From the writings of Dr. Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University:



Repentance (teshuvah) is a central foundation of Judaism. In addition to the specific commandment to repent of one's sins, the imperative to repent takes pride of place in the penitential season leading up to Yom Kippur, and the desire for repentance appears frequently in the daily liturgy. Thus one can hardly regard the emphasis on repentance as a distinctively hasidic contribution. Yet certain themes characterize hasidic writings on repentance. Let us note some of those that appear in the selections below.

At the theoretical level, hasidic thought on repentance bears the imprint of other hasidic doctrines. To begin with, it often reflects kabbalistic concepts of repentance. Thus, human repentance is connected to the processes of cosmic renewal. The return to God is equivalent to the elevating of the sparks through the sefirotic structure, and the different qualities of repentance are rooted in different sefirotic origins. From this perspective, it is also possible to speak of return to God as a spiritual movement independent of antecedent sin.

Other hasidic themes have a more direct psychological cash value. A great threat to the process of repentance is pessimism about the efficacy of repentance, and despair about the vitiated state of the sinner. These problems, which any religious psychology must deal with, evoke specific hasidic ideas. Thus the idea of "descent for the purpose of ascent" reconciles man to past failure by integrating it into the higher state to be inaugurated through repentance. Hence a special emphasis on the rabbinic idea that ideal repentance lifts one to a higher level than that attained by the righteous individual who has never stumbled. Hence also the integration of repentance on the part of the individual with the process of elevation on the part of the Jewish community as a whole.

Kabbalistic language permits the hasidic writer to discuss the question of initiative. At one level, free repentance requires man to take the first step toward God. At the same time, however, placing the entire onus upon man can well lead to discouragement over man's limited powers (Author: Saint Augustine). Again rabbinic sources in kabbalistic garb adumbrate a process in which God initiates the human response of repentance and augments the modest beginning made by man.

At the practical level, Hasidism encouraged its followers to treat repentance as all-pervasive aspect of religion, rather than being merely the effort to obtain pardon for specific sins. Thus an ongoing imperative to repentance transforms it into a way of life, permeating all religious life. This is in keeping with the general tendency of Hasidism to maximize the place of religious feelings in Judaism. The same appreciation of spontaneous feelings may also lead hasidic writers to respect the possibility of sudden, instantaneous repentance more than the parallel mitnaggedic thinkers do. (But still we have to be careful…God can witness to man in a power way, causing him to all of a sudden drop to his knees and confess Christ as the Messiah...but also let us remember what Jesus said about putting new wine into the old wineskin...)

Hasidic authors also took it upon themselves to suggest to their followers the proper emphasis to be placed on different aspects of repentance. Halakhah demands regret for the past, confession, and resolution for the future. The individual may experience difficulty in determining the order of these essential ingredients. The threat of being overwhelmed by these requirements may bring the prospective ba'al teshuvah to despair, which is to be avoided at all costs. The attempt to regulate these factors can be found, for example, in B. Zadok's emphasis on one's determination for the future as taking precedence over the need to reconcile the errors of the past.

The same educational purposes leads several of our authors to define the appropriate place of ascetic practices in the context of repentance. Ascetic behavior has an atoning function, beyond the specific forms of abstinence integral to the Halakhah (such as fasting on Yom Kippur). In this connection, it becomes important to distinguish between the essence of repentance as a turning toward God and the austerities which are worthwhile, if at all, as a means toward reconciliation with Him.

The Lurianic ascetism is prevalent in many Hasidic texts, including those of R. Nahman of Bratslav and R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk. R. Shneur Zalman's writings reveal the ambivalence he undoubtedly experienced between the ascetic bent of Lurianism, whose influence was still quite powerful in the early decades of the Hasidic movement, and the anti-ascetic reaction that Hasidism engendered and that emerges both from the Halakhah (see, inter alia, Responsa Noda bi-Yehudah, Orah Hayyim 35) and a long tradition in medieval Jewish thought. R. Shneur Zalman attempts to reconcile these two differences.

Source: R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, Iggeret ha-Teshuvah, chaps. 1-3

The commandment of repentance, as required by the Torah, is simply the abandonment of sin. The sinner must resolve with his whole heart never again to revert to folly and rebel against His rule, and never again to violate the King's command, God forbid, neither a positive nor a negative commandment.

This is the basic meaning of the term "teshuvah" (repentance): to return to God with all one's heart and soul, to serve Him and keep all His commandments. Let the wicked abandon his way, and the sinful his thoughts, and return to God (Isaiah 55:7). Such statements abound: Return to the Lord your God and hearken to His voice...with all your heart (Deut. 30:2), and Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God (Hosea 14:2), and Bring us back, Lord, unto You (Lam. 5:22).

This is not at all the common conception that repentance is identified with fasting. Even where the completion (of the process) of atonement requires suffering, as in the case of sins punished by excision (karet) or execution, this means that God brings the sufferings on the sinner. For when the repentance is acceptable to Him, as man returns to God with all his heart and soul out of love, then following the initiative-from-below, i.e., divine response, arousing the love and kindness of God, to scour his sin through affliction in the world. For whom the Lord loves, He chastises. (Proverbs 3:12)

Therefore Maimonides and Sefer Mitzvot Gadol make no mention of fasting (in connection with) the mitzvah of repentance, even for sins involving the punishment of excision or capital sins. They cite only confession and the plea for forgiveness: "They shall confess their sins." (Numbers 5:7)

But what of the verse "Return to Me with all your hearts, with fasting and weeping" (Joel 2:12)? This was to nullify the heavenly decree that had already been issued, to expunge the sin of (that) generation through the affliction of locusts. That is the justification for all fasts undertaken because of any trouble threatening the community, as in the Book of Esther.

There are descriptions in the Musar literature, particularly the Rokeach and Sefer Hasidism, of numerous fasts and mortifications for excision and capital sins. The same is true of sins punished by death by divine agency (mitah bi-yedei shamayim), like wastefull emissions of semen, as the Torah recounts of Er and Onan (Gen. 38:7-10). These fasts and mortifications are intended to avoid the punishment of suffering at the hand of Heaven, God forbid, and also to urge on and expedite the end of the process of atonement and forgiveness of the sinner's soul.

However, all this refers to atonement and forgiveness of the sin (even without these ascetic practices), he is pardoned completely for having violated the command of the King once he has fully repented. No charge or semblance of accusation is made against him on the day of judgment to punish him for his sin, God forbid, in the world-to-come. He is completely exonerated from the judgment to come.

Nonetheless, that he may be acceptable before God, as beloved of Him as before the sin, that his Creator may derive delight from his service - in past times he would bring a burnt offering (Lev. 1:3). This offering was brought even for violating an ordinary positive commandment that involves no excision (karet) or is a "gift" (that the penitent offers to God) after he has done penance and the punishment has been commuted.

(An illustration): If one displeases his king and appeases him through an intercessor, and the king does forgive him, still he will send some token gift to the king that the king might agree that he appear again before his sovereign...(Author: Intercession was outlawed in the Old Testament anyway, as was propitiation, in Ezekiel. Everyone front and center before the Lord! LOL!)

Today we have no offerings to call forth God's pleasure, so fasting replaces the offering. The Talmud says, "May my loss of fat and blood be regarded as though I had offered before You..." Therefore there are many cases of talmudic sages who, to expiate some minor transgression, underwent a great many fasts.

With this precedent, R. Isaac Luria taught his disciples, according to kabbalistic principles, the number of fasts for many transgressions, though they entail no excision or death by divine agency.

In general, the mystery of the fast is remarkably effective for the revelation of the Supreme Will, similar to the offering, of which it is said, "an aroma pleasing to the Lord." (Lev. 1:13). In Isaiah we find, "Do you call this a fast and a day desirable to God?" (Isa. 58:5). Obviously, an acceptable fast is a "desirable day."

However, all this applies to the strong and healthy, whose physical vigor would not be sapped at all by repeated fasts, as in past generations. But whoever would be adversely affected by many fasts, and might suffer illness or pain, God forbid, as in contemporary generations, is forbidden to engage in many fasts. This ban concerns even fasts for sins of excision or execution, and certainly the positive and negative commandments that do not involve excision. Instead, the criterion for fasting is one's personal estimate of what he is sure he can tolerate.

For even in those early talmudic generations, only the robust who could mortify themselves fasted so frequently. But whoever cannot fast and (nevertheless) does so, is called a sinner. This applies even to one who fasts for specifically known sins, as Rashi explained there.

It goes without saying that a student of Torah who fasts is a sinner and is doubly punished, for the weakness resulting from his fast prevents him from studying Torah properly.

TIME OUT... BIG GRIN. Teaching from Jesus (God love him), Matthew 6:16: "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (AMEN, BROTHER JESUS!) But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to be to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."

Speaking as a Jew, I can tell you that I have seen and heard of old and sick people fainting in synagogue and elsewhere on Yom Kippur (among other things which pass for "repentance" once a year, like sleeping the day away since you can't eat or watch makes the time go by faster).

Let me tell you a ex-husband has hypoglycemia. You can imagine what happened the year I forbid him to fast before his entire family, pushed my way into his mother's kitchen and made him something to eat.*S* mother told me it was sin to fast if you can't...and she was right...and she wasn't raised Orthodox. Can anyone say "the doctrine of MEN?").

Back to Dr. Lamm, God love him too.

Nonetheless, every man of spirit who desires to be close to God, to repair his soul, to return it to God with the finest and most preferred repentance, should be stringent with himself. He should complete, at least once during his life span, the number of fasts for every grave sin incurring death, if only death by divine agency.

Briefly then, he may redeem his fasts with charity if he cannot mortify himself, as noted. Thought this might amount to a considerable sum, he need not beware the injunction, "Do not distribute more than 1/5." For these circumstances are not "distribution" to charity, since he does this to release himself from fasting and affliction. This is no less necessary than medicine for his body or his other needs.


Jesus: "Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly." (Matthew 6:1-4)

More on "tzedekah" or charity in another section....

The number of fasts enumerated in the above-mentioned penance is exceedingly great. Therefore, all who revere the word of God are now accustomed to being unstintingly generous with charity, for the prevalent lack of hardihood prevents them from mortifying themselves overmuch.

2. REPENTANCE AND INTEGRITY Source: R. Zevi Elimelekh of Dinov, Benei Yisaskhar, Tishri 4:6, no. 21

It is known that many people are mistaken about the mitzvah of repentance. Some hold that repentance is accomplished through many fasts and mortifications. Others maintain that it is accomplished through the recitation of great numbers of psalms and prayers for atonement. All these people are greatly mistaken, for these acts are simply incidental and mere details.

Jesus: "And when you pray, you shall be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think they will be heard for their many words."

And a story: Once the Baal Shem Tov (the great kabbalistic master) stopped on the threshold of a House of Prayer and refused to go in. "I cannot enter", he said. "It is crowded with teachings and prayers from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. How could there be room for me?" When he saw that those around him were staring, unable to understand, he added: "The words of those whose teaching and praying does not come from hearts lifted to heaven, cannot rise to heaven; instead their words fill the house from wall to wall and floor to ceiling."

The essence of repentance, however, is total contrition with a heart filled with remorse, whereby one regrets from the depths of one's heart every aspect of sin, transgression, and crime which he commited and through which he betrayed and angered his Creator. One admits and confesses to his Creator every detail. He abandons the sins in which he is engaged, and sincerely resolves never to return to that folly in any manner, even at peril to his life.

But this must be done honestly and sincerely, from the depths of the heart, for since man knows that the law of repentance is such, it is possible that he will recite the formula to God without genuinely meaning to regret the past and without honest resolve regarding the future. This lack of integrity occurs to man because the light of the soul becomes murky as a result of the denseness of his material element. Therefore the soul does not function properly in the body. This is like a candle which cannot give off light because its wick is full of dirt. One must shake the wick and pound the dirt off it until the flame can adhere to the wick and become one with it. The purpose of mortification is, similarly, to break down the material element of the body in order that the soul may function properly. Thus can repentance be performed sincerely, i.e., the essence of repentance as described above. But the mortifications as such are not the essence of repentance. Consider this carefully.

Now, there are various distinctions concerning mortification. During a time of divine will and mercy, when His right hand is extended to receive penitents, the penitent receives divine assistance and, immediately upon deciding to repent, as he commences with confession and beseeching of his Creator, God turns to him mercifully from His abode and infuses the light of the soul into the body. The bodily limbs are thus aroused, and the repentance will be sincere and from the depths of the heart. There will be no need to afflict the body with various mortifications.

However, when, God forbid, the attribute of Judgment prevails, man has little divine assistance, and the accusations against him for his moral failings are overpowering, so that even when man desires to repent, he is prevented from doing so by the material element, because of his many sins and transgressions. Thus, at such times, one must afflict his body in order to purge it of its filfth, and who knows if he can bear it?

(Author's Note: And Lord...oh Lord...I have seen with my own eyes, instances where people are forbidden to repent...they have become so full of sin, that they have lost the ability to do that, and God will not accept it from them! And we are forbidden to pray for them either. Now I know would destroy them.)

Source: R. Levi Elimelekh of Dinov, Benei Yisaskhar, Tishri 4:11, no. 36

Our master the Ari, (R. Isaac Luria) of blessed memory, wrote that repentance ("Te-She-u-VAH") is an acrostic for ta'anit (fasting), sak (sackcloth), va-efer (and ashes), bekhi (weeping), hesped (wailing). This teacher wrote that in this weak generation (especially in our exile, which gets worse every day), it is impossible for everyone to observe all these five elements. One must at least take care to observe five other matters which sustain repentance: Torah (study), Shabbat, vidduy (confession), bushah (shame), hakhna'ah (submissiveness).

We have already written, concerning fasts and afflictions, that one should not become depressed and think that because he cannot observe everything that his repentance will not be accepted. For immediately upon performing repentance properly, even without these additional forms of renunciation, it is effective.

Source: R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin, Zidkat ha-Zaddik, no. 12

There are two elements in repentance, one relating to the future and one to the past. That is why two things are necessary: purification, for the future; and atonement, to make amends for the past, and wipe away the sin. This latter is effected by means of a sacrifice or its equivalents: prayer or fasting or charity.

The law is that atonement is not a prerequisite for atonement. Thus, even if one intended repentance only in his heart, he is considered completely righteous. However, is this true only insofar as partaking of the terumah (the offering to the priests) is concerned, which is brought from totally profane stuff; in this sense, one can become a righteous person. However, for kodashim (partaking of the meat of a sacrifice), in order to sanctify oneself and become holy, one must also cure the ills of the past.


R. Zadok here plays on a halakhic theme found in Berakhot 2a. The Mishnah teaches that the earliest time to recite the Shema in the evening is when the priests begin to eat their terumah, the priestly gift that Israelites put aside from their grain, wine, and oil. The Talmud identifies this as nightfall, when the stars have come out. Why does the Mishnah not state this directly? The Gemara's answer is that the Mishnah wishes to teach us an additional lesson in passing: that priests who have been ritually defiled may eat of the terumah as soon as the stars appear, and need not wait until they have offered up the requisite sacrifice the next day. All that is required is that they immerse in the mikvah (ritual pool) during the day and wait for the appearance of the stars, even without the atonement provided by a sacrifice. So much for eating of the terumah.

However, the same priest, who had immersed himself in the mikveh and passed nightfall, but had not yet brought his sacrifice as atonement for his impurity, may not partake of the sacred meat of a sacrifice, whether his own or any other. R. Zadok establishes, on the basis of this text, that there are two levels of achievement in the teshuvah process: honest resolve for improved future conduct and reparation for the past. The former, which he calls "purification," is akin to the purification (or mikveh, immersion) of the defiled priest (after night has come); at that point he may partake of the terumah (which, while it may not be eaten or even touched in a state of impurity, is not sacred); by analogy, the penitent is accepted as a righteous person.

However, the higher level is that of the achievement of sanctity, equivalent to the priest who, in addition to immersion and nightfall, also brought his sacred sacrifice. Atonement (symbolised by sacrifices or its equivalents; prayer, fasting, charity) is prerequisite to the higher level of sanctity. R. Zadok adds that the recitation of the Shema - which is the "acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven," i.e., the acceptance of the Jewish faith - is contingent upon the time for eating the terumah, not the sacrifice or, to put it in more familiar terms, upon that level of repentance in which one resolves to abstain from evil in the future. It does not require the more stringent atonement for sins of the past. Sacrifice, prayer, fasting, almsgiving - all these are beyond the minimum of teshuvah, which is the simple mental act of inner resolve to change. The essence of repentance is future-oriented. Confronting and dealing with the past is a higher stage.

Source: R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, Iggeret ha-Kodesh, chap. 10

The essence of repentance is in the heart, for thorough remorse from the depths of the heart arouses the depths of the Supreme Light. But in order to elicit this light so that it radiates in the upper and lower worlds, it is essential that there be a tangible "awakening from below," in the form of an active deed, such as charity and kindness, that is without limit and measure.

For insofar as man bestows "rav hesed" upon the poor and destitute who have nothing of their own, without setting a limit and measure to his giving and distributions, God likewise emanates His light and benevolence in the form of hesed ila'ah (supreme kindness), referred to as rav hesed (Ex. 34:6), which radiates infinitely within the upper and lower worlds, without limit and measure. For in relation to Him, all are in a state of destitution, for they possess nothing of their own and are as naught before Him. All the blemishes that man caused above, in the upper and lower worlds, through his iniquities, are rectified thereby.

This may explain the verse, "To do charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." (Prov. 21:3): sacrifices are restricted by measure, quantity, and limit, while charity has no limits. One may give away all he owns without restraint in order to atone for his transgressions.

As for the ruling of the Rabbis that "a liberal donor should not squander more than a fifth," this applies only to one who has not sinned, or who has already repaired his sins by means of self-mortification and fasts, as required for the rectification of all blemishes caused Above. But for one who still needs to remedy his soul, surely the healing of the soul is not inferior to the healing of the body, where money does not count, as it is written: "Everything one has he will give for his life" (Job 2:4).

Source: Besht, Keter Shem Tov, pt 1, no 53

A great principle: Everything in the world contains holy sparks and nothing is devoid of them. In all of one's deeds, even the sins he commits, there are sparks from the Breaking of the Vessels. What are these sparks? They are repentance, and therefore when one repents a sin, he elevates the sparks contained there to the upper world.


Man, constituted of good and evil, never stays on one level, but constantly rises and falls. Because of the incitement to sin by the ubiquitous Evil Urge, he sometimes sinks to the depths of concupiscence in this material world and falls from his high station. If he then wishes to return on the high road to the Lord, whose service, Torah, fear, and love are a flame in his heart - but cannot, because of his sins which have led him into darkness over the years and form an iron curtain between him and our Father in Heaven; then the following advice is proffered to him. The fundamentally righteous person (= zaddik) can act in one of two ways in order to regain his former high level.

First, as Maimonides suggests, he can follow the middle path. One who has erred by going to one extreme must bend toward the opposite extreme, in order to finally arrive at the middle path. We learn this from medical science. So it is with regard to the ways of the Lord. If one has fallen from his high station by going to one extreme, he must repent by going to the other extreme. This is known as the higher repentance, whereby one unifies Father and Mother.

But there is another deeper, way for the zaddik to make his own; this is not meant for everyone, as is the first method mentioned above. It is more difficult, and is intended only for those initiated into the mysteries of the Lord.

...He must be wise enough to know that, whatever the level to which he has descended, there too resides the glory of the blessed Shekhinah, in accordance with the mystery of "His kingdom ruleth over all" (Ps. 103:19). Hence the reason for his descent to this level was to connect to himself those levels of sparks of the Shekhinah that exist there, so that he might rise with them as part of the mystery of his repentance. Although this is a "lower repentance," nevertheless it leads him more deeply into the sanctuary.



The Rabbis said: "He who performs repentance out of love, his premeditated sins are transformed into merits." One can perhaps say that this is hinted at in the verse, "Who is a god like Thee that pardons iniquity and passes by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?" (Micah 7:18). He who repents out of love is a nosei avon, i.e., he elevates and bears and raises the sin upward so that it turns into merits, thus evoking the higher love which is Hesed (mercy). It is known that the sefirah of Tiferet (beauty) inclines toward Hesed, and when one repents out of love and elevates the iniquity to merit, he greatly stirs up the prevalence of Hesed and powerful love and great beauty for Tiferet-Israel. This is what is meant by "And it is his glory (tiferet) to pass over a transgression" (Prov. 19:11), hence all his sins are forgiven.

This is occasioned by the penitent more than by one who was righteous all along, for the latter causes constant delight up Above, whereas the penitent causes a much greater delight, for his action comes after despair, and it is like one who has found something very precious that he had lost. This is especially so since the penitent must make ever greater efforts in the service of the Creator.

...more to come.... Home