Repentance

The High Holidays provide a special opportunity to repent.

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Does Fasting Work?

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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.