If I’m unconscious about it should I still apologize?

user4762 asked the above question on Mi Yodeya, and I liked how my answer turned out so I’m sharing it here.


If I’m unconscious about it should I still apologise?

Someone else points out to me that I have hurt another person by something I’ve done or said, but any of the following apply, then how should I deal with it? How should I react?

1) I’m unaware of it, or
2) I am not sure or can’t remember whether I actually said something or did something or not, or
3) if I just experienced it differently, or
4) if I’m just convinced that I didn’t do anything of what has been pointed out to me, and
5) besides it wasn’t my intention to hurt the other person in any case.

Could it be possible I did an unconscious sin against a fellow Jew?

How can I solve such a situation halachically or conform with the Torah’s requirements?

Is it then sufficient (and my duty) to recognize the other person in his feeling and show understanding by saying something like: “I’m sorry if something has happened, been said or done, that may have hurt you. Never and never have I wanted, not was it my intention to hurt you deliberately, consciously or unconsciously.”


As pragmatic halakhah, I would think (although I don’t give halachic rulings) that the question is a non-starter. If one isn’t obligated to ask mechilah (ask for forgiveness) in this context, one would still be obligated to maintain the peace. The fact remains someone may be annoyed or angry and you can do something to alleviate it. The whole question of guilt aside.

The Torah says, “לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃ — Do not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your compatriot, and do not carry a sin for him.” (Vayiqra 19:17) From the middle of this verse, we learn the obligation to rebuke others. However, commentaries on the verse itself notice the combination of clauses and suggest a second mitzvah is being given as the more literal read (peshat) of the verse. For example the Chizquni (only because I can cut-n-paste a translation from Sefaria):

לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך אם שמעת שהעוה לך לא תהיה נוטר לו שנאה בלבבך מסותרת אלא הוכיח תוכיח אותו מדוע עשית לי כך ושמא מתוך כך יתברר הדבר כי הכל שקר ולא נתכוין למה שאתה סבור, או יתקן את מה שהעוה ומתוך כך לא תשא עליו חטא לחשדו בדבר שאינו. ד״‎א הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך אם ראית בו ערות דבר תוכיחנו. אבל אם לא תוכיחנו תשא עליו חטא לחשדו בדבר שאינו.

“Do not hate your brother (fellow Jew) in your heart.” If it has come to your attention that that Jew made negative comments about you, accused you falsely behind your back of wrongdoing, do not bottle your resentment up in your heart by hating him.” You should rather הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, “remonstrate with your colleague about having wrongly accused you,” asking him what prompted him to badmouth you. Perhaps, once matters are in the open you can demonstrate to your colleague that he completely misinterpreted one of your actions. Alternately, you will become aware that what had been reported to you as having said by him about you was misrepresented, and not meant detrimentally at all. (B’chor Shor) You are to act in this manner even if you are convinced that your remonstrations will not help at all. In fact, your failure to make an attempt at reconciliation will be held against you by the heavenly tribunal. This is why the verse concludes with the words: “ולא תשא עליו חטא — so that you will not burden him with a sin.”

So, there is a mitzvah in the Torah to clear the air. After all, animosity is prohibited (except of the truly evil person).

The only caveat I would give is the famous dispute between Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Chafeitz Chaim. In R Yisrael Meir haKohein’s Seifer Chafeitz Chaim, he rules that if one intentionally did something that would hurt another if they knew about it, in his case — spoke ill about them — one still has to ask mechilah in order to do teshuvah for it. Rav Yisrael Salanter was asked to give a letter of approbation to the work and refused to do so unless this one ruling were taken out. It wasn’t. (This story might be apocryphal or not, but the ruling is at part 1, 4:12. Torah Musings has a nice discussion of sources for this dispute that includes exploring what’s the purpose of asking mechilah; probably of interest to you given the question.)

But in our case, if one isn’t really guilty, and the only point would be to clear the air, then I would think even the Chafeitz Chaim would agree that one shouldn’t mention the offense when there is no ill will to be resolved.

As for guilt, there are still ways a person might be guilty even though they acted unintentionally, while asleep, under compulsion, etc…

1- Criminal neglect. Perhaps the offense happened in a situation I should have been more careful to avoid. So that even while I offended accidentally, I am guilty of putting myself in the situation where that accident were possible. Of course, that depends on circumstance. As the mishnah says (Bava Qama 2:6), “אדם מועד לעולם, בין בשוגג בין במזיד, בין בין ער בין ישן — a person is always forewarned [of liability to do damage], whether asleep or awake.” The Nemuqei Yoseif explains the point of “whether asleep” as including things done without will, “be’oneis” (under compulsion). Which is consistent with the variant version found in the talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) which ends, “בין באונס בין ברצון — whether under compulsion or willingly.”

2- There is a principle about how Divine Providence works, “מגלגלים חובה על ידי חייב — they [in heaven] bring about a deleterious [event] through someone deleterious.” (Tana deVei Eliyahu Rabba ch. 15; based on diburei hamaschil, this is also Rashi’s version of Taanis 29a, but our text has “וחובה ליום חייב — and deleterious [event] on a deleterious day”.)

G-d has many potential ways of bringing trial to that other person’s life. If He chose a particular someone, that person is experiencing something that is supposed to wake him up about how he is living his own life.

So, while one may not be guilty of the thing in question, there apparently is something along those lines that Hashem is trying to get that person to do teshuvah for. And starting by clearing the air with this person may be a good way to start.

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