachings in the Midrash, Talmud and Zohar with regards to the suffering of the righteous:

1.    With regards to individual sin, the death of the righteous helps ONLY with repentance.

2.    There is no relationship to the Christian theological idea of the Messiah dying for individual sins, as the death of the righteous is not a necessary condition for atonement, repentance is.

3.    For national sin the death of the righteous does not help if the person is not given proper honor at death as we see from Saul that instead of atonement it was considered a sin.

4.    For national sin it only removes the suffering but not the sin itself from the individual.

5.    For national sin it helps for the suffering but there still remains the need for the nation to repent for its sins.


© Moshe Shulman 2014

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at


[1]  The topic of sin and atonement is too large a one to cover in this article. I intend on doing a series of articles covering all the issues involved, including the distinction between national and individual sin.

[2]  There is an explicit source for this in the Zohar II 212a, and I will quote from that and other such sources in my discussions here.

[3]  Leviticus Rabbah 20:12. This appears in many Midrashim besides this one.

[4]  It is not unusual to find a teaching that has opposition to it and is eventually rejected. That is not the case with this one.

[5]  Mishnah in tractate Yoma 85b.

[6]  Ibid

[7]  Jeremiah 3:22

[8]  Leviticus 16:30

[9]  Psalms 89:33

[10]  Isaiah 22:14

[11]  Yoma 86a

[12]  Leviticus 16:1

[13]  Isaiah 6:7

[14]  Isaiah 53:10

[15]  Zohar III 57b

[16]  Chapter 621

[17]  This one as with the previous one are quoted in Dr. Michael Brown’s work Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2 page 156.

[18]  2 Samuel 21:14

[19]  Ibid

[20]  Leviticus Rabbah 20:12

[21]  This is a reference to chapter 17 of Perkei D’Rebbe Eliezer.

[22]  Commentary in Leviticus Rabbah 20:12

[23]  2 Samuel 24:16

[24]  The source of this translation is:

[25]  The text in the Tenach itself does not indicate that a righteous person died, this is a drash in the Talmud.

[26]  Sanhedrin 97b

[27]  Deuteronomy 30:1-3

[28]  It is discussed in my article on the Zohar and Isaiah 53:

[29]  Brown op cit page 155.

[30]  This will be further illustrated in an article on the suffering of Moshiach ben Dovid.