The Rambam states1 that “Yom Kippur is the time of teshuvah for all.... Therefore all are obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur.”

What does the Rambam mean with his statement that “Yom Kippur is the time of teshuvah for all,” when the Rambam states in a previous paragraph that the entire ten-day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a propitious time for repentance, not only the day of Yom Kippur?

Additionally, teshuvah is not a time-bound commandment; as soon as an individual sins, he is obliged to repent.2 The fact that the ten-day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is an auspicious time for teshuvah in no way implies that the obligationto repent is greater then than during the rest of the year. Rather, these ten days are more favorable for repentance, and moreover, the teshuvah accomplished then is “immediately accepted.”3

The special aspect of Yom Kippur lies in the fact that “Yom Kippur is a time for teshuvah ... therefore all are obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur.” In other words, the very time frame, and not a specific sin, per se, obligates teshuvah. Thus Yom Kippur not only makes teshuvah easier, loftier, and so on, but the very day obligates one to repent.

Truly, this must be understood. If a person has sinned, he is obligated to repent during the entire year, not only on Yom Kippur. If, on the other hand, the individual is free of sin, then it would seem that he need not repent, even on Yom Kippur. Moreover, as he is sinless, what is he going to repent for?

During the rest of the year, it is a person’s personal status as a sinner that obligates him to repent. On Yom Kippur, however, the time frame itself brings an obligation to do teshuvah, regardless of his status. Thus, the obligation extends to all, for it is not the person’s actions but the day itself that necessitates teshuvah.

But the original question seems to remain: How can it be said that the obligation to repent on Yom Kippur extends to all, when — in its simple sense — teshuvah involves repenting for sins, and certain individuals may be free from sin?

The Rambam addresses this point when he states:4 “Those sins for which a person has confessed during a previous Yom Kippur are to be confessed again during the following Yom Kippur. This is so even though his state of teshuvah remains steadfast. For the verse states:5 ‘For I know my iniquities, and my sins are constantly before me.’”

Since “there exists no righteous person in the land who [only] does good and never sinned,”6 the possibility of teshuvah exists for all inasmuch as one’s sins “are constantly before me.”

There is only one difference. During the rest of the year, when the reason for teshuvah is the sin itself, then if a person did not sin in the first place, or has since repented, there is no obligation to again repent for the same sin.

Comes Yom Kippur, however, when the time itself obligates teshuvah, if there was ever during the person’s lifetime something for which he had to repent, the individual is obligated to repent once again on Yom Kippur, since “my sins are constantly before me.” Thus, “all are obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur,” as “there exists no righteous person in the land who [only] does good and never sinned.”

This will be even better understood in light of that which the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya7 with regard to the verse “my sins are constantly before me.” The Alter Rebbe explains that although a person may have done “a proper teshuvah” for a particular sin, nevertheless, when he is elevated to a higher level of Divine service, a loftier level of repentance is required.

Since the sanctity of Yom Kippur is such that all Jews are elevated on this day, then even those sins for which one has repented previously are to be repented for again, with a loftier manner of teshuvah — a Yom Kippur manner of teshuvah.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXIX, pp. 204-209.