The Significance of the Mitzvah

A fundamental tenet of Judaism is that there is always an opportunity to repent—to return to G‑d. Regardless of the nature of the sin, a person always has the ability to rectify one’s wrongdoings with proper teshuvah, which is often translated as repentance but literally means, “return.”

Maimonides (1135-1204) explains that knowledge of this concept is fundamental to our observance of the Torah. This is because it is impossible for any person to entirely abstain from sinning; were you to believe that there is no way to rectify sins, you might continue sinning with no hope of redemption. However, if you believe in the concept of teshuvah you will fix your wrongdoings and return to the ways of G‑d. In fact, the service of G‑d after a proper repentance is of a superior nature.1

Rabbi Moshe di Trani (1500-1580, known by the acronym Mabit), explains in his work Beit Elokim that from the perspective of the strict letter of the law, G‑d should not forgive us for our sins. Indeed, only as an act of compassion does G‑d give us the opportunity to repent and wipe the slate clean. In support of this assertion he quotes the verse from Parshat Va'etchanan, after talking about how the Jews will eventually do teshuvah it states: “For the L-rd your G‑d is a merciful G‑d; He will not let you loose or destroy you.”2 Justice alone dictates that teshuvah should not be effective, and G‑d’s acceptance of our teshuvah is therefore an expression of his mercy.3

Is Teshuvah an Obligation?

The fact that proper teshuvah atones for one’s sins is something that is mentioned in the Torah many times.4 However, before we can explore the exact source for this mitzvah, we will first consider a fundamental question about the exact nature of teshuvah itself. Is there a commandment in the Torah that specifically obligates someone to perform teshuvah? Or perhaps no such a commandment or obligation exists: rather, for one who seeks atonement, the Torah outlines a process through which atonement can be attained? There are two main opinions to consider:

1) Nachmanides and Semak - There is an Obligation to Perform Teshuvah

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yoseph of Corbeil (1210-1280) is commonly referred to as the Semak, an acronym of his main work, Sefer Mitzvot Katan, in which he enumerates all 613 commandments of the Torah. He lists teshuvah - “returning to G‑d” - as one of the 613 commandments and derives it from Parshat Nitzavim:

“And it will be, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the L‑rd your G‑d has banished you, and you will return to the L‑rd, your G‑d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day, you and your children...”5

These verses refer to the end of exile, when the Jewish people will repent from their sins and “return to the L‑rd.” Although this is generally understood as a prophecy regarding the days preceding the Redemption, the Semak understands these verses also as a commandment to perform teshuvah.6 Nachmanides (1194-1270) is also of the opinion that these verses serve as the source for the commandment to perform teshuvah.7 If such is the case, then one who fails to perform teshuvah is not only culpable for sinning, but also for failing to fulfill the obligation of teshuvah. On the other hand, if one does performs teshuvah, he or she does not merely atone for the sin previously committed but also gains a merit by performing a positive mitzvah.8

2) Maimonides - The Commandment is to Confess One’s Sins

Maimonides, however, takes a different view. In his Sefer Hamitzvot (in which he enumerates all 613 mitzvot) he does not list the commandment to perform teshuvah. The only reference he makes to teshuvah (in this work) is where he writes that there is a commandment to confess one’s sins at the time she or he repents.9

We find something similar in Maimonides’ Halachic work, Yad Hachazaka, at the beginning of the first chapter dealing with the laws of teshuvah:

“If a person transgresses any of the mitzvot of the Torah… when he repents, and returns from his sin, he is obligated to confess before G‑d, blessed be He, as it states: "If a man or a woman commits any of the sins of man... they must confess the sin that they committed.”10 This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.”11

Here too, Maimonides makes no mention of a commandment or obligation to perform teshuvah for one’s sins. Maimonides simply writes that there is a positive commandment which obligates a person to confess one’s sins as part of repentance.

There are a number of ways to interpret Maimonides’ opinion. We will cite just two of them:

The View of Maimonides As Explained by the Minchat Chinuch

Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874), in his classic work Minchat Chinuch, posits that in Maimonides’ view there is in fact no specific obligation to perform teshuvah. Rather, if a person chooses to perform teshuvah,then there is an obligation to confess one’s sins. It therefore follows that one who fails to perform teshuvah does not transgress any additional commandment for failing to do teshuvah. The Minchat Chinuch further argues that even one who performs teshuvah, but fails to confess, will not be punished for failing to perform the commandment of confession. If there is no obligation to perform teshuvah, one who chooses to repent can not be held liable if confession is omitted.

Accordingly, the Minchat Chinuch explains that in fact the mitzvah to confess is not an obligatory commandment in the same manner that one is obligated to don tefillin or to observe the Shabbat. Rather the Torah is informing us of the correct manner in which teshuvah is to be performed. If (or when) one repents, confession is a necessary component. This is similar to the commandment of divorce. The Torah does not obligate a person to have a divorce, rather, the Torah prescribes the correct process of obtaining a divorce, should such a situation arise.12

The View of Maimonides As Explained by the Kiryat Sefer

However, other authorities disagree. They suggest that in addition to the obligation to confess, Maimonides also considers there to be an obligation to perform teshuvah. As a proof they cite Maimonides’ own introduction to the “Laws of Teshuvah,” in which he writes: “The laws of teshuvah contain one positive commandment: That a sinner must return from his sin and confess.” Here, Maimonides explicitly states that the obligation is not merely to confess (as the Minchat Chinuch argued) but rather there is also an obligation to repent.

Rabbi Moshe di Trani (1500-1580), known by the acronym Mabit, in his work Kiryat Sefer, explains that in Maimonides’ view, the obligation to do teshuvah is part and parcel of the commandment to confess one’s sins.13 Mabit explains this based on the fact that Maimonides himself explicitly writes that a confession without a resolution to cease sinning, is worthless.14

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains Mabit’s view as follows: There are two components to the commandment to confess: 1) That which is performed mentally, the resolve not to sin again, and is called teshuvah. 2) That which is performed verbally, the confession, a verbalization of the teshuvah that was already resolved mentally.

In other words, if confession is not preceded by a resolution in one’s mind to avert the sin, then the verbalization is mere lip service and not actually a confession. According to this approach, while the commandment obligates a person to confess one’s sins, it must also include the mental resolution of teshuvah as well.

However, if indeed, the mental component of teshuvah is actually the primary component of the commandment—then why does Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot make no mention whatsoever of this teshuvah? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Maimonides is following a general principle: Whenever a commandment contains two components, one verbal and the other mental, Maimonides describes the commandment exclusively in terms of the verbal component.15

As another example of this, the Rebbe cites the commandment of prayer which also consists of two components. A verbal component—to articulate words of prayer, and a mental component—the proper intent (kavanah). Here too, the mental component is actually the primary component of prayer, yet when Maimonides enumerates the commandment he describes it only with the verbal component of the commandment.16 This is likewise in the case of teshuvah; Maimonides refers exclusively to the verbal component, confession.17

Confession, Remorse and a Resolution

We have already mentioned that according to Maimonides teshuvah consists of two components, a mental resolution to stop sinning, and a verbal confession. There is also a third component—the feeling of remorse and regret for one’s sin.18

The first component, as inferred by the simple reading of the Talmud19 and Maimonides,20 is a resolution to desist from performing the particular sin which was committed. However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), the first Chabad Rebbe, in his work Igeret Hateshuvah,writes that this resolve must relate not only to the particular sin committed, but also to all the mitzvot of the Torah. One must resolve to never again transgress any commandments of the Torah.21

An obvious question arises: If a person only committed one sin, surely it should suffice for him to resolve not to commit that particular sin again. Why is a resolution regarding all the commandments of the Torah necessary?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the reasoning for this peculiarity. When a person commits a particular sin, one is effectively throwing off the yoke of heaven. Therefore, it does not suffice to simply resolve not to commit that particular sin again. It is necessary to reaffirm a complete commitment to fulfilling the Torah’s precepts.22

As mentioned above, in Maimonides’ opinion the confession is the verbalization of the teshuvah that one had already performed mentally. Thus, Maimonides writes:

“How does one confess? He states: ‘I implore You, G‑d, I sinned, I transgressed, I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed by my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again.’”23

Since confession consists of verbalizing the teshuvah that was performed mentally, it is understood that the confession must likewise consist of both regret and the resolve to change one’s ways.24

However, in a later chapter Maimonides discusses the confession that all Jews customarily say on Yom kippur, and writes that all that confession consists of is saying the words, “but we have sinned.”25 Why does this confession not also include the resolve to not sin further, or the regret of one’s sins, surely this is also a primary and essential component of confession as mentioned above? The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that the mere acknowledgement of sin constitutes a resolve not to sin again. When one recognizes that one’s previous actions were sinful, implicit in that recognition is that he will not do it again.

Yet the question remains: How can merely saying “we have sinned” suffice, when there is no verbalization of remorse at all? The Lubavitcher Rebbe concludes that there are in fact two levels of confession.A basic, essential confession is simply acknowledging one’s sin. A secondary, superior confession explicitly verbalizes one’s resolve not to sin, as well as one’s regret.

The Essence of Teshuvah and the Completion of Teshuvah

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that these two levels of confession mirror two levels of teshuvah; the essential teshuvah and the complete teshuvah.

We will better understand this by prefacing with a discussion regarding someone who performs teshuvah (he regrets his sin and resolves not to sin further), but fails to perform the verbal confession. Is he forgiven for his sin, or not? The Minchat Chinuch initially proposes that such a teshuvah would in fact still be valid. He reasons that even though there is a specific commandment to confess, still, one who fails to do so has still affected an atonement, as the confession is an independent obligation, which teshuvah does not hinge upon. In other words, confessing and teshuvah are separate components.

As proof, the Minchat Chinuch cites that nowhere in the Talmud is there any reference to a requirement to confess in order to atone for one’s sins.

In fact, the Minchat Chinuch argues that based on a rather bizarre case in the Talmud, not confessing does not get in the way of atonement: If someone were to bethrothe a woman on the condition that he is a completely righteous person, would this betrothal be valid? The Talmud rules that there is a chance that the betrothal was valid, and we therefore must act as if it is. The Talmud explains: Even if this individual was known to be a wicked person, still, we have to contend with the possibility that the intended groom had thoughts of repentance in his mind, and if this was the case, he would indeed be a completely righteous person, thus fulfilling the condition.26

This Talmudic ruling indicates that a purely mental repentance, (i.e., repentance in one’s heart), is the essential teshuvah, and that even without verbal confession a person is considered righteous.

However, the Minchat Chinuch further points out that Maimonides explicitly writes that this is not the case, and in fact without a verbal confession there is no atonement at all.27 How does this fit with the above proof, cited to the contrary?

The Minchat Chinuch and others resolve this difficulty by suggesting that there are in fact two levels of teshuvah. There is the basic level of teshuvah which entails a simple resolution not to sin again. This is the essence of teshuvah, and after making this resolution the person is considered righteous from that moment onward. Following this is the second level of teshuvah. This consists of regret, in addition to confession. Only when these two components are present is one’s teshuvah considered complete.28

In a similar vein, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his work, Igeret Hateshuvah, writes: “The primary biblical commandment of teshuvah is simply ceasing to sin.” As proof he cites a law found in the Talmud29 and codified by the Shulchan Aruch:30 Even though a wicked person is invalidated from acting as a witness, still, one who has simply resolved not to sin is considered a valid witness.31

From all the above it emerges that the basic, primary level of teshuvah is regarding the future; that one fix his or her ways and return to the proper path, resolving not to sin again. When a person has performed this essential teshuvah,one is considered righteous and can serve as a witness in the future. However, the teshuvah is not complete unless it includes a secondary component which deals with the past. A clean slate is only achieved with regret and a proper confession—verbalizing the teshuvah which had been performed mentally.

Based on this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the two forms of confession mentioned by Maimonides. Since confession consists of verbalizing one’s teshuvah, it can be readily understood that just as there are two levels of teshuvah, similarly there are two levels of confession. One is the basic obligation of simply verbalizing the resolution not to sin anymore, which is achieved by merely saying, “We have sinned.” In addition, there is the second obligation of confession; verbalizing the secondary level of teshuvah which must include one’s regret for past sins as well.32

Atonement for Different Types of Sins

This distinction between two levels of teshuvah is further supported by the Talmud in Tractate Yoma which discusses atonement for various categories of sins:

“If one has transgressed a positive commandment, as soon as teshuvah is performed, the sin is atoned for.33

If one has transgressed a negative commandment, in addition to performing teshuvah, one needs to wait until Yom Kippur when the sin will be atoned for.

If one transgressed a severe sin for which one would be liable for karet (premature death) or the death penalty, then even teshuvah and Yom Kippur do not atone, rather the sin is atoned for when G‑d inflicts pain on the person.

Finally, one who committed the sin of desecration of G‑d’s name is not atoned for even if pain has been inflicted. His sin is only completely atoned for after the person passes away.”34

The question arises as to how this statement of the Talmud can be reconciled with the Talmudic statement quoted earlier, which stated that merely having thoughts of teshuvah would be sufficient for someone to be considered “righteous?”

However, as the Minchat Chinuch points out, this is readily understandable in light of the previous distinction between the future orientated teshuvah and the complete atonement for the past. In order to be classified as “righteous,” a mental resolution to desist from future sin is sufficient. However, other components are necessary to effect full forgiveness for the past, and these depend on the nature of the sin (as is outlined by the Talmud in Yoma).35

Interpersonal Sins

There is an additional category of sin requiring extra effort before full forgiveness can be attained. These are sins committed against one’s fellow, including: theft, damaging another’s property or causing embarrassment to an individual, etc. In such cases, there is a requirement to apologize and seek forgiveness from the person who was wronged. Failure to do so renders teshuvah incomplete.

As the Talmud states:

“Sins that are between man and G‑d, Yom Kippur can atone for; sins that are between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur will not atone for until one appeases his fellow.”36

On a basic level, this is readily understood; G‑d only forgives sins that are solely an offense against Him. Although sins committed against another person are also an offense against G‑d, nonetheless, being that they are also an offense against one’s fellow, G‑d will not forgive the element of the sin that is an affront to the other person.

Rabbi Yosef Teumim, (1727-1792, known as the Peri Megadim after the title of his major Halachic work) suggests that as long as a person has not been granted forgiveness by one’s fellow, G‑d will not forgive even the element of the sin that is an affront against Him.37

Moreover, Rabbi Elijahu of Vilna, (1720-1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, as well as others, take the extraordinary position that even sins which are not interpersonal in nature are not forgiven until one has asked forgiveness from the person who was wronged. .38

This position is extremely difficult to understand. What connection is there between interpersonal sins (where it would make sense that one needs forgiveness from one’s fellow) and sins which are purely between man and G‑d?

Although most do not seem to follow this opinion of the Vilna Gaon, nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870-1939, known as the Kaf Hachayim after the title of his Halachic work) suggests that this can be understood as follows: By not seeking forgiveness from one’s fellow, a person is showing that he does not really care about his sins at all. Were he to care, he would do all that is necessary for atonement from all his sins. This gives an opening for the heavenly prosecutor to argue that even the repentance he did perform is not genuine, and as such, he should not be forgiven for any of his sins.39

Inadvertent Sins - “Shogeg

In addition to the different categories of sins based on a sin’s severity, there are also differences based on whether the sin was intentional or not. An example of a sin committed inadvertently would be if one committed an act forbidden on Shabbat, but was unaware of the law that forbids it. Or, a person was aware that this act was forbidden but was unaware that this day was Shabbat. Jewish law differentiates between inadvertent and willful sins with regards to punishment. A question, however, arises concerning the requirement for teshuvah. Must one perform teshuvah for inadvertent sins?

Maimonides in Mishneh Torah implies that one is indeed required to perform teshuvah even for inadvertent sins.40 But we must still ask,why would someone be required to perform teshuvah for an inadvertent sin? Why should a person be responsible for those sins, when he had no intention to sin? Furthermore, being that teshuvah consists of a resolution not to sin again, how is it possible to resolve not to commit the sin again, even inadvertently?

The answer to these questions can be found further on in the Mishneh Torah, in the “Laws of Sin Offerings.” Maimonides explicitly writes that inadvertent sins need atonement because one should have checked the matter properly before engaging in the act. Because he was not scrupulous in making the appropriate inquiries and investigations, he is required to seek atonement.41 Similarly, it can be suggested that the inadvertent sinner must resolve to be more careful in the future, thereby decreasing the likelihood that he will sin inadvertently again.42

Does Teshuvah Work for All Sins?

In the introduction we mentioned that no matter the severity of one’s sins, there is always the opportunity to perform teshuvah. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud states: “There is nothing that can stand in the way of a person who performs teshuvah.43 On the other hand, the Talmud and the Rishonim (early authorities of the Medieval period) do cite examples of sins for which teshuvah is not effective. Above, the Talmud was quoted that states that for the sin of desecrating G‑d’s name, one cannot achieve atonement during a person’s lifetime. In addition, the Talmud states that one who says, “I will sin and then repent,” is not given an opportunity to do teshuvah.44 There are other similar statements from the Talmud and early authorities implying that there are certain severe sins for which one cannot perform teshuvah.45

How does this fit with the principle of the Jerusalemite Talmud that, “Nothing can stand in the way of a person who performs teshuvah?”

There are a number of ways to address this inconsistency:

1) The language often used by the Rabbis is that, “one is not given the opportunity to do teshuvah.” Unlike the case of one who commits a less severe sin, where G‑d actively gives opportunities and assists in one’s teshuvah, in severe cases we are on our own. G‑d will not assist or make the teshuvah easy. Nevertheless, if the person does teshuvah of his own volition, it is accepted.46

2) The Talmud states that there are in fact two types of teshuvah: teshuvah out of fear and teshuvah out of love.47 Although the Talmud (cited above) explicitly lists sins for which teshuvah alone cannot atone for, the Minchat Chinuch argues that this only refers to teshuvah out of fear. However, if one performs teshuvah out of love, then one’s sins even become merits,48 and as such there is no further need for atonement.49

In a similar vein, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (1200-1263) writes, that even though the Talmud states that the desecration of G‑d’s name cannot be atoned for during one’s lifetime, nonetheless, if one’s teshuvah includes efforts to sanctify G‑d‘s name in public—the antithesis to the sin he committed—then even this sin can be atoned for.50

3) Finally, there is a concept mentioned by Rabbi Bachya ben Yoseph ibn Pakuda (1050-1120) in his classic work, Chovot Halevavot. If a person does his part and truly and completely repents, then—even if according to the strict letter of the law atonement seem impossible—still, G‑d will do His part and remove any impediments to the teshuvah’s success.51

When Must Teshuvah be Performed?

In general it is understood that teshuvah can and must be performed throughout the year. As soon as one realizes that one has sinned, proper teshuvah must be done. Moreover, in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, the Rabbis state that a person must do teshuvah before one dies. Since no one knows his or her time of death, there is a constant obligation to perform teshuvah, as perhaps this could be the last day of one’s life.52

Notwithstanding the above, Maimonides writes that the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are opportune times for teshuvah.53 This does not mean that one need not perform teshuvah at other times of the year; rather, as Maimonides himself writes, it is merely that during these days G‑d more readily accepts teshuvah.

However, Maimonides also writes that Yom Kippur is “a time of repentance for all” and “therefore everyone is obligated to confess one’s sins on this day.”54

This is difficult to understand. How can Yom Kippur be a time when all Jews are obligated to repent; surely if somebody has sinned then there is an obligation to perform teshuvah as soon as one realizes it, and if one has not sinned then why would there be an obligation to do teshuvah on Yom Kippur?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes latter-day authorities who suggest what Maimonides means: True, one is obligated to perform teshuvah as soon as one realizes he has sinned. Nonetheless, Yom Kippur is the deadline by which teshuvah must be completed. In other words, one is not considered to have transgressed the positive commandment to perform teshuvah until Yom Kippur has passed. Therefore, on Yom Kippur there is an obligation for us to make sure that we have performed teshuvah.55

The Lubavitcher Rebbe goes on to argue, however, that it is difficult to explain Maimonides’ stance in this light. Maimonides writes that Yom Kippur is “a time that all are obligated to do teshuva.” This implies that there is an independent obligation for all people to perform teshuva on Yom Kippur, even if they have not sinned or have previously atoned for all their sins. The Rebbe explains this based on the next Halacha in Maimonides, which states that on Yom Kippur a person confesses even for those sins that one has already confessed (on the previous Yom Kippur).56

Maimonides quotes a verse in Tehillim: “My sin is constantly before me,” which is interpreted to mean that even after one has done teshuvah, a sin is still present in some sense. There is always a deeper, more wholesome repentance to attain; one can always strive to come closer to G‑d’s embrace. Thus, since every person has sinned at some point in his lifetime, Yom Kippur obligates a person to once again examine his actions and reach a deeper level of forgiveness.57

Non-Jews and Universal Teshuvah

The Jerusalem Talmud,58 as well as the Midrash Tanchuma,59 seem to indicate that while teshuvah atones for a Jew’s sins, it does not atone for the sins of a non-Jew. Notwithstanding these sources, it is also clear that non-Jews can and must perform teshuvah. This is evident from the biblical story of Jonah, which is read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. G‑d sent the prophet Jonah to the city of Nineveh to encourage its non-Jewish populace to repent and to warn them of the impending punishment in the event that they do not mend their ways.

How do we reconcile this with the Jerusalem Talmud and Midrash Tanchuma, cited above?

One explanation is to utilize the distinction (cited above). We explained that there is a basic level of teshuvah, which is simply the decision to not sin again. Thereby, one may be considered a “righteous person” from the time this teshuvah is performed and thereafter. Then there is a higher level of teshuvah, consisting of regretting the sins, confession, and in certain cases, other factors as well.

It is the first category of teshuvah that applies to non-Jews, as well as to Jews. If they have sinned, they must make efforts to change their ways and desist from sinning in the future. Indeed, by doing so they may spare themselves from punishment, as was the case with the people of Nineveh. They are not, however, afforded the special opportunity to rectify the past through regret and confession, thereby wiping the slate clean. According to this approach, this more complete form of teshuvah is reserved for the Jewish people only.60 This distinction can be understood based on an explanation given by Rabbi Moshe Di Trani, in his work Beit Elokim: Since Jews have six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, it is expected that at times Jews will succumb to sin. Non-Jews, on the other hand, only need to observe seven mitzvot and as such are expected not to fail in their observance in the first place.61

Ultimately, however, the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized that teshuvah must be a collective endeavor, “to return the entire world to its original stature” as a dwelling place for G‑d, and thereby atone for the very first sin, committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, all of the commandments, whether they obligate only Jews or non-Jews as well, are integral to this global effort of teshuvah, to return to the pristine state that preceded any sin. The responsibility of each Jew, accordingly, is not only to ensure that they, individually, have performed the mitzvah of teshuvah, but also to inspire all the people around them, and to wipe the slate clean for all of humanity. This might seem like an ambitious goal, but it is attainable given the assurance that when a human being gives their all, G‑d assists and ensures the fullest success. With G‑d’s help, humanity can perform a universal teshuvah, repairing the entire world and bringing it to the ultimate messianic state.62