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Teshuvah, or Repentance

The High Holidays provide a special opportunity to repent.

In the Jewish tradition, repentance is called teshuvah, a Hebrew word translated as “returning.” One of the Hebrew words for sin is chet, which in Hebrew means “to go astray.” Thus the idea of repentance in Jewish thought is a return to the path of righteousness.

Teshuvah can be done at any time, but the High Holiday season, and Yom Kippur especially, is considered an especially auspicious time for it. The process of repentance, as laid out by Maimonides, includes three stages: confession, regret and a vow not to repeat the misdeed. The true penitent, Maimonides says, is the one who finds himself with the opportunity to commit the same sin again yet declines to do so. Prayer, charity and fasting are also said to help one win forgiveness.

There are two categories of sin in Jewish thought:

  1. Sins against God: Ritual infractions, such as breaking the Sabbath or eating non-kosher food.
  2. Sins against other people: Acts such as theft or slander.

According to Jewish tradition, only sins against God can be atoned for through confession, regret and promising not to repeat the action. Sins against other people can be atoned for only once the wrong has been made right — restitution has been paid for a financial crime, for example, and forgiveness received from the victim.

Below are links to My Jewish Learning articles exploring various aspects of the Jewish process of repentance:

The 10 Days of Repentance
Selichot: Prayers of Repentance
How a Former Catholic Became a Believer and Leader of Collective Jewish Prayers of Repentance
Is Forgiveness Necessary?
The Double Purpose of Yom Kippur
The 5 Factors in Teshuvah (Repentance)
The Link Between Confession and Repentance

Discover More

Selichot: Prayers of Repentance

These special prayers are recited during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah.

The 10 Days of Repentance

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are an important component in the process of repentance.

Spiraling Towards Repentance

There are five factors in teshuvah (repentance), each of which can be a starting point for the entire process.