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The Ways of Repentance

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In memory of Jack David Abramson ע׳׳ה


Maimonides on Teshuvah

The Ways of Repentance

Henry Abramson


To my father and teacher

יעקב דוד בן אליהו ע”ה

Jack David Abramson



Preface in Lieu of Approbation 2

Introduction 6

The Ways of Repentance 14

Chapter One: Confession 18

Chapter Two: Forgiveness 46

Chapter Three: Change 86

Chapter Four: Impediments 134

Chapter Five: Freedom 160

Chapter Six: Privilege 180

Chapter Seven: Teshuvah 198

Chapter Eight: Future 222

Chapter Nine: Present 242

Chapter Ten: Love 252

Acknowledgments 266

Preface in Lieu of Approbation

This book, like its author, is in a state of becoming.  I first wrote Maimonides on Teshuvah in 2012 as a personal experiment, elevating a yearly habit of reviewing The Ways of Repentance before the High Holidays by translating it into English. There was no need for a new translation as Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s fine work was already available, but I had been interested in the developing technologies of web-based publishing and thought it would be a fun thing to do. Surprisingly, a fair number of readers enjoyed my translation, perhaps because I offered it as a free download during the period immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah.

In subsequent years I refreshed the translation and expanded the commentary, and I came to view the evolving manuscript as an expression of my personal teshuvah, measuring change that was sometimes incremental, sometimes tectonic. The text became something of a spiritual journal that I shared with stranger-friends who received free yearly updates of ebook.  I am grateful for the comments they have shared, which have enriched my understanding of both the text and my self.

By long-standing Jewish literary convention, a Rabbinic approbation called a haskamah would appear at this point, assuring would-be readers of the scholarship and piety of the author. I’m not certain of either attribute, and feel uncomfortable asking my Rabbinic friends for such a seal of approval. Who am I, after all, to write a commentary on the eternal words of Maimonides? Furthermore, this book, like its author, is a work in progress. Even if the thoughts I record this year bear some validity, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of recycling the haskamah to cover whatever I might choose to add in later years. Readers should therefore take heed and approach this book with appropriate caution.

What are my credentials? Well, I’ve done a lot of teshuvah, for one thing. I understand that’s kind of like saying “I know how to quit smoking–I’ve done it many times,” but if you were to measure external behaviors alone, I think I’m pretty solid. I came of age in the 1980s, when the post-Six-Day-War euphoria had matured into a large and powerful wave of young people rediscovering the value of traditional Orthodox observance. Now, nearly four decades later, I’m pretty much on board with everything including Sabbath observance and keeping strictly kosher, but there are still some hangovers from my secular days–I can’t quite bring myself to talk in shul during the repetition of the silent prayer, for example.

As I grew into adulthood, my enthusiasm for Jewish history and thought spilled over into my professional life and a career in academia, earning a PhD and making my way through the professorial ranks with stints at Harvard, Oxford, Cornell and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I wrote several books and am now proud to serve as Dean of the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College, one of the largest institutions of higher education under Jewish auspices in the world.

The transformations of dress, diet and decorum were actually not that difficult, although I did have more than one friend suggest I seek mental health counseling.  Doing teshuvah on the inside, however, is quite another task. Anger, jealousy, and resentment are much more challenging than putting the cell phone away for Shabbat . In this regard I am still very much engaged in teshuvah. Thus no approbation. My Rabbi friends are pretty amazing, but no haskamah can certify the conquest of the yetser ha-ra.

So with all these limitations, why have I written this commentary on Maimonides’ great study of teshuvah? It’s not a learned tome with deep Rabbinic insights, nor is it a thoroughly modern, low-calorie approach to teshuvah. It is written in the spirit of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook’s perceptive insight that “it is impossible to fulfill the obligations of the heart unless one assembles a book for one’s self…that contains the teachings that inspire one’s soul” (Musar Avikha). I’m just working on my own teshuvah, reading Maimonides for personal inspiration, and I’m happy to share some of my thoughts with you.

With not a little reservation, I offer this tentative version of my own mussar text to you, dear reader. Flawed and incomplete as it is, I hope that it will provide some small measure of inspiration.

י”א אב תשע”ו

שנתיים אחר פטירת אבי מורי יעקב דוד בן אליהו ע”ה

August 15, 2016

Two years after the passing of my father and teacher

Jack David Abramson

of blessed memory


Cedarhurst, NY


The railroad tracks run parallel to Ambridge Drive, literally across the street from my father’s clothing store and the small apartment that was my childhood home. The locomotive crawled by several times a day, sounding its ear-splitting horn as it approached the unprotected intersection with the street. Even without boxcars, the train was so heavy that its passage shook the dishes in my mother’s china cabinet, a basso profondo roar that reverberated up and down my spine.

The sheer mass and power of the locomotive inspired respect, even fear. As a child, I often spent summer mornings placing pennies on the track, carefully noting the exact location of the coins by counting railroad ties from the street or marking the spot with a spray of purple fireweed. After the locomotive made its thunderous passing, I would hunt down the coins, now flattened almost beyond recognition, just a hint of Queen Elizabeth’s crown or a bit of the Canadian maple leaf testifying to their original status as currency.

Imponderable though it was, the train was no match for the switches. Located about half a kilometer away, across from the IGA store, two parallel half-rails gracefully curved off the tracks, waiting patiently for the engineer to throw a lever and bring them into contact with the westward rails. Separated from the main line by tiny gaps no bigger than a finger, these tapered rails had the power to lead the massive beast away from its initial trajectory and cast it into the distant railway yards.

Sometimes, when I am not in a particularly charitable mood, I see myself as that locomotive, carrying an unimaginable weight of inertia through my quotidian life, mindlessly reacting to others around me according to long-established maladapted patterns. Attempts to alter my behavior often feel quixotic and powerless, like pennies on the track, all efforts crushed and destroyed by their very first encounter with the weight of habit. Encouragement comes when I remind myself of those switches along the track, discreetly placed at key intervals, waiting for the signal from the engineer to connect them to the iron path and forever alter the train’s trajectory to a bold, unanticipated destination.

This small book, Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance, was one of the switches in my life. Reading it, and reviewing it, has helped me become the driver of my own locomotive, re-centering my path whenever I found myself wandering away from my desired destination.

Moses Maimonides is one of the towering figures of Jewish intellectual history. Among observant Jews he is known as “the Rambam,” an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Moses son of Maimon). In this work I will use the name “Maimonides,” Greek for “son of Maimon,” a term more familiar to secular audiences.  His reputation is encapsulated in the phrase inscribed on his tombstone in Tiberias, Israel: “from Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.”

Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 or 1138, his family fled persecution and settled in Egypt, where he rose to prominence as a physician.  He was an indefatigable advocate for Jewish causes around the world, working to rescue Jews taken captive during the Crusades and writing letters offering guidance and support to far-flung communities. His most famous works include The Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical treatise explaining the foundations of Judaism, and the Mishneh Torah, a massive compendium of Jewish law, based on Biblical and Talmudic sources.  The Ways of Repentance (Hilkhot Teshuvah) is taken from that multi-volume work.

The title Mishneh Torah may be translated as “the repetition of Torah,” in the sense that it represents an ambitious restatement of the entirety of Jewish law, derived from both the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Oral Torah (essentially, the Talmud). Maimonides’ stated goal was to collate and organize the thousands of details related to Jewish practice and thought scattered throughout these ancient sources and present them in a clear, straightforward fashion in a single work. In a massive effort of prodigious scholarship, he organized all Jewish law into a single code, one of the first in Jewish history.  Maimonides wrote the text in a clear Hebrew style, free from literary flourishes but with great sophistication, making it accessible to students with even intermediate language skills.

Although the Mishneh Torah was destined to become a classic of spiritual genius, it met with strong criticism from Jewish circles in Europe. Maimonides was censured for not providing detailed references to the Talmudic sources that informed his thinking (a lacuna that was later filled by commentators on the Mishneh Torah). More seriously, it was alleged that his deep engagement with classical Greek and contemporary Arabic philosophy had tainted the ideological purity of his Judaism. In one of the saddest episodes of Jewish intellectual history, French Jews denounced the work of Maimonides to the Church, and the Mishneh Torah was burned in public in 1232.

The Ways of Repentance, also rendered as The Laws of Repentance, has a place of distinction in the Mishneh Torah.  Rabbi Mayer Twersky once pointed out that most of the Mishneh Torah is based on laws that exist in definitive place in the Talmud. The laws of the Sabbath, for example, are more or less represented in the Talmudic tractate Shabbat, the laws of Rosh Hashanah in tractate Rosh Hashanah, and so on.  The laws of repentance, on the other hand, are not identified and concentrated in any single book of the Talmud. Maimonides recognized that these important teachings, dispersed throughout rabbinic literature, constituted a distinct group of laws that required a sustained analysis and codification. In this sense, Maimonides literally created the systematic study of repentance in Judaism.  Moreover, as Rabbi Eliyahu Touger points out, in order to do this properly Maimonides had to extend the discussion into many theoretical areas such as the question of free will and the nature of the World to Come, making The Ways of Repentance a deeply philosophical treatise as well as a legal guide to proper behavior.

This translation is based on the Frankel edition, which has become the standard critical version. Passages edited out of the traditional edition, mostly due to the pressure of Church censorship, are thus included here, distinguished by the omission of vowels. I have added citations from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud as necessary in parentheses. Gender-neutral language has been used whenever the translation would not suffer distortion. My intended readers are those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study Maimonides in the original Hebrew, and therefore my commentary does not treat many of the important but abstruse Rabbinic debates over the meaning of the text in favor of a straightforward, uncomplicated explanation. The reader who wishes to access this rarefied world in English translation is encouraged to study Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s 1990 translation cited above, which provides much of this material in an anthologized form. Maimonides merely numbers his chapters; I have added some titles to provide the reader with some sense of their content.

One last word to the reader new to Maimonides: this classic work, almost a thousand years old, has much to offer the modern student of Judaism. The fourth chapter in particular deals with topics that have immediate and direct relevance to contemporary reality, and reads as freshly as the day Maimonides first composed it. Still, he wrote for an audience whose concerns were in many ways quite different from ours.  Maimonides lived in a society where adherence to traditional Jewish law was the norm and not the exception, where distinctions between the rights and privileges of the sexes were accepted, where polemics between Judaism, Christianity and Islam were prevalent, and philosophical concepts were of deep interest to intellectuals beyond undergraduates in freshman philosophy class. A full appreciation for Maimonides’ genius and the spiritual insights of this book will only come after study, meditation, and review.


יפה שעה אחת בתשובה

ומעשים טובים בעולם הזה

מכל חיי העולם הבע

רבי עקיבא

A single hour of teshuvah

and good deeds in this world

is better than all of the world to come

Rabbi Akiva


The Ways of Repentance

הִלְכּוֹת תְּשׁוּבָה

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה אַחַת, וְהִיא שֶׁיָּשׁוּב הַחוֹטֶא מֵחֶטְאוֹ לִפְנֵי ה’, וְיִתְוַדֶּה. 

וּבֵאוּר מִצְוָה זוֹ וְעִיקָרִים הַנִּגְרָרִים עִמָּהּ בִּגְלָלָהּ, בִּפְרָקִים אֵלּוּ.

One positive commandment, which is that the sinner should repent of his sin before God and confess.

The explanation of this commandment and the essential principals that may be derived from it are explained in the following chapters.


This entire book is a sustained discussion of a single commandment (number 73 out of 613 in Maimonides’ Book of Commandments), which is to repent, specifically through confession. The details of this effort will be spelled out over the next ten chapters.

Hidden within Maimonides’ sparse, undecorated prose is an allusion to the more expansive nature of this work. Although the Mishneh Torah focusses on practical applications of Jewish thought, the subject matter of this book demands extensive discussion of more philosophical topics. Later chapters will deal with issues such as the nature of free will, the concept of reward and punishment, and the Jewish vision of the World to Come. Maimonides alludes to the larger subject matter of repentance with the phrase “and the essential principles that may be derived from” the commandment to repent.

The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, a term that is difficult to render in English with precision. The essential meaning is derived from the root “to return.” Depending on the context, however, it can easily be translated as response, reply, or retort, terms quite different in nuance than “repent.” In all cases, it represents a reaction to stimuli: a question requires a response, a home awaits a return. In the context of this work, the closest English term would be “repentance,” which preserves the “returning” essence of teshuvah: repentance in the Jewish sense implies a return to an ideal state of closeness with God and with our highest, most noble priorities in life.

In composing The Ways of Repentance, Maimonides quietly demonstrated his bold intellectual creativity. The concept of repentance is central to Jewish thought, but Maimonides was the first thinker in two thousand years of Torah scholarship to codify its practice in such a pragmatic, comprehensive manner. His groundbreaking effort is still greater when one considers the scope of the overall project of the Mishneh Torah, covering absolutely every aspect of Jewish teachings on human life, including commandments relevant to the distant past (such as sacrificial laws which cannot be practiced if the Temple is not standing, see Sefer Ha-Korbanot), the future messianic period (Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milhamot), and even areas not normally subject to human legislation, such as opinions and character traits (Hilkhot De’ot).

The laws of repentance appear early in the overall work in the section Maimonides called “The Book of Knowledge” because these teachings are, as he indicated in his introduction, “essential to the Law of Moses our Teacher, and every person must know them before anything else.” The sequence is also significant: the Mishneh Torah opens with the Laws of the Foundations of Torah, covering basic elements of Judaism such as monotheism, followed by the Laws of Opinions, which covers the famed “middle path” of character traits. The Laws of Torah Study are next, but the progression is interrupted by a long discussion of the laws related to idolatry. The juxtaposition of deepened awareness of Judaism and Torah with forbidden worship is jarring but hardly unintentional, for spiritual growth is proportionately related to spiritual challenge, as the Talmud states, “one who is greater than his fellow—his desire to do evil is similarly greater (see Sukkah 52a). Maimonides then brings the fallen reader back to center with our book, The Ways of Repentance, which concludes the Book of Knowledge.

The first chapter describes how teshuvah functions on a metaphysical level and how human wrongdoing may be addressed through teshuvah on a communal and on a personal level. The concept of confession is central to teshuvah and is therefore introduced in Chapter One and continues in Chapter Two.

Chapter One: Confession


כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, בֵּין עֲשֵׂה בֵּין לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה–אִם עָבַר אָדָם עַל אַחַת מֵהֶן, בֵּין בְּזָדוֹן בֵּין בִּשְׁגָגָה–כְּשֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְיָשׁוּב מֵחֶטְאוֹ, חַיָּב לְהִתְוַדּוֹת לִפְנֵי הָא-ל בָּרוּךְ הוּא:  שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם למעול מעל בה’ ואשמה הנפש ההיא וְהִתְוַדּוּ, אֶת-חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ” (במדבר ה,ו-ז), זֶה וִדּוּי דְּבָרִים.  וּוִדּוּי זֶה מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה.

כֵּיצַד מִתְוַדֶּה–אוֹמֵר אָנָּא ה’ חָטָאתִי עָוִיתִי פָּשַׁעְתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, וְעָשִׂיתִי כָּךְ וְכָּךְ, וַהֲרֵי נִחַמְתִּי וּבֹשְׁתִּי בְּמַעֲשַׂי, וּלְעוֹלָם אֵינִי חוֹזֵר לְדָבָר זֶה.  זֶה הוּא עִיקָרוֹ שֶׁלַּוִּדּוּי; וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְהִתְוַדּוֹת וּמַאֲרִיךְ בְּעִנְיָן זֶה, הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.

וְכֵן בַּעֲלֵי חַטָּאוֹת וַאֲשָׁמוֹת–בְּעֵת שֶׁמְּבִיאִין קָרְבְּנוֹתֵיהֶם עַל שִׁגְגָתָן אוֹ עַל זְדוֹנָן, אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לָהֶן בְּקָרְבָּנָם, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה, וְיִתְוַדּוּ וִדּוּי דְּבָרִים:  שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהִתְוַדָּה אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עָלֶיהָ” (ויקרא ה,ה).

וְכֵן כָּל מְחֻיְּבֵי מִיתוֹת בֵּית דִּין, וּמְחֻיְּבֵי מַלְקוּת–אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לָהֶם בְּמִיתָתָם אוֹ בִּלְקִיָּתָם, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה וְיִתְוַדּוּ.  וְכֵן הַחוֹבֵל בַּחֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ הַמַּזִּיק מְמוֹנוֹ–אף עַל פִּי שֶׁשִּׁלַּם לוֹ מַה שְׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ–אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ, עַד שֶׁיִּתְוַדֶּה וְיָשׁוּב מִלַּעֲשׂוֹת כְּזֶה לְעוֹלָם:  שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם” (במדבר ה,ו).

Every commandment in the Torah, whether a commandment to perform some act or a commandment to refrain from some act— if a person transgresses one of these commandments, whether unintentionally or intentionally, he must confess before God when he does teshuvah for his sin.  This is as it is written (Numbers 5:6-7): a man or woman who commits one of the sins of humanity, transgressing against God, the soul bears guilt; they must confess the sin they committed.  This is called the “confession of words.”  This confession is a positive commandment.

How should a person confess? He should say, “Please, God, I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled before you, and I have done such-and-such. Behold, I regret and am ashamed of my deeds, and I will never return to that act again.” this is the essence of confession, and anyone who expands on such a confession, going into greater detail, deserves praise.

Thus when people who sinned and are guilty, and brought sacrifices for their unintentional or intentional sins, they did not receive atonement through their offerings until they did teshuvah, and confessed the confession of words, as it is written (Leviticus 5:5) and he will confess regarding that which he sinned.

So too, one who was condemned to be executed by the court, or condemned to receive lashes, would not receive atonement through death or lashes if he did not also do teshuvah and confess. Furthermore, anyone who harms another person physically or financially, even though he may repay what he owes, he will not receive atonement until he confesses and repents of ever doing this again, as it is written (Numbers 5:6) of all the sins of humanity.


How shall I begin to do teshuvah?

Teshuvah begins with confession, a verbal articulation of the consciousness of past wrongs. This confession is entirely private, conducted solely between an individual and God.  No human being need hear this confession, unless it involves a sin against another person that requires financial or other restitution (more on this in Chapter Two).

A cursory overview of the commentaries reveals certain basic elements to the process of teshuvah, including regret (haratah), confession (vidui), and abandonment of sin (azivat ha-het), sometimes in combination with resolution for the future (kabalah al ha-atid). Rabenu Yonah of Girona (d. 1263), an early critic of Maimonides who ultimately came to revere his work, argues in his magisterial Sha’arei Teshuvah that there are twenty distinct stages to the process known as teshuvah, and thirteen of those steps precede confession! Why does Maimonides only begin with confession?

Maimonides, a rationalist whose verbal economy is legendary among Yeshiva students, evidently chose to consider the earlier stages of regret into the commandment of confession, considering regret a necessary but not sufficient cause for the process of teshuvah, which begins in truth with the first confessional articulation. Saying it out loud, in other words, is what makes it real. No matter how profound the regret, teshuvah doesn’t start until we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong. As the Talmud puts it, “words of the heart are not words” (דברים שבלב אינן דברים).

But is this really true? Is regret without confession devoid of value for teshuvah? The locus classicus for teshuvah is the amazing story of Elazar ben Durdaya, recorded in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (17a). After a life of extreme profligacy, a passing comment from a prostitute forced Elazar ben Durdaya to confront the unfortunate trajectory of his life. As the story goes, he beseeched a series of unusual agents to intercede to on his behalf: the mountains and valleys, heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, stars and the constellations, yet each refuses in turn, claiming “before we ask for you, we must ask for ourselves,” citing biblical verses that testify to their humility. Finally, Elazar ben Durdaya came to a monumental realization and pronounced a fundamental  axiom of self-improvement: “the matter depends on me alone.” He lowered his head and uttered a piercing cry of such agony that his soul departed on the spot. His efforts were rewarded with a Heavenly voice that proclaimed, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has earned a place in the World to Come.”

Perhaps we might take a Talmudic approach to this remarkable story and assume that Elazar ben Durdaya—note that Heaven proclaims him a Rabbi for his teshuvah—had completed the act of confession in the context of his mystical discussions with the various inanimate beings, even though the text omitted specific reference to the content of these conversations. The plain sense of the story, however, is that Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya achieved his personal redemption through regret without confession (a number of other examples of redemption without verbal confession are provided by Rabbi Shalom Tsvi Shapiro in his commentary Meshiv Nefesh 1:3).

Must one therefore go through the tedious, onerous chore of confession in order to receive Divine forgiveness? Certainly God knows our sins–shouldn’t our simple act of heartfelt regret be sufficient? Maimonides even provides support for this proposition below (1.4), at least in the context of relatively minor transgressions: “if a person feels shame, he is forgiven even before he moves from that spot.” Why all the emphasis on confession?

I would like to tender one possible solution. Perhaps it is indeed possible to receive Divine forgiveness without confession, as we appear to see from the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya. Note, however, that ben Durdaya dies immediately after experiencing his profound regret.  Our goal is to live after teshuvah. In order to live, we must chart a path forward. Confession is an essential element of finding that path.

Confession represents a purely personal articulation of our wrongdoing. God, the Knower of all Secrets, does not need our confession to learn about our sins. Confession is rather an opportunity for us to get acquainted with our darker sides, analyzing the content of our actions and determining our level of culpability. Did we “sin,” “do wrong,” or “rebel”? There are finer points of agency to all of our transgressions, and it is incumbent upon us to analyze them thoroughly as part of the teshuvah process. In some cases, deeper reflection may reveal that we are holding ourselves to a greater degree of blame than we truly deserve. More likely, we may discover the uncomfortable truth that we have been holding ourselves to an unacceptably lenient standard, finding excuses for behavior that we would consider intolerable in others. In either case, the teshuvah process requires a slow and methodical introspection.

Full disclosure and fair warning: I’d like to talk about downhill skiing for a moment. I know you’re reading this book because you’re interested in Maimonides on teshuvah, but this digression won’t take long and I think it will be useful.

When I was twelve or thirteen my father bought me a gift that changed my life forever. We lived then in an apartment building near the intersection of Bathurst and Sheppard street in Toronto, in a cluster of buildings perched on the gorge formed by a tributary of the Don River. The city took advantage of the slope by creating the North York Ski Center in nearby Earl Bales Park, and during winter months I skied there virtually every hour my absence in school went unnoticed. Every hour, that is, until I broke one of my wooden Fischer skis in a particularly energetic early-season run through the moguls. Crushed, I brought the irreparably damaged equipment home to contemplate my fate. Money was never plentiful in our family, especially not that year. How would I replace my beloved boards?

I don’t know what motivated him to do it, but when I returned home from school the following day I discovered, leaning gracefully against the wall of my bedroom, a brand new pair of Rossignol ST Competitions, resplendent in brilliant orange and black on a creamy white topcoat. These were top-end skis, far better than any equipment I had ever owned. When we drove to the ski shop later to have the bindings installed, I learned that my father had dropped nearly $200 on them, an almost incomprehensible amount to me at the time. My gratitude was overwhelming.

Many, many miles of snow passed under those boards. At 175 centimeters they were about 20cm taller than me when I first stepped down on the heelpiece, but by the time I retired them years later for a pair of Rossignol 4S, I had grown well past the tips. With the help of those skis, I passed examinations to join the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance, and found myself on the slopes one evening in December 1986 where I met another Rossignol fan, also a ski instructor, who would become my wife and mother of our children. I owe a lot to those skis.

Fascinating, I know, but what does this have to do with teshuvah?

Skiing, like life, is a kind of controlled falling. Gravity provides the inevitable energy, and the skier’s task is to shape the direction and speed of descent. True, a skier may elect to simply stop in the middle of the hill and stay motionless almost indefinitely, but that’s not skiing. It gets cold real fast. Not very much fun.

Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, one of the most evocative writers on the subject of teshuvah, describes that “the soul is agonized by remaining in one place and not ascending, for it needs to continually ascend from level to level…the pain of standing still penetrates to the very depths of the soul, a tremendous suffering…a complete reversal of the natural instinct and essence of the soul” (Orot ha-Teshuvah 15:3). Teshuvah is to the desire of the soul as skiing is to the force of gravity.

Just as a seasoned skier will control the rate of descent by turning left and right, teshuvah calls for a gradual, measured, and graceful elevation. Let us look more closely at the physics of downhill skiing. Perhaps we may derive some useful principles for teshuvah as well.

Several physical mechanisms coordinate the skier’s meditative plunge. The feet steer the tips of the skis left or right. The knees edge the skis on one side or the other, taking advantage of the architecture of the ski to carve a turn. Most importantly, the skier balances his or her center of gravity to exert pressure on the skis, flexing and releasing, using the temporarily convex bend of the boards to articulate a trajectory through the snow. Novice skiers tend to think of steering and edging as the most important elements of a turn, but they are so wrong. By far the most significant element in changing direction is balance.

Balance is to skiing what confession is to teshuvah.  Balance is what allows a skier to execute a perfect turn, a change of trajectory on the slopes. Confession—private, but heartfelt and authentic—is what allows the penitent to execute a change in trajectory in life.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, atonement for sins involved the ritual offering of sacrifices. Providing these sacrifices, whether simple flour or expensive livestock, would not grant the forgiveness associated with a complete teshuvah if the penitent failed to confess. This is not surprising: some people find it easier to assuage their inchoate feelings of guilt by writing a check to a deserving charity, or doing a good turn for someone they have personally wronged, thinking that the positive deed cancels out an earlier negative act. While admirable, this approach to teshuvah is ultimately insufficient.  Without personally realizing the full extent of the wrong, and articulating it to ourselves in a confession, we cannot take these matters to heart and effect permanent change. Donating to charity or providing a sacrifice is like steering or edging the skis—helpful, but of limited utility without balance control.

Novice skiers tend to stand upright, arms at their sides or raised slightly, as if braced for a fall. This rigid, static posture is the closest approximation of the type of balance used for walking or perhaps riding an escalator, with the center of gravity poised at right angles to the ground and direction of travel. As a beginner attempts a turn, he or she will typically twist the upper body in the chosen direction of travel, hoping to steer the skis. If the skis don’t cooperate, the contradiction between the intended and actual paths will be resolved in a fall. Alternatively, he or she might attempt to mimic more advanced skiers by edging, angling both knees to one side and hoping that the skis will somehow magically pivot to the right position, but the skier will end up collapsing like a house of cards as his or her unsupported center of gravity loses its battle with the laws of physics.

Advanced skiers, on the other hand, initiate every turn with an intuitive shift in balance. A deft pole plant signals an upward shift in the center of gravity as the skier experts downward pressure on the skis, “standing up” slightly (this is most visible at slower speeds, compensating for the lower level of kinetic energy). This shift in balance effects a lightening of the skis, allowing them to be steered and edged in preparation for the turn. Imagine a man jumping in the air, pivoting his feet and landing with his skis pointed to the left or the right (this is actually a viable technique for very steep, icy slopes, but inefficient for more moderate inclines). The energy released in the upward shift of balance creates a moment of weightlessness, calling for swift action in preparation for the inevitable return to earth.  The skier uses that brief instant of flight to find a line, that is, to determine the path forward, and apply the precise amount of steering and edging necessary to hold that line.

Skiing is thus a beautiful, dynamic manipulation of the force of gravity. Trapped in a perpetual state of falling, the skier refuses the refuge of a static existence, rather he or she harnesses the invisible power of the earth’s attraction by gracefully charting a distinct, individual path of descent.

Teshuvah uses confession as a pole plant. Just as the pole plant fractionally interrupts the skier’s trajectory and allows a tiny adjustment of steering and edging, so too does confession momentarily arrest the unhelpful behavior pattern and allow the penitent to find a new line. Balance, steer/edge, repeat. That’s skiing. Confess, resolve/act, repeat. That’s teshuvah.

The irony of the upward shift of balance, which is experienced as a lifting off the ground, is actually effected by extending the legs and applying pressure down onto the skis. The French have a beautiful expression for this: il faut reculer pour mieux sauter, “one must crouch down in order to jump higher.” So too, the cathartic lightening of confession can only be experienced by focusing on the sin itself. One only creates psychic distance from wrongdoing by turning attention to it.

An anonymous 18th century commentary entitled Yad Ha-Ketanah (“the small hand,” a self-deprecating allusion to “the strong hand,” an alternate title for Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah) sheds light on this phenomenon. Attributed to Rabbi Dov Berish Gottlieb, the Yad Ha-Ketanah argues that confession is a necessary but not sufficient cause for teshuvah. The articulation of awareness of sin, through actual speech and not merely silent meditation, represents a physical embodiment of the will that breaks through barriers to teshuvah.  “Like a man trapped by the hardness of his heart, even though his essential will is to repent,” confession opens up the conduits of teshuvah like turning on a tap: the water waits at the edge of the valve, under pressure but unable to escape until the valve is opened. Merely thinking, even concentrating with all one’s mental energy, will not result in a cool glass of water. The seemingly insignificant physical act of turning a faucet, however, will generate an abundance of liquid to slake the thirst.

Confession, a purely private act, represents the first shift in balance that allows teshuvah to take place. An inarticulate cry of despair, like the one uttered by Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdaya, may be sufficient to generate Divine forgiveness, but without charting a path forward it cannot be translated into effective teshuvah for life. Maimonides will continue the discussion by describing the particulars of confession in this and the following chapter.


שָׂעִיר הַמִּשְׁתַּלֵּחַ–לְפִי שְׁהוּא כַּפָּרָה לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל, כּוֹהֵן גָּדוֹל מִתְוַדֶּה עָלָיו עַל לְשׁוֹן כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל:  שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” (ויקרא טז,כא).

שָׂעִיר הַמִּשְׁתַּלֵּחַ מְכַפֵּר עַל כָּל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, הַקַּלּוֹת וְהַחֲמוּרוֹת, בֵּין שֶׁעָבַר בְּזָדוֹן בֵּין שֶׁעָבַר בִּשְׁגָגָה, בֵּין שֶׁהוֹדַע לוֹ בֵּין שֶׁלֹּא הוֹדַע לוֹ–הַכֹּל מִתְכַּפֵּר בְּשָׂעִיר הַמִּשְׁתַּלֵּחַ:  וְהוּא, שֶׁעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה; אֲבָל אִם לֹא עָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, אֵין הַשָּׂעִיר מְכַפֵּר לוֹ אֵלָא עַל הַקַּלּוֹת.

וּמַה הֶן הַקַּלּוֹת, וּמַה הֶן הַחֲמוּרוֹת:  הַחֲמוּרוֹת הֶן הָעֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁחַיָּבִין עֲלֵיהֶן מִיתַת בֵּית דִּין אוֹ כָּרֵת; וּשְׁבוּעַת שָׁוְא וְשֶׁקֶר–אַף עַל פִּי שְׁאֵין בָּהּ כָּרֵת, הֲרֵי הִיא מִן הַחֲמוּרוֹת.  וּשְׁאָר מִצְווֹת לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה, וּמִצְווֹת עֲשֵׂה שְׁאֵין בָּהֶן כָּרֵת–הֶן הַקַּלּוֹת.

The High Priest utters the confession over the goat that is sent away, which acts as an atonement for all Israel. He does this with reference to the entire Jewish people, as it is written (Leviticus 16:21), and he will confess over it all the sins of all the children of Israel.

The goat that is sent away atones for all sins in the Torah, the lighter ones and the stricter ones, whether one transgressed them intentionally or unintentionally, whether one was aware of them or not.  All sins receive atonement through the goat that is sent away. This is true as long as a person does teshuvah.  Without teshuvah, the goat atones for lighter sins only.

What are these lighter sins, and what are the stricter sins?  The stricter sins are those for which a person would be subject to the death penalty by a human court or excision.  False oaths and lies, even though they do not carry the penalty of excision, are included in the category of stricter sins.  All other negative commandments, as well as positive commandments that do not carry the penalty of excision, are included in the category of lighter sins.


For what should I do teshuvah?

In ancient times, one might think that such a question was less relevant. The Torah, after all, describes the ancient ritual wherein a goat was selected through lottery and sacrificed in expiation of sins committed by the Jewish people as a whole (see Leviticus 16:5-34). The English term “scapegoat” is derived from this ritual, although in Hebrew the term is simply “the goat that is sent away.” A convenient, manageable, one-size-fits all solution to the existential challenge of sin. Why should I stress myself, reviewing all the wrongs I’ve done over the past year, when the Kohen Gadol will take care of everything on Yom Kippur?

In The Guide for the Perplexed  (III:46), Maimonides clarifies that the requirement of confession remained in place even during the Temple period. The ritual of the goat that is sent away provided a communal structure for teshuvah. The obligations of personal teshuvah, including the self-examination that results in confession, were nevertheless mandatory. Just as today, Jews of ancient times confronted sin in an immediate, personal manner, no matter how messy and embarrassing.

What, then, is sin? The Hebrew language possesses as many words for “sin” as the Cree of my home town have for snow. Maimonides included three basic words in the previous law, and they are central to confession: sin, wrong, and rebellion. The English terms are not precise equivalents. Sin, for example, refers to transgressions that are committed by accident, lacking human intention. One goes into a grocery store, purchases a chocolate bar that has always been approved as kosher by a reliable supervisory agency. After eating the chocolate bar, one examines the wrapper and discovers that the kosher symbol is absent. This would be an example of “sin,” an almost completely accidental transgression of the dietary laws that came about because of a careless, albeit understandable, deficiency of vigilance—one could have taken a moment to confirm the presence of a kosher symbol before purchasing the food, even if one has eaten the chocolate bar for years.

“Wrong,” on the other hand, carries a higher level of human intent. Let’s say one knows that this particular chocolate bar has never received kosher certification, but a sophisticated advertising campaign touted its flavor so effectively that one simply could not resist tasting it. One knows that it almost certainly contains non-kosher ingredients such as animal derivatives mixed with dairy, but the temptation is overwhelming. One knows full well that such an act is forbidden, but one is momentarily taken hostage by one’s desires and eats the chocolate bar anyway.

Finally, “rebellion” refers to a transgression committed with an acute level of awareness minus physical temptation. Continuing our example, this could be compared to a person who personally dislikes chocolate bars, yet purchases and consumes a non-kosher variety simply to anger God.

We have sinned, we have wronged, we have rebelled. The Talmud lists finer gradations, but these three general categories of transgressions cover it all. Confession demands a thorough review of one’s choices, analyzing and testing our behavior, and comparing the results with our ideal selves. This internal reflection is the very first step in the process of teshuvah, as the prophet Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 3:40: let us search our ways and examine them, and return to God. First we must “search our ways,” and once we have identified those choices that give us pause we must “examine them,” and this will ultimately lead to a “return to God.” 

Let us look specifically at the least culpable of these transgressions, i.e. “sin.” In the case of our chocolate bar, the precise location of the transgression was the lack of vigilance that led one to consume the food before confirming its kosher status. For the sake of argument, let’s minimize the culpability further by imagining that the kosher symbol was in fact printed on the wrapper, but its presence there was not warranted—let’s say some manager at the candy company forgot to send the printer of the wrappers notice that the symbol was to be removed, or perhaps a disgruntled employee secretly adulterated a batch of chocolate. In any case, there would be no reasonable way for the kosher consumer to be aware that the certification was invalid. I’d like to think that one would be completely exculpated for eating a non-kosher chocolate bar under such circumstances.

This point was reinforced for me in a very personal way by Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis, my teacher at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Monsey, New York. We were walking the grounds of the Yeshivah on a fine late-summer Elul day in 1994 when the topic of our conversation naturally turned to teshuvah. I asked him why a person should be held accountable for violating commandments before he realized their significance.  Surely, I argued, Judaism cannot hold a person blameworthy for transgressing the Torah if one was not properly trained in its commandments. To my surprise, Rabbi Kokis agreed, saying there was no need for teshuvah for transgressions of this nature. Before he exculpated me completely, however, he added an important caveat: one must nevertheless do teshuvah for acts that one should have realized were wrong, even without the benefit of Torah training. I asked him for an example. He responded with kibud av ve-em, honoring one’s parents. We walked on in silence.

For many years, Rabbi Kokis’ common-sense approach gave me much comfort, and I removed a multitude of sins from my personal teshuvah to-do list (I still had quite a few items to deal with). Recently, however, I’ve begun to question the breadth of this leniency. The Yad ha-Ketanah (9.6), for example, discusses the case of a person who inadvertently eats helev, a fatty cut of meat from a kosher animal that is nevertheless completely forbidden (see Leviticus 7:23). This the classical case of an accidental transgression, because it is impossible to taste the difference between forbidden and permitted fat. According to the tradition, eating helev (or any other non-kosher food) has a deleterious impact on one’s spiritual sensitivity. The Yad ha-Ketanah queries, even if we discount a person’s culpability because he was unaware of the presence of helev, he nevertheless ate the food—doesn’t he inherit the consequent spiritual defect? The helev has, quite literally, become his very flesh.

It seems to me that I have been too easy on myself. Granted, life is made up of so many millions of decisions, some full of import (“should we marry?”) and others seemingly random (“should I wear these socks?”) that if I have a limited amount of energy to devote to teshuvah, I should concentrate on examining my many “rebellions” and “wrongs” before contemplating the “sins.” I would think that the sins, with their lesser degree of individual culpability, evidently signify a lesser degree of overall meaning in my personal spiritual ecosystem.

I am reminded of a startling passage in the classic work Mesilat Yesharim by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto (1700-1738), which compares the unexamined life to “a blind man walking along a river—danger is more likely than rescue.” It’s a stretch to blame the blind man for falling in the river, yet the consequence of his misstep is so serious that blame becomes irrelevant. His lack of sight demands an inversely proportionate enhancement of vigilance simply to ensure his safety! He must devote resources to researching his route, perhaps find a sighted companion, use a cane, listen carefully to the sound of flowing water, and so on. He would also do very well to heed the teaching of the Sages and learn to swim. Otherwise, how could he possibly hope to avoid danger, especially if the river is part of his daily travel?

Soaking wet, I begin my teshuvah this year with a review of the seemingly minor sins, those apparently innocent decisions that, piled one on top of the other, put me in the river in the first place. Rabbi Luzzatto would no doubt approve of this strategy, as Vigilance (זהירות) is the starting point in his masterful system of character improvement.


בִּזְמָן שְׁאֵין בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ קַיָּם, וְאֵין לָנוּ מִזְבַּח כַּפָּרָה–אֵין שָׁם אֵלָא תְּשׁוּבָה.  הַתְּשׁוּבָה מְכַפֶּרֶת עַל כָּל הָעֲבֵרוֹת:  אַפִלּוּ רָשָׁע כָּל יָמָיו, וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה בָּאַחֲרוֹנָה–אֵין מַזְכִּירִין לוֹ שֵׁם רִשְׁעוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְרִשְׁעַת הָרָשָׁע לֹא-יִכָּשֶׁל בָּהּ, בְּיוֹם שׁוּבוֹ מֵרִשְׁעוֹ” (יחזקאל לג,יב).  וְעַצְמוֹ שֶׁלְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר לַשָּׁבִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם” (ויקרא טז,ל).

Now that the Temple no longer exists, and there is no altar of atonement, only teshuvah remains.  Teshuvah atones for all sins.  Even a person who is wicked all his life, but repents at the very end, is never considered wicked, as it is written (Ezekiel 33:12), the wicked person will no longer stumble in his wickedness on the day he does teshuvah. The essence of Yom Kippur atones for those who repent, as it is written (Leviticus 16:30), for on that day, it will give you atonement.


What is Yom Kippur?

It sounds great. One day a year, mass collective teshuvah, followed by forgiveness. Surrounded by family and friends, we purge our regrets and communally resolve to improve ourselves. Using the fast as a lever, together we reach ever-higher levels of spiritual excellence. Cleansed, renewed and restored, we begin the New Year auspiciously, as free of sin as newborns. Beautiful!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple. As Maimonides will explain in the next halakhah, some types of transgression carry over from one year to the next. I might think I am done repenting for those things I said to Shmendrik back in high school but I’m not. Despite the depths of my regret, the scope of my confession and apology, and my absolute resolve never to speak to Shmendrik or anyone in that way ever again, I may still have to do teshuvah for many more Yom Kippurs to come.

Teshuvah, explains Rabenu Yonah, is like laundry. Sin is a greasy stain on an otherwise pristine white garment. One wash will remove the surface soil, but the cloth remains discolored. Clean enough to wear, perhaps, but the stain is a visible embarrassment.  Only with repeated laundering, liberally applied elbow grease, and maybe some special detergents, may the stain be removed completely.

Thus we can go through the motions of Yom Kippur, even shed a few tears, but painful experience teaches that we emerge from the holiday transformed in only incremental amounts. We may utter beautiful pieties, yet with a little bit of life stress and our true selves snap right back into place.

For example, I don’t think of myself as an angry person.  Furthermore, were one to take a survey of what people think of me, I don’t think anger would appear at the top of the list of my character flaws. Yet there are times when, quite unpredictably, my frustration needle redlines and I burst out without warning like a dormant volcano, spewing sulphuric smoke and bits of lava in every direction. It all seems quite an appropriate reaction at the time, but give me a day or two and I wonder, “where did that come from?” Rabenu Yonah might answer: unfinished teshuvah. I dealt with the dirt on the surface, but the stain penetrates deep into the fabric itself (more on this in Chapter Seven below).

Last Yom Kippur, or perhaps the one before or the twentieth before, I did teshuvah for some hurtful statements I made in anger, but I didn’t dig deeper to understand the why behind those words, nor did I make any real effort to change my reactive patterns.

I am reminded of a certain amazing kind of flora I often admired when we lived in Florida. Known as an epiphytic bromeliad (I looked it up), they take root and grow in nooks and crannies of palm trees of unrelated species. The seeds are carried by the wind to their hosts—the kids used to call them “air plants”—where they can produce an impressive burst of languid foliage, living in symbiosis with the tree.  They are typically not a parasitic species, relying on the tree only for structural support while they derive their nutrients from the atmosphere.

It’s tempting to think of transgressions as my personal set of epiphytic bromeliads. They and I are not of the same species, rather the breeze brought them my way and I am unable to rid myself of them. I don’t feel especially bad about that, because they are beautiful in a bizarre kind of way, and I can’t see how they really affect my life.  I’d like to think that teshuvah just requires me to complete a yearly Yom Kippur survey of the foreign plants growing on my trunk and  maybe cut a few of them back a bit.

The analogy, of course, is inadequate. First of all, the comparison completely ignores the wrongs and rebellions—transgressions that I engaged in with full intent and capacity. These aren’t like air plants that made their way to me on the breeze; they come directly from my roots. Secondly, let’s not forget the fact that the air plants found shelter in the little gaps that opened up in the concentric rings of bark, for example, of a cypress palm. Without those gaps, the seeds of the epiphytic bromeliads would have slid harmlessly to the ground as if they had encountered the smooth trunk of a royal palm, or even a concrete light post.

Here’s my revised understanding of the importance of the unintentional sins known as shegagot. They are like the air plants—avoiding them is as hopeless as a tree trying to avoid the wind. All we can do is attend to our vigilance, which is like the bark of the tree. If our vigilance against accidental sin is strong, we will easily resist the occasional thoughtless temptation that comes our way.

Let’s also recall that the flora we loved in Florida are not the only kind of epiphytic plant. Many types are invasive parasites, overwhelming their hosts like the Georgian kudzu that chokes off sunlight to the plant. Shegagot, unchecked, have the power to destroy us.

One last point about Yom Kippur. Maimonides’ reference to Yom Kippur, here and throughout The Ways of Repentance, is distinguished by an unusual omission, noted in the classic Hasidic work Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Nowhere does Maimonides mention the fast of Yom Kippur, perhaps the most memorable feature of that holy day! The reason for this, according to Tanya, is because Maimonides wishes to counter the mistaken impression that the fast is, in itself, an act of teshuvah sufficient in itself to effect atonement. In reality, teshuvah is all about regret, confession, and abandonment of sin.  The purpose of the fast is to accept upon one’s self a mitigated punishment rather than suffer the full measure of consequences for our actions (Igeret ha-Teshuvah), which is explained in the next halakhah.


אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַתְּשׁוּבָה מְכַפֶּרֶת עַל הַכֹּל, וְעַצְמוֹ שֶׁלְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר–יֵשׁ עֲבֵרוֹת שְׁהֶן מִתְכַּפְּרִין בְּשָׁעָתָן, וְיֵשׁ עֲבֵרוֹת שְׁאֵין מִתְכַּפְּרִין אֵלָא לְאַחַר זְמָן.  כֵּיצַד:  עָבַר אָדָם עַל מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שְׁאֵין בָּהּ כָּרֵת, וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה–אֵינוּ זָז מִשָּׁם עַד שֶׁמּוֹחֲלִין לוֹ מִיָּד, וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמָר “שׁוּבוּ בָּנִים שׁוֹבָבִים, אֶרְפָּה מְשׁוּבֹתֵיכֶם” (ירמיהו ג,כב).

עָבַר עַל מִצְוַת לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה שְׁאֵין בָּהּ כָּרֵת וְלֹא מִיתַת בֵּית דִּין, וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה–תְּשׁוּבָה תּוֹלָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמָר “כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לטהר אתכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני ה’ תטהרו” (ויקרא טז,ל).

עָבַר עַל כְּרֵתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית דִּין, וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה–תְּשׁוּבָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים תּוֹלִין, וְיִסּוּרִין הַבָּאִין עָלָיו גּוֹמְרִין לוֹ הַכַּפָּרָה, וּלְעוֹלָם אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ כַּפָּרָה גְּמוּרָה, עַד שֶׁיָּבוֹאוּ עָלָיו יִסּוּרִין; וּבְאֵלּוּ נֶאֱמָר “וּפָקַדְתִּי בְשֵׁבֶט פִּשְׁעָם; וּבִנְגָעִים עֲו‍ֹנָם” (תהילים פט,לג).

בַּמֶּה דְּבָרִים אֲמוּרִים, בְּשֶׁלֹּא חִלַּל אֶת הַשֵּׁם בְּעֵת שֶׁעָבַר.  אֲבָל הַמְּחַלֵּל אֶת הַשֵּׁם–אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְהִגִּיעַ יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים וְהוּא עוֹמֵד בִּתְשׁוּבָתוֹ וּבָאוּ עָלָיו יִסּוּרִין, אֵינוּ מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ כַּפָּרָה גְּמוּרָה עַד שֶׁיָּמוּת, אֵלָא תְּשׁוּבָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים וְיִסּוּרִין שְׁלָשְׁתָּן תּוֹלִין וּמִיתָה מְכַפֶּרֶת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְנִגְלָה בְאָזְנָי ה’ צְבָאוֹת:  אִם-יְכֻפַּר הֶעָו‍ֹן הַזֶּה לָכֶם, עַד-תְּמֻתוּן” (ישעיהו כב,יד).

Even though teshuvah effects atonement for everything and the essence of Yom Kippur atones, there are certain sins that receive atonement immediately, and there are sins that only receive atonement after time passes.  How is this so?  If a person transgresses a positive commandment that does not carry the penalty of excision, and then he repents, he does not move from that spot before he is immediately forgiven.  Regarding these people it is written (Jeremiah 3:22), return, returning children, I will heal you in your return.

If a person transgresses a negative commandment that does not carry the penalty of excision or capital punishment at the hands of a human court, and then he does teshuvah, his teshuvah remains suspended until Yom Kippur provides atonement.  Regarding these people it is written (Leviticus 16:30), for on that day it will give you atonement, to purify you from all your sins, before God you will be purified.

If a person transgresses a commandment that carries the penalty of excision or capital punishment at the hands of a human court, and then he does teshuvah, then the teshuvah and Yom Kippur are suspended, and suffering comes to him to complete the atonement. He will never receive complete atonement until he endures suffering.  Regarding such people it is written (Psalms 89:33), I will remember their sins with the staff, and their transgressions with lashes.

Under what conditions does this apply? When the sin did not involve the desecration of the Divine Name.  If the sin did involve the desecration of the Divine Name, then even though a person did teshuvah, and went through Yom Kippur while he remained steadfast in his teshuvah, and he experienced suffering, he nevertheless will not receive complete atonement until he dies.  Rather, all three factors (teshuvah, Yom Kippur, and suffering) are suspended, and death provides atonement, as it is written (Isaiah 22:14), and it was revealed to my ears by the Lord of Hosts: you will not receive atonement for this sin until you die.


What is atonement?

The Hebrew term, kaparah, basically means “forgiveness.” There are other Hebrew words that signify forgiveness, but they all have various shadings of meaning. Kaparah is derived from the root כפר, which means “deny, contradict, repudiate.” Kaparah is thus the fullest level of forgiveness, a level in which the past misdeed is completely obliterated (the passage in Tanya cited above derives it from the word קינוח, meaning “to wipe away,” removing completely the soil of sin). It therefore stands to reason that kaparah is not easily attained. A human relationship, for example, can handle a lot of stress. One party might wrong the other, but with an acceptable apology and proper restitution, the relationship returns to normal. Sometimes, however, the harm is so awful that an apology and restitution cannot repair the breach immediately, but time will ultimately effect the necessary healing. Still other incidents may be so grievous, or smaller incidents might be repeated so often, that even an apology, restitution, and time cannot bring the wronged party to a full level of forgiveness. We will continue the discussion of forgiveness–how to seek it, how to provide it–in the next chapter, but for now let us concentrate on the healing power of kaparah itself.

Maimonides classifies, in his characteristically analytical style, the various categories of atonement and how they relate to the process of teshuvah.  The lightest form of sin is the transgression of a positive commandment, meaning the failure to perform some act that does not have financial or other repercussions for other people (if the act did have financial or other repercussions, then the damage done to another person would have to be addressed before atonement could take effect, as will be discussed below in 2.9). For example, one is required to bless God after eating bread (Deuteronomy 8:10: when you have eaten, and are satisfied, then you will bless). If a person accidentally omitted this prayer then a simple recognition of this omission through teshuvah would be sufficient to provide complete and immediate atonement.

Maimonides provides the citation from Jeremiah 3:22 to prove this point. The passage is often translated as return, O backsliding children, but in this context it seems clear that the word “backsliding” (shovavim, derived from the same root as the word teshuvah) would be better rendered as “returning.” The sense of the verse is that even while a person is still in the process of doing teshuvah, God will immediately forgive such transgressions.

A second type of sin is the transgression of a negative (i.e. “thou shalt not”) commandment that does not carry the punishment of excision or capital punishment. It is more serious than the omission of a positive commandment that does not have financial or other repercussions for other people.  An example of this type of transgression would be eating forbidden food. If a person were to regret eating forbidden food, and go through the process of teshuvah, then atonement for the transgression of this negative commandment would be held in abeyance until Yom Kippur.

Serious sins that carry the penalty of excision or capital punishment require three elements to effect atonement: teshuvah, the passage of Yom Kippur, and the experience of suffering.

The most serious of all transgressions is one that involves “desecration of the Divine Name” (hilul HaShem), in other words, acts that inspire public condemnation of God, Judaism or the Jewish people.  Sometimes these desecrations of the Divine Name are large in nature, for example if a well-known Jewish individual is convicted of a major crime, Heaven forbid, but even more private acts may fall under this category, such as a Rabbi who does not stand by his word in a minor business transaction. The teshuvah process for a person who commits a transgression of this nature includes four elements that are prerequisites for atonement: teshuvah itself, followed by Yom Kippur and suffering, concluding with death. Some transgressions literally require a lifetime of atonement.

Unlike most sins, which are easier to define, Desecration of the Divine Name is a sin that varies according to the status of the person.  The higher the status, the more serious the transgression. The Talmud (Yoma 86a) records the opinion of the great sage Rav: “for example, if I were to purchase meat and not pay immediately.”

Maimonides thus ends the first chapter of The Ways of Repentance with a literary cliffhanger. If we’re reading carefully, and we are taking this seriously, then our immediate concern should be, “how can we do teshuvah properly, so that we might attain kaparah?” That is the first concern of the next chapter.

Reflections and Practical Steps

1. Confession is the starting point of teshuvah. Begin the process early.

2. Keep a personal journal. Mesilat Yesharim emphasizes the importance of regular spiritual accounting: how can we do teshuvah if we can’t keep track of what we’ve done? Be sure to include personal victories as well as failures, like “I managed to control my temper when Shmendrik commented on my tie.” Review it regularly, ideally before Rosh Hodesh (the Jewish New Moon).

3. Pay special attention to inadvertent wrongs (shegagot). Is there a pattern behind them? Are there certain places, times of day, or issues that are associated with thoughtless acts?  Determine the causal factors and learn to avoid them.

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