Do Jews believe in venial and mortal sin?

Also has yhe Jewish understanding of sin changed over the millenia?
Your answers are appreciated.

Hi John!

Whereas Christianity (I think) sees Sin as a state of being, Judaism sees sins as acts of commission or ommission which are done in defiance of God’s will.

Judaism distinguishes between two types of sin: Those between men and God and those between men & their fellow men. If a person sins against God, he/she must acknowledge what they’ve done (present), sincerely regret what they’ve done (past) & not to do it again when presented with the opportunity to do so (future). Sins against one’s fellow men are also sins against God (of course!) but before we can obtain, or even request, God’s forgiveness for these sins, we must first apologize to & obtain the the forgiveness of the person[s] we have wronged (or at least make an honest effort to do so). It is not for me, or for any of us, to presume to “forgive” those who perpetrated the wicked acts of terrorism on 9/11 in New York, Arlington & Pennsylvania. The perpetrtators (as well as those who knowingly aided and abetted them and planned their heinous acts) can only obtain forgiveness from their victims. Ah, but their victims are dead? Hmm, then it appears that the perpetrators and their accomplices, bosses & cohorts have a serious problem; there is no forgiveness for them in this world. (This should be a cause for sadness and grief, that any persons created in the Image of God should have sunk so low as to commit such crimes. Perhaps this is why Proverbs warns us against rejoicing when our enemy stumbles, such an occasion should be the cause for sadness, not rejoicing.)

Reconciliation between individuals should be done privately. Judaism believes that shaming, or even embarrassing, one’s fellow in public, is a terrible sin.

We learn from Numbers 6:7 (“When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the Lord, and that soul be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have done…”) that the confession of one’s sins must be verbal. However, while such confession may be in the presence of others (whether in public prayer in synagogue or in the Temple), it is to God & to God alone. When a penitent brought this or that offering in the Temple (and as we will do when the Temple will be rebuilt as we believe it will be, hopefully soon!), while the priest officiated over the offering & witnessed the ceremony, the penitent’s confession was not to him but to God.

Please let me clarify something. The order of Temple offerings was merely one part of the process whereby a Jew could repent of his/her sins; by itself, isolated, bringing an offering was insufficient. Since the order of offerings is, to our sorrow , temporarily suspended, we must rely, for the time being, on the other steps of the process.

What are the other steps of the process? Hosea 14:2-3 (read in synagogue on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur) says:

Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take with you words, and return unto the Lord; say unto Him: 'Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips.



While reconciliation between man and God, and between us & our fellow men is appropriate & necessary always, at all times, every day, we believe that certain times of the year are especially appropriate/favorable. The Hebrew month of Elul ([)]( is the last month of the year & immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah (our 2-day New Year;, the “Days of Awe” ( and Yom Kippur ( This entire period is considered especially appropriate & propitious.

I would add that before a Jew goes to sleep at night, he/she says a prayer which contains the following: “I hereby forgive all those who angered me and vexed me, or sinned against me, against my person, my finances or my honor, or anything that is mine, whether willingly or under compulsion, erroneously or intentionally, in word or in deed, and let nobody be punished on my account.”

As far as mortal sins, the closest thing we have (I suppose) to that Catholic concept is as follows. Our Sages teach that we may/must violate any of the Torah’s precepts, except for three, in order to save human life. The three precepts against murder, adultery/incest and idolatry must never be violated even at the cost of one’s own life (i.e. if someone puts a gun to a Jew’s head and says, “Commit murder, adultery/incest or idolatry!”, the Jew must allow him/herself to be killed rather than comply). A Jew who commits one of these three sins is in big trouble with God. However, even so, all hope is not necessarily lost for him/her.

Under halakha, i.e. orthodox Jewish law (which is NOT the same thing as Israeli law; Israel has executed only one person in its history, the infamous Nazi Adolf Eichman), a criminal who is executed by a duly constituted rabbinical court, his execution is considered to atone for him, thus sparing him of the need to undergo trials & tribulations in the next world in order to remove this blight on his soul. We learn this from Joshua 7. In 7:25, Joshua tells Achan:

And Joshua said [to Achan]: “Why have you troubled us? The Lord shall trouble you this day.” And all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones.

Our Sages comment on the phrase (underlined by moi, for emphasis) this day and teach that Joshua was telling him, “The Lord will trouble you this day, in this world, and not tomorrow, in the next world,” i.e. your execution will atone for your sin.

But this is a very special case that does not apply today.



In Leviticus 13-14, we read about tzara’at (“leprosy” is a terrible mistranslation; tzara’at is not Hansen’s Disease; in our view, it was a malady visited on people by God for certain sins; its appearance has been temporarily suspended until the Messiah comes). There is a marvelous message of hope hidden in the reading. God says (in Leviticus 13:2, 13:9 and 14:2) that the metzora (person with tzara’at; although it could strike clothes & homes too; Hansen’s Disease certainly doesn’t do that) must be brought before the priest for examination & purification (i.e. people come fetch him & take him to the priest, regardless of whether he is capable of independent motion). Our Sages see a deep lesson here. No matter what a person has done, or thinks he has done, he must never think that he is too far gone to be helped, that what he has done is so awful that he cannot return to either God or decent society, that repentance is useless for him. Thus the metzora is brought before the priest to show him that redemption is possible, that he can return to God. This message applies not just to the metzora but to all of us!


Be well!

ssv :wave:


Wow, that is a beautiful prayer! We Catholics need to live up to our calling to pray like that also.

“If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father,”

Thank you SSV, for the reminder of the charitable attitude we are all to have.


Catholics also accept the definition of sin that you gave for Judaism.

From what I gather from your posts, I would say that Jews also believe in the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin, though they might not use these terms.

The Catholic Church teaches that for a sin to be mortal it must meet three conditions – "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. (CCC 1857).”

A person that dies unrepentant of mortal sin would be eternally damned.Conditon 1 – grave matter – God does not judge all sin the same. You have shown that Jews also make this distinction:

Our Sages teach that we may/must violate any of the Torah’s precepts, except for three, in order to save human life. The three precepts against murder, adultery/incest and idolatry must never be violated even at the cost of one’s own life (i.e. if someone puts a gun to a Jew’s head and says, “Commit murder, adultery/incest or idolatry!”, the Jew must allow him/herself to be killed rather than comply). A Jew who commits one of these three sins is in big trouble with God.

Condition 2 – the mortal sin was committed with full knowledge of its seriousness. Do Jews believe that the Hindu that has never heard of Judaism is “in big trouble with God”, if she offers a sacrifice to Ganesh for world peace?

Condition 3 – deliberate consent. The sin is grave, the person knows that the sin is grave, and the person commits the sin without compulsion. You did not speak directly to this point either. For example, suppose a woman was offered a choice, commit adultery with a Nazi officer and save her family and her village, or refuse adultery and bring a death sentence to everyone. Would the woman be necessarily damned if she chose adultery in such a circumstance?

The fact that the Jews pray for the dead to help the dead in their purification after death shows that they believe that not all sins are mortal (i.e. not all sins lead to eternal damnation).

The same can be said for the Orthodox. They also believe in praying for the dead, and that proves that they believe in the essential distinction between mortal and venial sin. The fact that the Orthodox also pray for their dead proves that they too believe in the essentials of the doctrine of Purgatory, a doctrine that has its roots in the Jewish belief of praying for the dead.

In all fairness to the translators, I would say that it is not their fault. “Leprosy” is a fine translation for “tzara’at,” but it is a crummy word to use as a substitute for pneumonia of the skin. At the time that the first English translations of the Bible were being made, “leprosy” was not used to describe pneumococcal skin infections. It was not until the XIX century that microbiologists began using the word “leprosy” to describe this disease, and the translators can hardly be blamed for the sloppiness of XIX century microbiologists. As such, I would say that instead of using some other word than “leprosy” where the texts say “tzara’at,” we should simply stop refering to pneumococcal skin disease as “leprosy.”