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Teshuvah, or Repentance

The High Holidays provide a special opportunity to repent.

The usual word for sin, averah, is from the root avar, “to pass over,” hence “transgression,” overriding God’s will, The usual word for repentance is teshuvah, meaning “turning”– that is, from sin to God.

Repentance is acceptable, the Rabbis teach, at any time, but the special time for repentance is the season from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Penitence. In all the rabbinic sources, repentance involves two things: remorse at having sinned and confession of the sin. The numerous rabbinic statements regarding sin and repentance are scattered through the Talmudic literature and are not presented in any systematic form. A useful summary is given by Maimonides (Teshuvah, ch. 1 and 2), although the very attempt at systemization departs, to some extent, from the openness and fluidity of rabbinic thought.

Maimonides on Repentance

Maimonides writes: “If a man transgresses, wittingly or unwit­tingly, any precept of the Torah, whether a positive precept or a negative, and repents and turns away from his wrongdoing, he is obliged to confess his sins to God, blessed be He. How does a man confess his sins? He says: ‘O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before Thee by doing such­-and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.’ What constitutes true repentance? If the sinner has the opportunity of committing once again the sinful act and it is quite possible for him to repeat it and yet he refrains from so doing because he has repented‑-for example, a man cohabited unlawfully with a woman and, after a time found himself alone with her again and he still loves her and is still as healthy as ever and it takes place in the same province in he had previously sinned with her and yet he refrains from repeating the transgression–he is a true penitent….

Repentance on Yom Kippur can only win pardon for offences against God such as eating forbidden food or illegal cohabitation and so forth, but there is no forgiveness for offences against one’s neighbor such as assault or injury or theft and so forth until the wrong done is put right. Even after a man has paid the restitution due to the victim he must beg his forgiveness. Even if all he did was to taunt his neighbor [i.e. and the question of restitution does not arise] he must appease him and beg his forgiveness. If the victim does not wish to forgive him he should go to him in the company of three friends and they should beg him to grant his pardon. If their efforts were of no avail he should repeat the procedure with a second and a third group but if the victim still persists in his attitude he should be left alone and the victim is then sinful in refusing his pardon.”

Fasting vs. Tzedakah: Which Is More Important?

Maimonides states here the rabbinic view, albeit in a legalistic tone somewhat at variance with the broader outlook of the rabbinic sources themselves (Maimonides, after all, records all this in his Code), that repentance is effected by a sincere resolve to give up the sin and by confession and restitution. There is no mention of physical mortification in order to win pardon. Nevertheless, the need for such mortification is found in later Jewish sources, chiefly under the influence of the Saints of Germany. A prominent member of this circle, Eleazar of Worms, in his Rokeah, records detailed penances suitable for various sins, the principle being that pardon can only be obtained when the sinner’s degree of pain is equal to the degree of pleasure that was his when he committed the sin. But, while Rabbis to this day will impose penances on sinners who consult them, they are rarely too rigorous in their demands. The general view was expressed by Ezekiel Landau, Rabbi of Prague in the 18th century, who replied to a sinner who had requested him to impose a penance (Responsa, Orah Hayyim, no, 35):

“You have asked me a hard question since it is not my habit to reply to questions put to me unless I can find the principles discussed in the Talmud and the Codes. It is only in the moralistic literature that one finds references to these matters and most of what they have to say comes from theories that are from the belly [a “gut reaction”] and have no foundation, each work relying on the others without any basis whatsoever. It is not my practice to peruse these works but I recall them from the days of my youth. Hence I say that all this would be relevant only if repentance cannot be achieved except through fasting. But the truth of the matter is that fasting is only secondary and basically repentance consists of relinquishing the sin, confessing with a broken heart, and sincere remorse.”

Landau does not, however, reject entirely physical mortification such as fasting, but sees this as no more than the means of expressing true remorse and not as an end in itself. He does advise the sinner to fast but stresses that the giving of charity has greater saving power. Charity as an aid to repentance is advocated in all the Jewish sources. One of the most popular hymns recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the theme of divine judgment concludes that the “evil decree” is averted through repentance, prayer, and charity.

Excerpted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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