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Teshuvah, Tefilla and Tzedakah

Teshuvah, Tefilla and Tzedakah


The following talk by the Rebbe is about the difficulties of translation itself.

The act of translation assumes that for every word in one language, equivalents can be found in another. But this may be untrue, especially when we are dealing with ideas that are central and unique to Judaism.

We may then fall into the error of equating a Jewish idea with one drawn from another culture when the two are in fact dissimilar, even opposite.

This is the case with the three words constantly on our minds during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. In English they are repentance, prayer and charity.

How far these differ from their Jewish counterparts - teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah - the Rebbe emphatically explains.

The Service of the Ten Days

We express the hope that on Rosh Hashanah G‑d blessed us with a "good and sweet year" to come, a year made fruitful by children, health and sustenance.

But there is no limit to goodness and blessing. Thus, during the Ten Days of Teshuvah we have the opportunity through our service, to cause G‑d to grant us yet greater benefits from His "full and expansive hand."

What is this service? It is, as we say in our prayers, "repentance, prayer and charity" which avert evil and bring the good. But the words "repentance, prayer and charity" are misleading.

By thus translating the Hebrew terms teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah we are led into a false comparison of these three elements of the religious life as they exist in Judaism and outside it.

In fact, there are crucial differences. Teshuvah is not repentance. Tefillah is not prayer. And tzedakah is not charity.

Teshuvah and Repentance

"Repentance" in Hebrew is not teshuvah but charatah. Not only are these two terms not synonymous. They are opposites.

Charatah implies remorse or a feeling of guilt about the past and an intention to behave in a completely new way in the future. The person decides to become "a new man." But teshuvah means "returning" to the old, to one's original nature.

Underlying the concept of teshuvah is the fact that the Jew is, in essence, good. Desires or temptations may deflect him temporarily from being himself, being true to his essence.

But the bad that he does is not part of, nor does it affect, his real nature. Teshuvah is a return to the self.

While repentance involves dismissing the past and starting anew, teshuvah means going back to one's roots in G‑d and exposing them as one's true character.

For this reason, while the righteous have no need to repent, and the wicked may be unable to, both may do teshuvah.

The righteous, though they have never sinned, have constantly to strive to return to their innermost. And the wicked, however distant they are from G‑d, can always return, for teshuvah does not involve creating anything new, only rediscovering the good that was always within them.

Tefillah and Prayer

"Prayer" in Hebrew is not tefillah but bakashah. And again these terms are opposites. Bakashah means to pray, request, beseech. But tefillah means, to attach oneself.

In bakashah the person asks G‑d to provide him, from above, with what he lacks. Therefore when he is not in need of anything, or feels no desire for a gift from above, bakashah becomes redundant.

But in tefillah the person seeks to attach himself to G‑d. It is a movement from below, from man, reaching towards G‑d. And this is something appropriate to everyone and at every time.

The Jewish soul has a bond with G‑d. But it also inhabits a body, whose preoccupation with the material world may attenuate that bond.

So it has constantly to be strengthened and renewed. This is the function of tefillah. And it is necessary for every Jew.

For while there may be those who do not lack anything and thus have nothing to request of G‑d, there is no-one who does not need to attach himself to the source of all life.

Tzedakah and Charity

The Hebrew for "charity" is not tzedakah but chessed. And again these two words have opposite meanings.

Chessed, charity, implies that the recipient has no right to the gift and that the donor is under no obligation to give it. He gives it gratuitously, from the goodness of his heart. His act is a virtue rather than a duty.

On the other hand tzedakah means righteousness or justice. The implication is that the donor gives because it is his duty. For, firstly, everything in the world belongs ultimately to G‑d. A man's possessions are not his by right. Rather, they are entrusted to him by G‑d, and one of the conditions of that trust is that he should give to those who are in need.

Secondly, a man has a duty to act towards others as he asks G‑d to act towards him. And as we ask G‑d for His blessings though He owes us nothing and is under no obligation, so we are bound in justice to give to those who ask us, even though we are in no way in their debt. In this way we are rewarded: Measure for measure. Because we give freely, G‑d gives freely to us.

This applies in particular to the tzedakah which is given to support the institutions of Torah learning. For everyone who is educated in these institutions is a future foundation of a house in Israel, and a future guide to the coming generation. This will be the product of his tzedakah - and his act is the measure of his reward.

Three Paths

These are the three paths which lead to a year "written and sealed" for good.

By returning to one's innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G‑d (tefillah) and by distributing one's possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty.1

Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II, pp. 409-411.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks by Britain's Chief Rabbi, Dr.Jonathan Sacks
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Travis Armstrong Lovingston July 7, 2015

Amazing clarification. Deep respect.
B"H Reply

Yolanda Lugo Bronx September 2, 2013

The three paths Rabbi,
Thank you very much for explaining the differences in translation. It is true that when you translate from one language to another, it is not only hard but you also lose the very essence of what is being said and what the message is.

Once again thank you and God bless you. Reply

Anonymous August 18, 2013

My spirit is overawed by such truth. I feel lost. Reply

Greg USA August 4, 2013

Chessed vs. tzedakah In Bereishis 15:6 the Word states: "And he believed in G-d and He counted it to him as righteousness." Did G-d count this righteousness to Abram out of duty ? The word seems to imply that this righteousness counted to Abram was "chessed". I have always understood that G-d's righteousness is administered as either justice, mercy or grace ? Is grace charity? Justice is getting what one deserves, mercy is not getting what you deserves and grace is getting what one don't deserve. Grace or charity is unmerited favor. Is not righteousness a prerequisite to grace in Go-d's administration of His Kingdom ? Bereishis 6:8. "But Noach found grace in the eyes of G-d". He was spared death. You stated that chessed and tzedakah are opposites. Rather than opposites, they seem to be intimately associated with G-d's grace and life. Reply

Anonymous Florida September 17, 2012

Thank you! Your translations speak to my innermost self....I am grateful. Reply

Sid Hoskins Lynwood, IL. September 28, 2011

Repentance It is the goodness of G-D that leads men to repentance.
Yes, and there is only One G-D, and The LORD is His name. Reply

Angine Lieber June 10, 2009

Very interesting, the difference a word can make. Insightful. Reply

deborah houston, tx September 29, 2008

Thank you for this beautiful insight This is truth and my soul can tell as I read this. Thank you for this wisdom. Reply

Jack Davis Baltimore, MD September 11, 2008

Great article! This is really beautiful. Thanks. Reply

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