Repentance in Judaism

Repentance (Hebrew: תשובה‎, literally, "return", pronounced tshuva or teshuva) is one element of atoning for sin in Judaism. Judaism recognizes that everybody sins on occasion, but that people can stop or minimize those occasions in the future by repenting for past transgressions. Thus, the primary purpose of repentance in Judaism is ethical self transformation.[1]

A Jewish penitent is traditionally known as a baal teshuva (lit., "master of repentance" or "master of return") (Hebrew: בעל תשובה‎; for a woman: בעלת תשובה‎, baalat teshuva; plural: בעלי תשובה‎, baalei teshuva). An alternative modern term is hozer beteshuva (חוזר בתשובה‎) (lit., "returning in repentance"). "In a place where baalei teshuva stand", according to halakha, "even the full-fledged righteous do not stand."[2]

According to the Talmud, God created repentance before He created the physical universe, making it among the first things created. (Nedarim 39b).[3]

One should repent immediately. A parable is told in the Talmud (Shabbat 153a) that Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, "Repent one day before your death." The disciples politely questioned whether one can know the day of one's death, so Rabbi Eliezer answered, "All the more reason, therefore, to repent today, lest one die tomorrow."[4] Because of Judaism's understanding of the annual process of Divine Judgment, Jews believe that God is especially open to repentance during period from the beginning of the month of Ellul through the High Holiday season, i. e., Rosh HaShanah (the Day of Judgement), Aseret Yimei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and, according to Kabbalah, Hoshana Rabbah. Another good time to repent is toward the end of one's life.[1]

Numerous guides to the repentance process can be found in rabbinical literature. See especially Maimonides' Rules of Repentance in the Mishneh Torah.

According to Gates of Repentance, a standard work of Jewish ethics written by Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona, a sinner repents by:[5]

The second of Rabbenu Yonah's "Principles of Repentance" is "forsaking the sin" (Hebrew: עזיבת–החטא, azivat-hachet). After regretting the sin (Rabbenu Yonah's first principle), the penitent must resolve never to repeat the sin.[7] 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.[3]

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 the relevant sin.[3] Rabbi Judah taught, "Who is the penitent whose repentance ascends until the Throne of Glory? — one who is tested and emerges guiltless" (Yoma 86b).[8] Maimonides interpreted this statement to mean that the sign of a true penitent is one who commits a sin and is later given the opportunity to commit exactly the same sin, yet one chooses not to ("Laws of Repentance" 2:1).[9]

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:

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: