Tefillah Zakkah, the prayer recited by many before Kol Nidrei, is comprised of three parts. The first section consists of a confession of a myriad of sins committed through the agency of the various body parts a person possesses. The final, and overwhelmingly largest, section consists of a plea for mercy and forgiveness, while acknowledging that by right we should have to suffer much to atone for our sins; we cast ourselves at God’s mercy because that suffering would be overwhelming. In between is a short paragraph in which we state that we have likely have harmed others and repentance for those sins cannot lead to atonement until we have appeased the victims of our actions. Thus, we hereby forgive all others for (virtually) all that they have done to us and ask God to cause us to be viewed favorably in the eyes of others so that they will grant us the same forgiveness for any harm that we have done them.
The source for the notion that atonement cannot be achieved without the appeasement of the aggrieved party is the mishnah in Yoma (8,9):
Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins committed against another person until one has appeased his fellow.
Included in this, as Rambam states (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9), is payment for any damages or loss.
One might ask, though, why is it that we recite this request for forgiveness from other people at this point in the Tefillah Zakkah? Neither the mishnah nor Rambam present a specific sequence for this process – the appeasement of one’s fellow person is one step required to complete the process of atonement, but does it necessarily have to come first, i.e. before requesting God’s forgiveness for the act. The paragraph could have been placed at the end of the Tefillah Zakkah as a footnote or qualification (which it really is), or recited in some other context on Yom Kippur.
The Torah in parashat Naso presents the parashah of the ’asham gezeilot, the guilt-offering sacrifice brought to atone for taking a false oath regarding money owed. The Torah describes three stages of repentance/atonement: 1) “And they shall confess the sins that they did” (viddui) 2) “And he shall return the principal and add on its fifth” (compensation for the damages) and finally 3) “And his guilt-offering he shall bring to God” (the sacrifice for atonement.)
The Mishnah in Bava Metzi`a (9,12) notes that the order of the last two requirements is deliberate. It states:
One who brought his repayment before his guilt-offering has fulfilled his obligation; one who brought his guilt-offering before his repayment has not fulfilled his obligation.
According to the mishnah, the sin-offering brought before the repayment of the money is invalid (and another one must be brought subsequent to the repayment.) Chazal teach us that the process of atonement demands that repairing the harm to people (from the theft) must precede repairing the harm to God (the false oath) in order for the latter to be efficacious; when done in the wrong order, the sacrifice is invalid. In effect, God does not wish to discuss matters with us until we have settled all accounts with our fellow human beings. One cannot repair the rupture in the relationship with God before repairing the rupture with the aggrieved party.
One can now readily understand the order of Tefillah Zakkah – the order of the sections follows the sequence of the ’asham gezeilot. The first step is teshuvah – recognizing the sin, regret and acknowledging it – represented by the obligation of viddui. The second and third steps are required to remove the stain of sin, i.e. for atonement, but they must be done in the proper order. Thus, after acknowledging that we have sinned, we first request forgiveness from the people we have harmed – we do so by forgiving them and hoping that they too will forgive us – and then beg mercy from God to achieve kapparah for his forgiveness.
There is one last point that should be noted in the context of this passage. The hope expressed in this passage seems misplaced. If atonement for sins against another person is dependent upon appeasing that person, then presumably there should be little point in issuing the declaration – if one has already appeased them, then the declaration is unnecessary. If one has not, it seems to be a form of wishful thinking, i.e. hoping that the other person will recite Tefillah Zakkah and do the same. The Mishnah in Bava Qamma (9:5) states:
If one has stolen a perutah’s worth and sworn falsely, he must return the money even if it means travelling to Madai before he can bring his guilt-offering. He may not give it to the man’s son or agent, but he may deposit it with the agent of beit din.
According to the mishnah, there was a special takkanah that if he is unable to do so, he may give it to the beit din and in such case the Sages declared that he can now bring his guilt-offering despite the money not having reached its rightful owner. Tefillat Zakkah may play a similar role. We view the opening of Yom Kippur as if we are in the presence of a beit din and hence we engage (according to one view) in hattarat nedarim which requires a beit din. In the context of the very same beit din, at a time where we can do no more in terms of our obligation to ask forgiveness from those we have hurt, we request the intercession of beit din to provide us with the relief from that obligation. The result is that the atonement of Yom Kippur, akin to the guilt-offering, may then be effective.
 The Mishnah’s language could be read to be sequential or as conditional; a straightforward reading of Rambam’s presentation, however, suggests that appeasing the victim is a condition for atonement but the sequence doesn’t matter.
Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Professor of Talmud in the University’s Mazer Yeshiva Program and is an Adjunct Professor of Bible in Yeshiva College. He was ordained by RIETS and holds a PhD in Judaic Studies from New York University.