Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, commonly translated as repentance, prayer and charity, are concepts much more profound than their translations suggest. Indeed, they cannot be adequately translated, for they are notions which exist only in the realm of Judaism.

On Rosh HaShanah, when the world is being judged for the coming year, Jews hope that G‑d has decreed for them a good and sweet year. Goodness, however, is limitless; and G‑d in His infinite mercy has given Jews the opportunity to make the coming year better still. The period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur — the Ten Days of Repentance — has been granted to Jews to ensure, through their service to G‑d, that on Yom Kippur He will bestow even more largesse than on Rosh HaShanah.

Service to G‑d in these days is, as stated in the liturgy of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,1 teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. These are commonly rendered in English as repentance, prayer and charity. Seemingly, such things exist also in the non-Jewish world.

There are cardinal differences, however, between teshuvah and repentance, tefillah and prayer, tzedakah and charity. Indeed, repentance, prayer and charity are not only poor translations but are really exact opposites of their meanings in the holy tongue. There is no adequate translation because their concepts simply do not exist outside Torah.

Let us look at each one separately, examining their respective meanings in the holy tongue and English.


“Repentance” means regret and contrition for sins or omissions of good deeds; and the resolve to start afresh.2 Many phrases in English literature [and in the literature of other languages] sound this theme of repentance: “To turn over a new leaf,” “to become a new man.”

Teshuvah” means something very different. It emphasizes not the idea of “newness,” but of return.3 A Jew is intrinsically good and wants to do good; sin is completely antithetical to his nature.4 If he does transgress, the transgression does not impugn his essential self but is a foreign thing that has adhered to him.

Teshuvah, then, is the return to that essential, real self of a Jew. While a person is a composite of body and soul, in a Jew the soul is primary and the body secondary; and that soul is no less than “a part of G‑d above.”5 Teshuvah is therefore the reforging of the essential union between the soul and its source, a union which was temporarily in abeyance through sin. In other words, a Jew, through teshuvah, reveals his true self and reasserts the soul’s mastery over the body.

This is why teshuvah is relevant to all Jews,6 even the completely righteous. Teshuvah is not just “repentance,” the desire to atone for wrongdoing and start afresh, which would not apply to the completely righteous who do no wrong. Instead, the Alter Rebbe writes,7 teshuvah is the concept of “the spirit shall return to the G‑d who gave it”8 : the soul continually strives to come closer to G‑d, its source. And just as G‑d is infinite, so, even the completely righteous Jew, can rise ever higher in his apprehension of G‑dliness. He, too, is always doing teshuvah — returning to his source.

Teshuvah is relevant also to the completely wicked. No matter how low he has fallen, hope is never lost. He can always do teshuvah for he need not perform any revolutionary act, create a new existence. He need merely return to his inner self.


“Prayer” is the idea of supplication, petition;9 one entreats G‑d to grant one’s requests. If nothing is lacking, or there is no desire for anything, there is no “prayer.”

Tefillah,” on the other hand, means union10 with G‑d. In contrast to “prayer,” with its emphasis on G‑d fulfilling one’s request, tefillah stresses man’s striving to achieve union with G‑d.

This is of relevance to all. Every Jew possesses a soul connected to and having its source in G‑d. But a soul in heaven is very different from a soul in a body on this world. The physical concerns of the body — eating, drinking, etc. — affect and weaken the soul’s bond with G‑d. The times of tefillah are the means by which this bond is reforged and reinforced. They are times of complete communion with G‑d.

Thus, unlike “prayer,” tefillah is fully relevant even to those who are not in any need. Tefillah is not only the requesting for one’s needs (although this is certainly a part of tefillah11 ), but principally the instrument whereby a Jew and his Maker are joined.


“Charity” commonly means alms, gratuitous benefactions for the poor.12 The giver of charity is a benevolent person, giving when he need not. He does not owe the poor anything, but gives because of his generosity.

Tzedakah” has a completely opposite meaning. Instead of connoting benevolence, it is the idea of justice13 — that it is only right and just that one gives tzedakah. There are two reasons for this:

(i) A person is obligated to give to another, for the money is not his own. G‑d has given the money to him on trust, for the purpose of giving it to others.

(ii) G‑d is not beholden to man, yet gives him what he needs. A Jew must act in the same way, indeed is obligated to: he must give to others although not beholden to them. In return, G‑d rewards him in like manner. Because he has transcended his natural instinct and given when not beholden, G‑d in turn grants him more than he is otherwise worthy of receiving.

The true Jewish meaning of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, then, is a Jew returning to his true self — teshuvah; a Jew achieving union with G‑d — tefillah; and a Jew acting justly — tzedakah. When Jews perform these services in the Ten Days of Repentance, then, notwithstanding the good granted on Rosh HaShanah, G‑d gives yet more on Yom Kippur.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, pp. 409-411