What Forgiveness Shares with Forgetting

In both Hebrew and English.

Sept. 7 2023
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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Forgiveness is on the Jewish calendar these days. Jews pray for it in the sliḥot, the penitential prayers said in the month of Elul before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur; they sermonize about it; they express their intentions of extending it and their hopes of receiving it—all as if they knew just what it was. Yet few mental and emotional states are harder to define.

Generally, when we speak of liking someone, or being angry at someone, or being irritated or amused by someone, or of numerous other feelings that we have for and toward others, we safely assume that we are talking about the same thing. These are emotions that we recognize as common ones. Even the “I love you” that ranges from the most soulful of declarations to the routine ending of telephone calls refers to a feeling whose different shades of intensity we have reason to think we are all familiar with. Forgiving isn’t quite like that. When you or I say, “I forgive you,” neither of us can be entirely sure what the other means. What is it that I have done when I have forgiven you for something? How do you know that I have done it?

Forgiving is often associated with forgetting, but the nature of the association is moot, and for every folk adage that tells us that “to forgive is to forget,” there is a pop psychology admonition (I quote from one on the Internet) that, when forgiving, “Forget about forgetting. It’s not really possible to forget, nor is it necessary.” Both views are compelling. If to forgive a wrong done us is to forget it, how can we voluntarily forgive anyone, since forgetting is an involuntary act? And if it is not to forget it, how can we know it has really been forgiven if the painful memory of it can keep coming back?

We forgive a wrong done us, the “It’s not possible to forget” school tells us, by relinquishing not the memory of it but the anger or hurt that it evokes—and indeed,  “forgive” and “forget” both begin with the Old English prefix “for-“ that we also encounter in such words as “forgo,” “forswear,” and “forbear,” and that denotes relinquishment or abandonment of something. (This prefix is not to be confused with the “fore-” of “foresee” or “foretoken,” which means to precede.) Thus, “forget” is “for-” plus the Old English verb gietan, to hold or to grasp. while “forgive” comes from Old English forgiefan, to give something up or away. To forget is to lose one’s grasp of a memory; to forgive, to give up a grievance over a wrong.

Unlike English, Hebrew has two different verbs for forgiving, salaḥ and maḥal. In contemporary Hebrew, these two mean the same thing, with salaḥ being used in everyday speech and maḥal serving as a more literary synonym and appearing in several idioms in which salaḥ cannot take its place. “Slaḥ li” or “Sliḥah,” “Excuse me,” one Israeli says to another when stepping on his toe or interrupting him, but “Ani moḥel al ha-tovah,” “Don’t do me any favors” (literally, “I forgive the favor”). In the Bible, on the other hand, maḥal does not occur at all. There we have only salaḥ, which refers to God’s forgiveness of human beings. There is not a single biblical passage that speaks of one person forgiving another.

The God of the Bible does not forget and salaḥ has nothing to do with forgetting. It is related linguistically to an Arabic verb meaningto fix,” as well as to the sulha, the Arab ceremony of restitution and reconciliation that ends or preempts the victim’s right to vengeance. As such, it has the sense of a pardon that sets things right by restoring God’s relations with the sinner to what they were before the sin. It denotes a kind of restart, a return to God’s good graces.

And yet God’s forgiveness is compared by the Bible to forgetting, too. This is done by the prophet Micah when, without using the word salaḥ, he asks God to “cast into the depths of the sea” all Israel’s sins, and by the Psalmist when he prays, “In Thy great mercy, erase my sins.” What is erased or cast into the depths is as though forgotten.

And is it only an accident that the “erase” of the verse in Psalms, m’ḥeh, the singular imperative form of the three-consonant verb maḥah, has the same first two consonants as maḥal? Probably not, especially since Hebrew has a third verb, maḥak, which also means to erase. Leaving aside the question of the relationship in Hebrew between bi-consonantal and tri-consonantal verbal roots, it is likely that an m-ḥ combination signifying erasure underlies all three of these words. In talmudic Hebrew, as well as in later rabbinic literature, maḥal is regularly used for both human and divine forgiveness, whereas salaḥ often continues to apply to divine forgiveness alone.

Perhaps the most we can say about the matter is that both forgiving and forgetting involve an act of letting go. In one case, this is passive: we do not choose or will to forget, at least not on a conscious level. (A “willed” unconscious forgetting is called repression.) In the other case, it is active: although unconscious factors may be at work, forgiving is a choice that we make. It is like the difference between having an object fall from one’s hand while asleep and letting it fall while awake. In the former instance, the gripping hand relaxes and opens of its own accord; in the latter, we have to resolve to unclench it.

If forgiving were forgetting, we could never intentionally forgive. If weren’t like forgetting, we could never be sure we have forgiven. In real forgiveness, one might say, what is not forgotten is cast into the sea of what is no longer retrievable.

A shanah tovah to all my readers!

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

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