Repentance in Judaism

Repentance in Judaism known as teshuva (תשובה‎, literally “return”), is the way of atoning for sin in Judaism.

According to Gates of Repentance, a standard work of Jewish ethics written by Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona, if someone commits a sin, a forbidden act, he can be forgiven for that sin if he performs teshuva, which includes:

  • regretting/acknowledging the sin;
  • forsaking the sin (see below);
  • worrying about the future consequences of the sin;
  • acting and speaking with humility;
  • acting in a way opposite to that of the sin (for example, for the sin of lying, one should speak the truth);
  • understanding the magnitude of the sin;
  • refraining from lesser sins for the purpose of safeguarding oneself against committing greater sins;
  • confessing the sin (see below);
  • praying for atonement;
  • correcting the sin however possible (for example, if one stole an object, the stolen item must be returned or if one slanders another, the slanderer must ask the injured party for forgiveness);
  • pursuing works of chesed and truth;
  • remembering the sin for the rest of one’s life;
  • refraining from committing the same sin if the opportunity presents itself again;
  • teaching others not to sin.

Guides to the process of repentance in Judaism can be found through the rabbinical literature, see especially Maimonides’ Rules of Repentance in the Mishneh Torah.

The High Holidays are times that are especially conducive to teshuva. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a day of fasting during which judgment for the year is sealed. Therefore, Jews strive their hardest to make certain that they have performed teshuva before the end of the day.

According to the Talmud, repentance was among the first things God created; even before God created the physical universe (Nedarim 39b). When the Temple in Jerusalem was active, a Jew was required to bring various sacrifices for certain types of sins. Although sacrifices were required, the most essential part was teshuva, the person bringing the sacrifice would confess his sins. Presently, with the Temple destroyed, atonement may nevertheless be granted by doing teshuva.

Western Wall Jerusalem Jews Pray Orthodox Holy

Jews are praying in Western Wall

Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, the noun teshuva occurs rarely. The verb shuv (“repent”) occurs frequently.


Main article: Confession In Judaism and Deathbed Confession

Viduy (confession) is an integral part of the repentance process. It is not enough to feel remorse and forsake sin, although such feelings are a commendable first step. A penitent must put his or her feelings into words and essentially say, “I did such-and-such and for that, I am sorry.” Excuses for and rationalizations of the sin are not accepted at this stage of the repentance process. The verbal confession need not necessarily be a confession to another person; confessing alone may allow the penitent to be more honest with him- or herself.

Viduy is slightly different for sins committed against God or one’s self than they are for sins committed against another human. Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man.” True repentance requires the penitent to approach the aggrieved party and correct the sin however possible. Thus, unlike in the repentance in Christianity, the Jewish concept of repentance is not simply the renouncement of sin in general, but rather in the specific sin done against a specific person or group of people. Only then must one go through the introspective processes described above.

Forsaking the sin

The second principle in Rabbenu Yonah’s “Principles of Repentance” is forsaking the sin (עזיבת–החטא, azivat-hachet). After regretting the sin (Jonah’s first principle), the penitent must resolve never to repeat the sin. However, Judaism recognizes that the process of repentance varies from penitent to penitent and from sin to sin. For example, a non-habitual sinner often feels the sting of the sin more acutely than the habitual sinner. Therefore, a non-habitual sinner will have an easier time repenting, because he or she will be less likely to repeat the sinful behavior.

The case of the habitual sinner is more complex. If the habitual sinner regrets his or her sin at all, that regret alone clearly does not translate into a change in behavior. In such a case, Rabbi Nosson Scherman recommends devising “a personal system of reward and punishment” and to avoid circumstances which may cause temptation toward a the sin being repented for. The Talmud teaches, “Who is the penitent whose repentance ascends until the Throne of Glory? — one who is tested and emerges guiltless” (Yoma 86b).

Baal Teshuva

Being or becoming a Jewish penitent (or returnee or born again), is known as a Baal teshuva (בעל תשובה‎; for a woman: בעלת תשובה, baalat teshuva; plural: בעלי תשובה, baalei teshuva) the Hebrew term referring to a person who has repented. Baal teshuva literally means “master of repentance or return (to Judaism)”. The term has historically referred to a Jew who had not kept Jewish practices, and completed a process of introspection and thus returned to Judaism and morality. In Israel, another term is used, hozer beteshuva (חוזר בתשובה), literally “returning in repentance”. Also, Jews who adopt religion later in life are known “baalei teshuva” or “hozerim beteshuva”.

Animal sacrifice and later substitutions

Herod’s Temple, as imagined in the Holyland Model of Jerusalem. It is currently situated adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was active, a Jew was required to bring various sacrifices for certain types of sins, and to perform a version of the viduy confession ritual as part of the sacrificial ritual. Yet, even when the Holy Temple still stood, the mere act of bringing an offering never automatically caused God to forgive someone for their sins. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) teaches:

  • “In sacrifice and offering, you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Psalms 40:6)
  • “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalms 51:16-17)
  • “For I desire steadfast love, and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
  • “Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.'” (Hosea 14:2)

Many places Rabbinic literature emphasizes that performing charitable deeds, praying, and studying Torah are more meritorious than animal sacrifice, and that the former can replace animal sacrifice when the Temple is not active:

  • “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with … Rabbi Yehoshua, … after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said, ‘ … The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!’ Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘… We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.'” (Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 4:5)
  • “Rabbi Elazar said: Doing righteous deeds of charity is greater than offering all of the sacrifices, as it is written: ‘Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3).” (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 49)
  • “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: The Holy One Said to David: ‘Solomon, your Son is building the Temple. Is this not for the purpose of offering sacrifices there? The justice and righteousness of your actions are more precious to me than sacrifices.’ And how do we know this? ‘To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice.’ (Proverbs 21:3)” (Talmud Yerushalmi, B’rakhot 2.1)
  • “One who does teshuvah is considered as if he went to Jerusalem, rebuilt the Temple, erected the altar, and offered all the sacrifices ordained by the Torah. [For the Psalm says], ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise [51:19]'” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:2 (Midrash))
  • “Rava said: Whoever studies Torah does not need [to sacrifice offerings] (Menahot 110a) … Said God: In this world, a sacrifice effected their atonement, but in the World to Come, I will forgive your sins without a sacrifice.” (Midrash Tanhuma Shemini, paragraph 10)
  • “Even if a man has sinned his whole life, and repents on the day of his death, all his sins are forgiven him” (Maimonides, Yad, Teshuvah 2:1)

Adapted From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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