Jewish Indulgences?

Victor R. Claveau

    The Catholic Church’s doctrine on indulgences is a legitimate outgrowth of Jewish belief in an afterlife and an individual’s final judgment before the throne of God.

Orthodox Jewish belief is that the final judgment is but the culmination of a series of annual judgments, which take place on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the most important day in the Jewish liturgical year. Ten Days of Penitence also called the “Days of Awe” or the “High Holy Days” preceded the Day of Atonement. These Days of Awe are the first ten days of the month of Tishri, from Rosh Ha-Shanah, literally meaning “head of the year,” or “New Year”, to Yom Kippur. According to ancient belief, God keeps a record book of our actions, both good and evil. We are told that on Yom Kippur the souls of all living human beings pass before The Eternal One, and their fate is definitely decided-who shall live and who shall die; who shall rejoice and who shall sorrow; who shall prosper, and who shall wax poor; who shall be raised up and who shall be set down. During these first days of the New Year that God opens the book and writes therein the names of those who will live and prosper through the coming year.

The central theme of the Days of Awe is repentance, or teshuvah, literally meaning “returning to one’s self.” The preceding Hebrew month of Elul is set aside as a time for reflection and soul-searching in order that the Days of Awe might be entered into with the proper spirit. According to Jewish tradition, there are conditions necessary for teshuvah–regret for past negative behavior, willingness to confess sins before God and a resolve to amend wicked behavior. In the words of the Psalmist, “depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:30). The opportunity to repent extends until the end of the tenth Holy Day, the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast as a sign of contrition.

The Rabbis tell us that while The Lord forgives man his sins against Heaven (after sufficient repentance on the mortal’s part) He does not pardon transgressions man commits against his fellow men. These can be atoned for only by actual, definite steps to repair these wrongs, and by forgiveness on the part of those who have suffered these injuries.

“Live and let live,” “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” are sublime rules, which should govern our actions, and which the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah should bring to mind.

Hillel was the spiritual leader of the Jews in the first century. He propounded the Golden Rule, saying: “Do not unto your neighbor what you would not have them do unto you; this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”

Jews will visit the graves of their loved ones just prior to the Days of Awe in the belief that the deceased can intercede, before the throne of God in heaven, on behalf of the living. The living on earth would entreat the living in heaven to beg God to apply the merit of the righteous men and women of old to the unrighteous on earth.

This stems from the belief that when a person is in total submission to God and allows God to accomplish His will, in and through the individual, that person gains merit in the eyes of God. This merit is tangible and offsets, or atones, for the person’s sins.

 Since the righteous man and women of old lived such holy lives, it is believed that they gained more merit than what was required to atone for their own sins. This excess or surplus merit was stored in the “Treasury of Merit” and could be applied by God to benefit the living.

Saint Augustine described this concept as “the will and the performance.” What he meant is that for each and every beneficial act we do, we cannot take credit, because it is God accomplishing His will through us. We have free will and can reject the prompting or will of God. If we accede to the will of God in our lives, we gain merit and this merit atones for our sins.

These concepts are analogous to the Church’s belief in the Communion of Saints and the Treasury of Merit. The only basic difference between Jewish belief and Catholic belief is that Catholics believe that the Treasury of Merit is inexhaustible because of the atoning death of Jesus and the merits of Our Lady’s sinless life. It is through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints that indulgences are granted through the exercise of the power of the keys given to Blessed Peter and Peter’s successors.

Please keep in mind that this in not working your way into heaven, Catholic belief is that salvation is a free gift, which we receive at the time of our baptism. We cannot earn a free gift. We can lose our salvation by rejecting the gift. We do this when we reject baptism or commit serious sin with the full consent of the will, and die in a state of unrepentance.

St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the end, we will be judged by our love.”                

© 2004 – Victor R. Claveau

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 "Whereas the power of conferring indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church, and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy synod teaches and enjoins that the use of indulgences, most salutary for Christian people and approved of by the authority of sacred councils, is to be retained in the Church; and it condemns with anathema those who either assert that they are useless, or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them."

Decree of the Council of Trent, Session 25, Dec. 4, 1563.