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Iyunim B'hilchot Teshuva

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Sep 5, 2005

Based on Shiurim given at MMY during the Summer of 5765 (2005)


Teshuva is a remarkable process, all the more fascinating and incredible the more one contemplates and studies it, and even more so when one attempts to implement it in his own life.  Some sources in Chazal imply that Teshuva is so remarkable and difficult to understand that it may even be illogical and irrational.  For example:

They asked Wisdom, “What is the punishment for a sinner?”  It responded, “Sinners shall chase evil” (Mishlei 13:21).  They asked Prophecy, “What is the punishment for a sinner?”  It responded, “The soul that sins must die” (Yechezkel 18:4).  They asked the Holy One, Blessed be He, “What is the punishment for a sinner?” and He responded, “Let him do Teshuva, and he will achieve atonement.”   (Yerushalmi Makkot 2:6).

This indicates that only Hashem Himself can fully understand the unique concept of Teshuva.

Teshuva appears even to contradict the fundamental principle of justice: what can be more unjust than not holding a person accountable for the crimes he has committed?  And indeed, many very intelligent people and important philosophers have ultimately come to the conclusion that Teshuva is impossible.  But we know that it is possible, and (as Rambam explains throughout his Hilchot Teshuva) has almost unlimited potential to change a person’s situation in life, and indeed one’s entire personality.

The Rambam explores all of this in his ten chapters of Hilchot Teshuva.  In the coming notes, we will examine certain key passages in this important work, with the hope of gaining greater insights into the Teshuva process, so that we can implement them into our own lives.  From time to time, we will also turn to the beautiful Sefer Al HaTeshuva, which records a number of Rav Soloveitchik’s impressive Drashot about Hilchot Teshuva.  (Of course, nothing here can replace the experience of actually reading through this important Sefer and understanding the Rav’s penetrating insights into human psychology, discerned through Brisker-style “diyukim” in the Rambam and presented with powerful passion and emotion.  Nevertheless, we’ll make reference to a few important ideas, in the hope that this will inspire the reader to devote some time to the Sefer itself).


The Rambam introduces each set of Halachot in his Mishneh Torah with a listing of the various mitzvot covered in that set of laws.   This listing is generally referred to as the “koteret” (heading).  In the case of Hilchot Teshuva, the koteret lists a single positive mitzvah: “Sheyashuv hachoteh mechet’o livnei Hashem, v’yitvadeh” – the sinner is commanded to repent his sin, and also to issue a verbal confession (viduy).  From this description, it appears that the mitzvah has two separate steps, first the Teshuva itself, and then the viduy.

However, when he actually begins to discuss the laws of Teshuva, the Rambam appears to use a somewhat different formulation: “k’sheya’aseh Teshuva v’yashuv mechet’o chayav l’hitvadot.”  Here it appears that Teshuva itself is not a mitzvah, rather a prerequisite condition for the mitzvah itself – viduy – to take effect.

The difference between these two separate interpretations is immense: is Teshuva an actual halachic obligation, or merely a quite incredible opportunity?   Also, in either case, what is the function of viduy?  Presumably, what really counts here are a person’s thoughts and emotions.  Why is it necessary to put these into words?

The Minchat Chinuch (Mitzvah 73) addresses this question.  He points out that the Rambam’s description in the Sefer Hamitzvot as well as the Sefer HaChinuch itself (which is usually based on the Rambam) seem in sync with what Rambam wrote in 1:1, that the mitzvah is viduy, and not Teshuva itself.  And indeed, the Torah explicitly commands us to confess our sins (Vayikra 5:5, Bamidbar 5:7).

However, the Minchat Chinuch points out, the Torah also speaks explicitly about Teshuva itself (Devarim 4:27-31, 30:1-3).  And indeed, those passages do not mention viduy at all.  This might lead to the conclusion that Teshuva and viduy are in fact two completely different things.  Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that Teshuva exists, and works even without viduy, but that after doing Teshuva there is a mitzvah to formalize it with viduy, for reasons that we would have to explain.

Nevertheless, the Rambam says (1:1) that “Kapara” (atonement) is dependent not only on Teshuva, but also on viduy.  Someone who has done Teshuva but has not recited viduy does not receive Kapara.  This certainly seems to imply that viduy is not merely a formal, technical mitzvah, but is in some way integral to the process of Teshuva itself.

To explain this, the Minchat Chinuch attempts a novel technical solution.  Perhaps, he suggests, the idea is as we have explained: Teshuva is a mental/psychological/emotional process that is theoretically effective even without viduy.  But there is also a mitzvah of viduy, and this is why viduy is a necessary component in Teshuva.  If a person does Teshuva but does not recite viduy, he may in fact have achieved Kapara for whatever it was he had done wrong in the first place.  But by neglecting viduy he is now guilty of a “Bitul Mitzvat Aseh” – of refraining from fulfilling a mitzvah.  That is an Aveira in its own right!  And therefore, his Kapara will be prevented by simple virtue of the fact that he did not fulfill his obligation of viduy!  If this approach is correct, then there would presumably be a difference in a case where the Teshuva is genuine, but the viduy was omitted due to a situation beyond one’s full control (“Shogeg” or “Oness”), as opposed to where the viduy was omitted intentionally.

However, that still doesn’t explain the apparent contradiction between the koteret and the body of Hilchot Teshuva, as explained above.  Therefore, the Minchat Chinuch ultimately rejects this approach, and comes to the conclusion that, in fact, there is no obligation of Teshuva. Teshuva is an opportunity that the Torah has set up for us, and viduy is the mechanism for doing it.  If a person desires to achieve Kapara, then the person must go through a process of Teshuva including viduy.  (This fits into the Minchat Chinuch’s category of “procedural mitzvot” such as the laws regarding Tum’ah and Tahara.  If a person is impure, there is generally no obligation to become pure again.  But if he needs [eg, in order to enter the Bet Hamikdash] or wants to become pure, the Torah prescribes procedures for doing so, and these are counted as mitzvot. According to this approach, the laws of Teshuva and viduy would be similar: there is no obligation to seek Kapara, but if one wants to, this is the procedure).

This approach, though, seems to ignore the Torah’s explicit commands to do Teshuva, as indicated above.  Because of this, the Rav (Al HaTeshuva pp. 37-45) suggests a different approach.  He points out that there are certain mitzvot which distinguish between the action (“Peula”) of the mitzvah, and the actual fulfillment (“Kiyum”).  Whereas one is obligated to perform a physical action, the real Kiyum of the mitzvah is “Balev”, mentally and emotionally.  Two striking examples are the mitzvot of Avelut, and the mitzvah of Tefillah.  In both cases, one must perform certain actions in order to do the mitzvah (the mourner must remove his shoes and sit on the floor, etc., and we must recite the text of the Tefillah several times each day).  Nevertheless, the halacha is very clear that someone who performs these actions without the appropriate thoughts and emotions behind them has not done the mitzvah.  (For example, if someone reads the words of the Tefillah without paying attention, he has not fulfilled Tefillah – and this is not dependent on the general debate about “mitzvot tzrichot kavanah”).

The Rav says that Teshuva also fits into this category.  The Peula of the mitzvah is viduy, but the Kiyum is Balev.  Someone reciting viduy is similar to a person reciting Tefillah – he is performing an external action which reflects an internal transformation.  To perform the mitzvah, both elements are necessary.

Whether one accepts the Rav’s conclusion or the Minchat Chinuch’s, it turns out that viduy is not a mere technicality (as the Minchat Chinuch had originally suggested).  It seems that viduy is an integral part of the Teshuva process, and that indeed Kapara is directly dependent on it.

Presumably, the reason for this is similar to the reasons for other mitzvot (again, like Tefillah and Avelut) that proscribe formal procedures for processes that are essentially mental and emotional.  Emotions are fleeting and abstract.  What one feels now may change in a matter of moments, certainly in a matter of days or weeks.  By putting the emotions into words and verbally committing oneself, this has the effect of concretizing the person’s thoughts and making them an objective reality.  This is the final essential step in the process of Teshuva.


In this chapter, the Rambam gives us an exact definition of Teshuva (2:2).  Here he lists the essential elements: after first recognizing his sin (Hakarat HaChet), the person makes a mental commitment to abandon it and promises never to return to it again (Kabbalah al ha’Atid).  He also experiences regret and remorse for his past actions (Charata). 

Rav Soloveitchik points out (Al HaTeshuva pp. 111-124) that this formulation seems to contradict the text of viduy that the Rambam prescribed in Perek Aleph (1:1).  There he also lists the three steps of recognition (“Chatati, Aviti, Pashati l’fanecha v’asiti kach v’kach”), regret (“v’harei nichamti uvoshti b’ma’asai”), and commitment (“ul’olam eini chozer l’davar zeh.”)  But there is a difference in the sequence.  Whereas in Perek Aleph the regret comes first and the commitment second, in Perek Bet the two elements are reversed.

In typical fashion, the Rav concludes that this is not a contradiction at all.  Rather, the Rambam is describing two different forms of Teshuva.  In Perek Aleph he speaks about an emotionally-driven Teshuva, which begins with feelings of self-revulsion and regret, leading to a commitment to make a change.  In Perek Bet, however, he speaks about an intellectually-driven Teshuva.  In this case, at the beginning there is no emotional regret at all – the person may actually enjoy the lifestyle of sin and on some level wish he could continue it.  However, he understands intellectually that this is a bad lifestyle that will have negative consequences.  So he makes a rational decision to change, and on the force of willpower overcomes his emotions and changes his life.  This Teshuva begins with Kabbalah al HaAtid, but here also, the Charata will eventually come.  Once the person succeeds in changing his life and living a healthier, better lifestyle, he will be overcome with regret for the period of time that he was immersed in sin.


At the beginning of this perek, Rambam lays out for us, in schematic form, his view on how Divine Justice operates.  He tells us (3:1) that each individual has “zechuyot” (merits, based on the good deeds he has done), and “avonot” (sins, for which we are held accountable).  Someone whose zechuyot outweigh his avonot is called a “tzadik” (righteous), whereas if his avonot outweigh his zechuyot he is a “rasha” (evil).  If it is exactly balanced (“mechtza l’mechtza”) then he is called a “beinoni” (average).  And the same thing is true for entire nations (they can either be righteous, evil or average), and also for the entire world.

In 3:2, however, Rambam makes a radical and quite surprising statement.  He tells us that a person whose avonot outweigh his zechuyot (in other words, a rasha) dies immediately as a result of his sins!  Furthermore, he says, the same thing is true of a nation – if the nation’s avonot outweigh its zechuyot, it is an evil nation and will be destroyed immediately, and the same for the entire world.

Many of the commentaries immediately pose the obvious question: it is very clear to everyone that that is simply not the way the world works!  We have all seen very clearly evil people, and, for that matter, evil nations, who have survived and prospered for many years, decades and (in the case of nations) centuries, without being killed or destroyed! 

Rambam does clarify that the calculation is not numerical, but rather is based on the relative weight of one’s actions.  He explains that a single “zechut” can outweigh many avonot and vice-versa, and says that only Hashem is capable of judging because only He truly knows all of a person’s actions and motivations.  This certainly can go part of the way towards resolving the apparent contradiction between the Rambam’s descriptions and the world as we see it.  However, it seems that this explanation can go only so far.  There certainly are people who are just so evil that it seems impossible to consider them anything but resha’im, and yet they live and prosper.

Additionally, it appears clear from the Gemara (Kiddushin 39b) that we cannot expect to see a complete correlation in this world between a person’s actions and his fortunes.  According to Rabbi Yaakov there, “schar mitzvah b’hai alma leika”: all reward and punishment takes place only in the next world, so that there may be no relationship whatsoever.  However, the Rambam presumably follows the other opinion, reflected in the Mishnah there, according to which there is some reward and punishment even in this world.  But even so, the Gemara explains that sometimes reward and punishment works specifically in reverse – a righteous person will sometimes suffer in this world, in order to cleanse him of his few avonot so that he can enjoy eternal reward in the World to Come, whereas a wicked person will at times be rewarded in this world for his few zechuyot, so that he can be punished in the World to Come.  If this is true, we can understand why there doesn’t always appear to be justice in this world, and why it seems at times that wicked people prosper while the righteous suffer.  But what, then, did Rambam mean?

The Ra’avad responds to this question by saying that Rambam must not have meant that the wicked die immediately – only that they are immediately sentenced to early death for their actions.  But the implementation of the death sentence might be delayed (and presumably could still be reversed through Teshuva).  Similarly, the Lechem Mishneh also attempts a creative interpretation, saying that the Rambam was speaking of the judgment that takes place at the end of a person’s life, and was referring to “death” for resha’im in Olam Haba.  But neither one of these interpretations fits the simple reading of Rambam’s words.

The Kesef Mishneh, therefore, accepts his statement at face value: if a person or nation reaches the state of being defined as evil, they will be immediately destroyed.  Therefore, anyone who is still alive must by definition be a beinoni (or a tzaddik!).

This means, though, that the category of “beinoni” is a very large one, including most human beings.  This understanding differs from the impression one gets when reading the Rambam for the first time.  After all, how likely is it that a person’s good and evil deeds will be exactly balanced, when examining perhaps hundreds of thousands of different actions?  Statistically, this seems virtually impossible (again, Rambam does tell us that the calculation is not done numerically, but is rather a “weighted comparison” judging the relative significance of all zechuyot against the relative significance of all avonot.  But this does not really change things very much.  It still seems virtually impossible that these two weighted calculations will come up exactly equal).  Nevertheless, if the Kesef Mishneh is correct, we must assume that the great majority of people in the world fit into this category of “mechtza l’mechtza”.

And actually, this is precisely what Rambam says a bit later on (3:4).  Based on a Braita in Kiddushin 40a-b, he says:

Every person must view himself all year long as though he is half meritorious and half culpable, and also the entire world is half meritorious and half culpable.  [Therefore,] if he commits one single sin, he will have tilted himself and the entire world to the side of culpability, and cause them destruction.  But if he does one mitzvah, then he will tilt himself and the entire world to the side of merit, and cause himself and them to be saved.

It appears from here as well that the category of “beinoni”, far from being an anomalous technicality applying to those few people whose zechuyot and avonot “happen to be” exactly equal, is actually a very large category that contains most of mankind.  But how can that be?

Perhaps we can suggest that when the Rambam tells us (3:3) that the calculation of zechuyot and avonot can only be done by Hashem Himself, because “only He knows how to evaluate zechuyot and avonot”, he doesn’t only mean to rule out a purely numerical comparison in favor of a weighted one.  Rather, it seems that he is telling us that the ultimate significance of many actions is determined retroactively as a result of future actions.  Most people have done many good things, and also many bad things.  At any moment, a single good thing can tip the balance in such a way that the net impact, on the whole, of all his actions is positive, and a single sin can tip the balance in the opposite direction.  (This point is particularly relevant when we realize that Teshuva even has the power to change history, as it were.  See below, Chapter Seven.)  Until this crucial point, the final significance of his previous actions remains undetermined, and he is a “beinoni”.

Any moment may be the “moment of truth” that becomes the defining turning point in a person’s life, or even in a historical process in the life of nations.  Those key moments are not always clearly recognizable as such, and therefore a person must live with the understanding that each and every action can have the most monumental consequences possible.



In this chapter, the Rambam sets out the principle of Free Will, which, he points out (5:3-4), is a fundamental principle of Torah.  Indeed, the Torah tells us explicitly that we are granted free choice and demands that we use it for good (Devarim 30:15-20).  Without free will, Teshuva would be impossible.  It would also be impossible for a person to be held accountable for his actions: if a person does not have free choice, then he is not responsible for what he does.

On the one hand, it seems obvious that Free Will is a basic and fundamental point without which not only Torah and Mitzvot, but life itself, seems meaningless.  At the same time, many thinkers have had great difficulty accepting it, and some have rejected it outright (e.g., philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Christian theologian John Calvin and behaviorist psychologist J.B. Watson). 

Some of these thinkers were bothered by conceptual difficulties, such as the perceived contradiction between Free Will and Divine omnipotence or knowledge.  Indeed, Rambam himself responds to some of these arguments in 5:5 (although his response is somewhat vague and remains open to interpretation and clarification based on his other writings). 

However, much of the resistance is based on simple observation. When considering the matter, it really is rather difficult to accept the idea that we are indeed sovereign rulers over ourselves.  Observing the world around us, it is very clear that people are influenced by their environment.  Would any of us suggest, for example, that a child raised in an abusive and impoverished home has the same opportunities to become a well-developed and accomplished adult as someone raised by stable, wealthy and loving parents?  But then where is free choice?

Rav Eliyahu Dessler devotes a considerable amount of his writings to analyzing the nature of Free Will.  After establishing based on empirical evidence that it does, indeed, exist, he presents a framework that acknowledges the truth that we are all products of our environment, while still affirming the existence of free choice (Michtav Me’eliyahu Vol. I, Kuntress Habechira Chelek Aleph, Ch. 1-2, pp. 111-114).  This is the concept he calls “nekudat habechira”.

Using a military confrontation as an analogy, he describes two countries at war with one another, in which one country has conquered part of the other’s territory, and the defending army has confronted the invading forces.  At any given moment, the battle is raging at a particular front.  All of the territory behind each of the armies is firmly under the control of one of the two countries, and there are no actual hostilities going on in those areas.  If one army wins the battle, it may push the front line in one direction or another, and when the next battle begins the fighting will take place in a different area.  The former front line is no longer a battleground; it is now also firmly under the control of the army that won the previous battle.  At any given moment, the actual fighting takes place only at the point of the front line.  Yet, the two armies are fighting over the entire territories of both countries, and all of these areas are “at war”.

Rav Dessler explains that the “milchemet hayetzer” works in a very similar fashion.  Our free choices can be viewed as the results of a battle between the “yetzer hatov” and the “yetzer hara”.  When we are born and grow up under certain conditions, the front line is set out for us at a certain point.  There are spiritual accomplishments that are indeed beyond our reach; those are under the firm control of the yetzer hara.  Similarly, there are evil things we would never consider doing – those things are under the control of the yetzer hatov.  At this point, there are both mitzvot and averot that we are genuinely incapable of doing, and indeed at the present moment we do not have free choice to commit those acts.

Our free choice exists only at the “nekudat habechira” – the boundary between the “territory” controlled by the yetzer hatov and that controlled by the yetzer hara.  We only have control over these “borderline” decisions.  However, just as in a military conflict, a victory of one side will push the front line in a certain direction.  Chazal tell us that “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, v’avera goreret avera”.  If a person successfully conquers his yetzer hara at the point of bechira, things that were previously very difficult accomplishments will become easy, even second nature.  Conversely, if a person succumbs to his desires and commits a sin, it will be easier for him to do so in the future.  Eventually, sins that one would never have thought of doing also become second nature.  The “battle line” of the nekudat habechira has moved to a different place, and the former front line is no longer a point of contention – real bechira no longer exists there.  However, at this point the location of the battle is a result of the person’s previous actions, and he is credited or held responsible for it.  Therefore, the person can be legitimately rewarded or punished even for actions which at the present are not really under his control, because this is the result of previous decisions he has made.

In this way, Rav Dessler is able to acknowledge the empirical reality that we are influenced by our environment while simultaneously affirming the truth of Bechira Chofshit.  His approach also helps explain the principle we learned in Chapter Three of Hilchot Teshuva, that only Hashem himself can truly judge a person’s actions – since only Hashem is aware of all the influences acting on a person, and therefore what level of responsibility he has for any given action. 

Finally, Rav Dessler’s approach helps us understand how we can embark on a process of change, step by step.  It can help us avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task by acknowledging that, for now, there are certain things that really are out of reach and beyond our control.  At the same time, it does not absolve us of the responsibility to exert every effort to improve, and teaches us that even things that seem impossible today can eventually be within our reach.  And if we are capable of reaching them, we are obligated to do so.  This also reinforces, from a different perspective, the point we made in Chapter One – Teshuva is not merely an opportunity, but also an obligation.



In this chapter, the Rambam extols the greatness of Teshuva, quoting various statements of Chazal to show that Teshuva can completely transform a person.  “Do not assume that a person who has done Teshuva is distanced from the level of the righteous on account of the sins he has committed.  This is not so.  Rather, he is beloved and cherished by his creator, as though he had never sinned.  Furthermore, his reward is great, since he has tasted the taste of sin and has turned away from it and conquered his desire.  Our rabbis have taught us, “the place where ‘baalei teshuva’ can stand, even the completely righteous [who have never sinned] are unable to reach”.

This idea is both encouraging and inspiring.  However, it is difficult to understand and accept.  How does it work?  We can understand, perhaps, that a person is capable of changing himself and of forging a future that is different from his past.  We can even understand how he can be forgiven and absolved of punishment.  But how can he change the past?  How can he rewrite history?

To explain this, we turn once more to the Rav in Al HaTeshuva (pp. 169-183).  He makes reference to a very striking Gemara (Yoma 86b), in which Resh Lakish is quoted as making two different statements, one even more shocking than the other.  “Teshuva is great,” he said, “as it can turn ‘zedonot’ (sins previously committed willfully and intentionally) into ‘shegagot’ (mistakes).”  However, Resh Lakish also said, “Teshuva is great, as it can turn ‘zedonot’ into ‘zechuyot’!”  The Gemara resolves the apparent contradiction between these two statements by explaining that the first is speaking about “Teshuva M’Yirah” and the second about “Teshuva M’Ahava”.

The Rav explains that Resh Lakish is actually describing two different psychological phenomena.  There are people who succeed in disassociating themselves from negative periods in their lives, cutting themselves off from their past and separating from all people and associations that connect them to a “previous life”.  This process, he explains, is what the Gemara meant by “Teshuva M’Yirah”.  If done successfully, one can sufficiently disconnect from his past to the point that indeed, he is a new person.  Legitimately, things he had done intentionally can be referred to as “mistakes” – the entire period of his life now appears as one big mistake.  He is a new person, and his little or no relationship with the individual who previously did all those bad things.

However, there is a different, even higher level of Teshuva.  This is when a person does not eradicate the evil from his past, but rather elevates it.  When he uses the extreme feelings of remorse and regret over past actions (the Rav powerfully and poignantly compares these feelings to Avelut) as an emotional catalyst towards growth and accomplishment that he never realized was within his capability.  This is the higher form of “Teshuva M’Ahava”, where the feelings of regret at having lost one’s innate greatness, potential for accomplishment and relationship with Hashem compel him to run even more eagerly into Hashem’s waiting arms.  (This was a brief summary that could not do justice to the beauty of the Rav’s ideas; the reader is urged to consult the original essay in Al HaTeshuva for a much fuller discussion.)

If a person is able to do this form of Teshuva successfully, then he has indeed changed history.  Evil deeds committed with full knowledge and intent have been retroactively converted into mitzvot, as they have become the cause of great mitzvot.  Indeed, without having made those terrible decisions in the past, the person could not have achieved the greatness he’s at today.  And therefore, in this circumstance, it is correct to say “the place where ‘baalei teshuva’ can stand, even the completely righteous are unable to reach”.  This is the true power of Teshuva.

Venue: Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim



Insights into Maimonides' Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentence), based on Shiurim given at MMY during the Summer of 5765 (2005)

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