Maimonides on Teshuvah
The Ways of Repentance
Translation, Commentary, and Notes to Self
6th Edition (July 2018)
Hebrew text, English translation and commentary, 305 pages.
Preface in Lieu of Approbation
The Ways of Repentance
Chapter One: Confession
Chapter Two: Forgiveness
Chapter Three: Change
Chapter Four: Impediments
Chapter Five: Freedom
Chapter Six: Privilege
Chapter Seven: Teshuvah
Chapter Eight: Future
Chapter Nine: Present
Chapter Ten: Love
My Father: A Tribute
Every book is written for a specific reader.
When I completed the first edition of Maimonides on Teshuvah in 2012, I assumed I was writing it for myself. When my father passed away two years later, I realized that the book was actually for him, so I dedicated a revised version in his memory. Now, working on the sixth edition, I understand that it is really meant for someone else altogether.
So the book you are holding, like an archaeological site, reflects everyone who ever lived here. On the deepest level, this book is my own personal journey in teshuvah, written in the spirit of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook’s teaching 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). Above that are the reflections inspired by my father, a man whose quiet complexity and profound internal life was largely a secret to me until I reached my forties. Finally, on the most accessible, surface level, the book is part of the long Jewish tradition of older people offering unsolicited, maybe unwelcome, advice to younger people. Somehow these three personal civilizations simultaneously occupy the same small piece of real estate.
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 am referring to my translation and commentary—Maimonides, of course, needs no approbation). I’ve elected not to ask my Rabbinic friends for such a letter, partially because it’s a fairly personal commentary, partially because I like to review and update this book every year, and partially because I’m afraid they might refuse. Readers should therefore approach this book with appropriate caution.
July 23, 2017
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 certain 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 observed, 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 printing, which has become the standard critical edition. 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 undue 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. Maimonides merely numbers his chapters; I have added 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 of 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.
The material which follows can be challenging. Maimonides demands searing self-examination and presents rigorous criteria for ethical development. Inevitably, we fall short of our inflated expectations, and there is a risk that we might succumb to excessively negative and self-destructive thought patterns. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a major 20th century Jewish thinker, clarified that this approach to teshuvah is fundamentally flawed. Paraphrasing Deuteronomy 23:4, he wrote that “depressive thoughts may not enter the congregation of those who worship God.” He explained that teshuvah is an essentially joyous activity, that consists of three distinct stages (citing Rabbi Israel Salanter, in Alei Shor p. 205):
The key and the beginning is the feeling (הרגש) that one has when learning the teachings of the Sages and texts of ethical wisdom, reviewing them time and time again until they act upon a person and cause one to sense one’s own personal flaws. From there one moves to the second level, which is the conquering of one’s inclinations (כבישתהיצר). The third level is repairing one’s inclinations (תקוןהיצר) such that a person become joyous, and delights in the service of God.
How, exactly, does one manage to balance the serious work of discovering one’s character flaws with the putatively joyous activity of teshuvah? Rabbi Wolbe cites Rabbi A.A. Kaplan, who compares it to a father dancing while his young son sits on his shoulders. On the one hand, he dances with energy and vigor, wishing to please his beloved child, but at the same time he retains full consciousness of the precious weight on his shoulders, careful never to endanger his balance with a misplaced step. So too, we should enjoin the activity of teshuvah with seriousness, yet remain confidently joyful that the resulting improvements in our character will be meaningful, beneficial, and lasting.
The railroad tracks ran 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 way, 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.
Maimonides’ The Ways 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, orienting my path whenever I found myself wandering away from my desired destination. I hope that you, my specific reader, will gain similar benefit from this magisterial work of the Great Eagle as well.
A single hour of teshuvah
and good deeds in this world
is better than all of the world to come
The Ways of Repentance
מִצְוַתעֲשֵׂהאַחַת, וְהִיאשֶׁיָּשׁוּבהַחוֹטֶאמֵחֶטְאוֹלִפְנֵיה‘, וְיִתְוַדֶּה.
One positive commandment, which is that the sinner should repent before God and confess.
The explanation of this commandment, and the essential principles 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 then 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: 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 the section entitled The Book of Knowledge.
Chapter One: Confession
כָּלהַמִּצְווֹתשֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, בֵּיןעֲשֵׂהבֵּיןלֹאתַעֲשֶׂה—אִםעָבַראָדָםעַלאַחַתמֵהֶן, בֵּיןבְּזָדוֹןבֵּיןבִּשְׁגָגָה—כְּשֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂהתְּשׁוּבָהוְיָשׁוּבמֵחֶטְאוֹ, חַיָּבלְהִתְוַדּוֹתלִפְנֵיהָא–לבָּרוּךְהוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “אִישׁאוֹ–אִשָּׁהכִּייַעֲשׂוּמִכָּל–חַטֹּאתהָאָדָםלמעולמעלבה‘ ואשמההנפשההיאוְהִתְוַדּוּ, אֶת–חַטָּאתָםאֲשֶׁרעָשׂוּ” (במדברה,ו–ז), זֶהוִדּוּידְּבָרִים. וּוִדּוּיזֶהמִצְוַתעֲשֵׂה.
כֵּיצַדמִתְוַדֶּה? אוֹמֵר, ״אָנָּאה׳! חָטָאתִיעָוִיתִיפָּשַׁעְתִּילְפָנֶיךָ, וְעָשִׂיתִיכָּךְוְכָּךְ, וַהֲרֵינִחַמְתִּיוּבֹשְׁתִּיבְּמַעֲשַׂי, וּלְעוֹלָםאֵינִיחוֹזֵרלְדָבָרזֶה.״זֶההוּאעִיקָרוֹשֶׁלַּוִּדּוּי; וְכָלהַמַּרְבֶּהלְהִתְוַדּוֹתוּמַאֲרִיךְבְּעִנְיָןזֶה, הֲרֵיזֶהמְשֻׁבָּח.
וְכֵןבַּעֲלֵיחַטָּאוֹתוַאֲשָׁמוֹת—בְּעֵתשֶׁמְּבִיאִיןקָרְבְּנוֹתֵיהֶםעַלשִׁגְגָתָןאוֹעַלזְדוֹנָן, אֵיןמִתְכַּפֵּרלָהֶןבְּקָרְבָּנָם, עַדשֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּתְּשׁוּבָה, וְיִתְוַדּוּוִדּוּידְּבָרִים: שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהִתְוַדָּהאֲשֶׁרחָטָאעָלֶיהָ” (ויקראה,ה).
וְכֵןכָּלמְחֻיְּבֵימִיתוֹתבֵּיתדִּין, וּמְחֻיְּבֵימַלְקוּת—אֵיןמִתְכַּפֵּרלָהֶםבְּמִיתָתָםאוֹבִּלְקִיָּתָם, עַדשֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּתְּשׁוּבָהוְיִתְוַדּוּ. וְכֵןהַחוֹבֵלבַּחֲבֵרוֹאוֹהַמַּזִּיקמְמוֹנוֹ—אףעַלפִּישֶׁשִּׁלַּםלוֹמַהשְׁהוּאחַיָּבלוֹ—אֵיןמִתְכַּפֵּרלוֹ, עַדשֶׁיִּתְוַדֶּהוְיָשׁוּבמִלַּעֲשׂוֹתכְּזֶהלְעוֹלָם: שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “מִכָּל–חַטֹּאתהָאָדָם” (במדברה,ו).
Every commandment in the Torah, whether a commandment to perform some act, or a commandment to refrain from some act—a person who transgresses one of these commandments, whether unintentionally or intentionally, must confess before God and do teshuvah for the 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? One 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 were guilty of sin, and brought sacrifices for their unintentional or intentional sins, they would 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 be flogged, 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.Commentary
Teshuvah is a complex subject, and one may ask why Maimonides chose to begin his exploration with a discussion of confession. He doesn’t define teshuvah until Chapter Two, waits until Chapter Three to describe its importance, and delays his treatment of ultimate purpose of teshuvah to the final Chapter of the book. Why confession?
Perhaps the reason lies in his introduction to the book, cited above: Maimonides indicates that the Ways of Repentance is dedicated to treating “one positive commandment, which is that the sinner should repent before God and confess.” We will explore the process of teshuvah at length in following chapters, but here Maimonides seems to create a relationship of identity between “repentance” and “confession.” In other words: repentance is confession.
And of course this is true. Confession is a verbal articulation of the consciousness of sin, a sometimes heroic act of self-recognition that propels a person well into the teshvuah process. It may not always be a sufficient cause for atonement, but it is certainly a necessary cause—without confession, teshuvah cannot even begin.
Jewish confession is entirely private, conducted solely between an individual and God. No human being need hear this confession, unless it involves financial or other restitution to another person (more on this in Chapter Two). By saying out loud—even if no one other than God hears it—one recognizes the reality of one’s wrongdoing, and gives it concrete expression. Merely contemplating one’s misdeeds is insufficient—as the Talmud puts it, “words of the heart are not words” (דבריםשבלבאינןדברים).
If I were a true Hasid, however, I would be tempted to read that passage in a radically different manner: words of the heart are not words. Words of the heart cannot be expressed in “words.” They are expressed in an embrace, a forgiving expression, a painting, an act of kindness. Words of the heart are beyond expression in any formulaic, left-brained manner. They are far too lofty for human language, they will not be contained within consonants and vowels nor bound by grammar and syntax. Words of the heart can only be communicated with a more elemental form of expression.
We see this in locus classicus for teshuvah, the Talmudic story of Elazar ben Durdaya (Avodah Zarah 17a). After a life of extreme profligacy, a single cutting comment from a stranger suddenly 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 with God and request his atonement: the mountains and valleys, heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, stars and the constellations. Each refused in turn, claiming “before we ask for you, we must ask for ourselves.” Finally, Elazar ben Durdaya came to a monumental realization and pronounced the great axiom of teshuvah: “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.”
There are many lessons to be derived from this powerful story, but for our purposes let us focus on one: Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya achieved his personal redemption through regret without explicit, verbal confession. The purpose of articulating our transgressions is not for God, the Knower of all Secrets. Confession is rather an opportunity for us to get intimately 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.
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.
To return for a moment to my neo-Hasidic interpretation: if “words of the heart are not words,” it stands to reason that mere words are not words of the heart. The liturgy for the High Holy Days provides multiple texts for personal and communal confession. Simply parroting these prayers, reciting them coldly as if we were reading from a list of technical terms, cannot be compared with taking ownership of them, contemplating their significance for our individual lives.