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5th Edition Release: August 3, 2017. Softcover, 253 pages. Illustrations.
Maimonides on Teshuvah
The Ways of Repentance
Preface in Lieu of Approbation 3
The Ways of Repentance 13
Chapter One: Confession 17
Chapter Two: Forgiveness 37
Chapter Three: Change 69
Chapter Four: Impediments 111
Chapter Five: Freedom 135
Chapter Six: Privilege 155
Chapter Seven: Teshuvah 173
Chapter Eight: Future 197
Chapter Nine: Present 217
Chapter Ten: Love 227
My Father: A Tribute 241
Preface in Lieu of Approbation
This book, like its author, is in a state of becoming. I first wrote Maimonides on Teshuvah in 2012 as a personal experiment, elevating a yearly habit of reviewing The Ways of Repentance before the High Holidays by translating it into English. There was no need for a new translation as Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s fine work was already available, but I had been interested in the developing technologies of web-based publishing and thought it would be a fun thing to do. Surprisingly, a fair number of readers enjoyed my translation, perhaps because I offered it as a free download during the period immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah.
In subsequent years I refreshed the translation and expanded the commentary, and I came to view the evolving manuscript as an expression of my personal teshuvah, measuring change that was sometimes incremental, sometimes tectonic. The text became something of a spiritual journal that I shared with stranger-friends who received free yearly updates of the ebook. I am grateful for the comments they have shared, which have enriched my understanding of both the text and my self.
By long-standing Jewish literary convention, a Rabbinic approbation called a haskamah would appear at this point, assuring would-be readers of the scholarship and piety of the author. I’m not certain of either attribute, and feel uncomfortable asking my Rabbinic friends for such a seal of approval. Who am I, after all, to write a commentary on the eternal words of Maimonides? Furthermore, even if the thoughts I record this year have some value, it would be unfair to request an approbation to cover future years.
Readers should therefore approach this book with appropriate caution. My credentials to write a book of this nature are minimal.
My commentary is not a learned work with deep Rabbinic insights, nor is it a thoroughly modern, low-calorie approach to teshuvah. It is written in the spirit of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook’s perceptive insight that “it is impossible to fulfill the obligations of the heart unless one assembles a book for one’s self…that contains the teachings that inspire one’s soul” (Musar Avikha). I have tried to express myself in the sterile language of third-person academic scholarship. The syntax and vocabulary of this style helped me obscure the profound regret and heartache that drives much of my personal teshuvah. It is my hope that sensitive readers will recognize themselves in my questions on Maimonides, and we may strengthen each other thereby.
The fifth edition (5777/2017) includes some significant changes. In connection with a learning project at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst, the text is divided into forty units from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Yom Kippur. I have added a brief tribute to my father, to whom this work is dedicated.
י”א אב תשע”ז
שלוש שנים אחר פטירת אבי מורי יעקב דוד בן אליהו ע”ה
August 3, 2017
Three years after the passing of my father and teacher
Jack David Abramson, of blessed memory
The railroad tracks run parallel to Ambridge Drive, literally across the street from my father’s clothing store and the small apartment that was my childhood home. The locomotive crawled by several times a day, sounding its ear-splitting horn as it approached the unprotected intersection with the street. Even without boxcars, the train was so heavy that its passage shook the dishes in my mother’s china cabinet, a basso profondo roar that reverberated up and down my spine.
The sheer mass and power of the locomotive inspired respect, even fear. As a child, I often spent summer mornings placing pennies on the track, carefully noting the exact location of the coins by counting railroad ties from the street or marking the spot with a spray of purple fireweed. After the locomotive made its thunderous passing, I would hunt down the coins, now flattened almost beyond recognition, just a hint of Queen Elizabeth’s crown or a bit of the Canadian maple leaf testifying to their original status as currency.
Imponderable though it was, the train was no match for the switches. Located about half a kilometer away, across from the IGA store, two parallel half-rails gracefully curved off the tracks, waiting patiently for the engineer to throw a lever and bring them into contact with the westward rails. Separated from the main line by tiny gaps no bigger than a finger, these tapered rails had the power to lead the massive beast away from its initial trajectory and cast it into the distant railway yards.
Sometimes, when I am not in a particularly charitable mood, I see myself as that locomotive, carrying an unimaginable weight of inertia through my quotidian life, mindlessly reacting to others around me according to long-established maladapted patterns. Attempts to alter my behavior often feel quixotic and powerless, like pennies on the track, all efforts crushed and destroyed by their very first encounter with the weight of habit. Encouragement comes when I remind myself of those switches along the way, discreetly placed at key intervals, waiting for the signal from the engineer to connect them to the iron path and forever alter the train’s trajectory to a bold, unanticipated destination.
Maimonides’ The Ways of Repentance was one of the switches in my life. Reading it, and reviewing it, has helped me become the driver of my own locomotive, orienting my path whenever I found myself wandering away from my desired destination.
Moses Maimonides is one of the towering figures of Jewish intellectual history. Among observant Jews he is known as “the Rambam,” an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Moses son of Maimon). In this work I will use the name “Maimonides,” Greek for “son of Maimon,” a term more familiar to secular audiences. His reputation is encapsulated in the phrase inscribed on his tombstone in Tiberias, Israel: “from Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.”
Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 or 1138, his family fled persecution and settled in Egypt, where he rose to prominence as a physician. He was an indefatigable advocate for Jewish causes around the world, working to rescue Jews taken captive during the Crusades and writing letters offering guidance and support to far-flung communities. His most famous works include The Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical treatise explaining the foundations of Judaism, and the Mishneh Torah, a massive compendium of Jewish law, based on Biblical and Talmudic sources. The Ways of Repentance (Hilkhot Teshuvah) is taken from that multi-volume work.
The title Mishneh Torah may be translated as “the repetition of Torah,” in the sense that it represents an ambitious restatement of the entirety of Jewish law, derived from both the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the Oral Torah (essentially, the Talmud). Maimonides’ stated goal was to collate and organize the thousands of details related to Jewish practice and thought scattered throughout these ancient sources and present them in a clear, straightforward fashion in a single work. In a massive effort of prodigious scholarship, he organized all Jewish law into a single code, one of the first in Jewish history. Maimonides wrote the text in a clear Hebrew style, free from literary flourishes but with great sophistication, making it accessible to students with even intermediate language skills.
Although the Mishneh Torah was destined to become a classic of spiritual genius, it met with strong criticism from Jewish circles in Europe. Maimonides was censured for not providing detailed references to the Talmudic sources that informed his thinking (a lacuna that was later filled by commentators on the Mishneh Torah). More seriously, it was alleged that his deep engagement with classical Greek and contemporary Arabic philosophy had tainted the ideological purity of his Judaism. In one of the saddest episodes of Jewish intellectual history, French Jews denounced the work of Maimonides to the Church, and the Mishneh Torah was burned in public in 1232.
The Ways of Repentance, also rendered as The Laws of Repentance, has a place of distinction in the Mishneh Torah. Rabbi Mayer Twersky once pointed out that most of the Mishneh Torah is based on laws that exist in definitive place in the Talmud. The laws of the Sabbath, for example, are more or less represented in the Talmudic tractate Shabbat, the laws of Rosh Hashanah in tractate Rosh Hashanah, and so on. The laws of repentance, on the other hand, are not identified and concentrated in any single book of the Talmud. Maimonides recognized that these important teachings, dispersed throughout rabbinic literature, constituted a distinct group of laws that required a sustained analysis and codification. In this sense, Maimonides literally created the systematic study of repentance in Judaism. Moreover, as Rabbi Eliyahu Touger points out, in order to do this properly Maimonides had to extend the discussion into many theoretical areas such as the question of free will and the nature of the World to Come, making The Ways of Repentance a deeply philosophical treatise as well as a legal guide to proper behavior.
This translation is based on the Frankel printing, which has become the standard critical edition. Passages edited out of the traditional edition, mostly due to the pressure of Church censorship, are thus included here, distinguished by the omission of vowels. I have added citations from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud as necessary in parentheses. Gender-neutral language has been used whenever the translation would not suffer distortion. My intended readers are those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study Maimonides in the original Hebrew, and therefore my commentary does not treat many of the important but abstruse Rabbinic debates over the meaning of the text in favor of a straightforward, uncomplicated explanation. The reader who wishes an introduction to this rarefied world in English translation is encouraged to study Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s 1990 translation, which provides much of this material in an anthologized form. Maimonides merely numbers his chapters; I have added some titles to provide the reader with some sense of their content.
One last word to the reader new to Maimonides: this classic work, almost a thousand years old, has much to offer the modern student of Judaism. The fourth chapter in particular deals with topics that have immediate and direct relevance to contemporary reality, and reads as freshly as the day Maimonides first composed it. Still, he wrote for an audience whose concerns were in many ways quite different from ours. Maimonides lived in a society where adherence to traditional Jewish law was the norm and not the exception, where distinctions of rights and privileges of the sexes were accepted, where polemics between Judaism, Christianity and Islam were prevalent, and philosophical concepts were of deep interest to intellectuals beyond undergraduates in freshman philosophy class. A full appreciation for Maimonides’ genius and the spiritual insights of this book will only come after study, meditation, and review.
יפה שעה אחת בתשובה
ומעשים טובים בעולם הזה
מכל חיי העולם הבע
A single hour of teshuvah
and good deeds in this world
is better than all of the world to come
The Ways of Repentance
מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה אַחַת, וְהִיא שֶׁיָּשׁוּב הַחוֹטֶא מֵחֶטְאוֹ לִפְנֵי ה’, וְיִתְוַדֶּה.
וּבֵאוּר מִצְוָה זוֹ וְעִיקָרִים הַנִּגְרָרִים עִמָּהּ בִּגְלָלָהּ, בִּפְרָקִים אֵלּוּ.
One positive commandment, which is that the sinner should repent of his sin before God and confess.
The explanation of this commandment and the essential principles that may be derived from it are explained in the following chapters.
This entire book is a sustained discussion of a single commandment (number 73 out of 613 in Maimonides’ Book of Commandments), which is to repent, specifically through confession. The details of this effort will be spelled out over the next ten chapters.
Hidden within Maimonides’ sparse, undecorated prose is an allusion to the more expansive nature of this work. Although the Mishneh Torah focusses on practical applications of Jewish thought, the subject matter of this book demands extensive discussion of more philosophical topics. Later chapters will deal with issues such as the nature of free will, the concept of reward and punishment, and the Jewish vision of the World to Come. Maimonides alludes to the larger subject matter of repentance with the phrase “and the essential principles that may be derived from” the commandment to repent.
The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, a term that is difficult to render in English with precision. The essential meaning is derived from the root “to return.” Depending on the context, however, it can easily be translated as response, reply, or retort, terms quite different in nuance than “repent.” In all cases, it represents a reaction to stimuli: a question requires a response, a home awaits a return. In the context of this work, the closest English term would be “repentance,” which preserves the “returning” essence of teshuvah: repentance in the Jewish sense implies a return to an ideal state of closeness with God and with our highest, most noble priorities in life.
In composing The Ways of Repentance, Maimonides quietly demonstrated his bold intellectual creativity. The concept of repentance is central to Jewish thought, but Maimonides was the first thinker in two thousand years of Torah scholarship to codify its practice in such a pragmatic, comprehensive manner. His groundbreaking effort is still greater when one considers the scope of the overall project of the Mishneh Torah, covering absolutely every aspect of Jewish teachings on human life, including commandments relevant to the distant past (such as sacrificial laws which cannot be practiced if the Temple is not standing, see Sefer Ha-Korbanot), the future messianic period (Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milhamot), and even areas not normally subject to human legislation, such as opinions and character traits (Hilkhot De’ot).
The laws of repentance appear early in the overall work in the section Maimonides called “The Book of Knowledge” because these teachings are, as he indicated in his introduction, “essential to the Law of Moses our Teacher, and every person must know them before anything else.” The sequence is also significant: the Mishneh Torah opens with the Laws of the Foundations of Torah, covering basic elements of Judaism such as monotheism, followed by the Laws of Opinions, which covers the famed “middle path” of character traits. The Laws of Torah Study are next, but the progression is interrupted by a long discussion of the laws related to idolatry. The juxtaposition of deepened awareness of Judaism and Torah with forbidden worship is jarring but hardly unintentional, for spiritual growth is proportionately related to spiritual challenge, as the Talmud states, “one who is greater than his fellow—his desire to do evil is similarly greater (see Sukkah 52a). Maimonides then brings the fallen reader back to center with our book, The Ways of Repentance, which concludes the Book of Knowledge.
Chapter One: Confession
כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה, בֵּין עֲשֵׂה בֵּין לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה–אִם עָבַר אָדָם עַל אַחַת מֵהֶן, בֵּין בְּזָדוֹן בֵּין בִּשְׁגָגָה–כְּשֶׁיַּעֲשֶׂה תְּשׁוּבָה וְיָשׁוּב מֵחֶטְאוֹ, חַיָּב לְהִתְוַדּוֹת לִפְנֵי הָא-ל בָּרוּךְ הוּא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם למעול מעל בה’ ואשמה הנפש ההיא וְהִתְוַדּוּ, אֶת-חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ” (במדבר ה,ו-ז), זֶה וִדּוּי דְּבָרִים. וּוִדּוּי זֶה מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה.
כֵּיצַד מִתְוַדֶּה–אוֹמֵר אָנָּא ה’ חָטָאתִי עָוִיתִי פָּשַׁעְתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, וְעָשִׂיתִי כָּךְ וְכָּךְ, וַהֲרֵי נִחַמְתִּי וּבֹשְׁתִּי בְּמַעֲשַׂי, וּלְעוֹלָם אֵינִי חוֹזֵר לְדָבָר זֶה. זֶה הוּא עִיקָרוֹ שֶׁלַּוִּדּוּי; וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְהִתְוַדּוֹת וּמַאֲרִיךְ בְּעִנְיָן זֶה, הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
וְכֵן בַּעֲלֵי חַטָּאוֹת וַאֲשָׁמוֹת–בְּעֵת שֶׁמְּבִיאִין קָרְבְּנוֹתֵיהֶם עַל שִׁגְגָתָן אוֹ עַל זְדוֹנָן, אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לָהֶן בְּקָרְבָּנָם, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה, וְיִתְוַדּוּ וִדּוּי דְּבָרִים: שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהִתְוַדָּה אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עָלֶיהָ” (ויקרא ה,ה).
וְכֵן כָּל מְחֻיְּבֵי מִיתוֹת בֵּית דִּין, וּמְחֻיְּבֵי מַלְקוּת–אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לָהֶם בְּמִיתָתָם אוֹ בִּלְקִיָּתָם, עַד שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ תְּשׁוּבָה וְיִתְוַדּוּ. וְכֵן הַחוֹבֵל בַּחֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ הַמַּזִּיק מְמוֹנוֹ–אף עַל פִּי שֶׁשִּׁלַּם לוֹ מַה שְׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ–אֵין מִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ, עַד שֶׁיִּתְוַדֶּה וְיָשׁוּב מִלַּעֲשׂוֹת כְּזֶה לְעוֹלָם: שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם” (במדבר ה,ו).
Every commandment in the Torah, whether a commandment to perform some act or a commandment to refrain from some act— if a person transgresses one of these commandments, whether unintentionally or intentionally, he must confess before God when he does teshuvah for his sin. This is as it is written (Numbers 5:6-7): a man or woman who commits one of the sins of humanity, transgressing against God, the soul bears guilt; they must confess the sin they committed. This is called the “confession of words.” This confession is a positive commandment.
How should a person confess? He should say, “Please, God, I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled before you, and I have done such-and-such. Behold, I regret and am ashamed of my deeds, and I will never return to that act again.” this is the essence of confession, and anyone who expands on such a confession, going into greater detail, deserves praise.
Thus when people who sinned and are guilty, and brought sacrifices for their unintentional or intentional sins, they did not receive atonement through their offerings until they did teshuvah, and confessed the confession of words, as it is written (Leviticus 5:5) and he will confess regarding that which he sinned.
So too, one who was condemned to be executed by the court, or condemned to receive lashes, would not receive atonement through death or lashes if he did not also do teshuvah and confess. Furthermore, anyone who harms another person physically or financially, even though he may repay what he owes, he will not receive atonement until he confesses and repents of ever doing this again, as it is written (Numbers 5:6) of all the sins of humanity.
It is hard to understand why Maimonides began this book with a discussion of confession. His logical, orderly style usually begins with general concepts and definition of key terms, and there is no shortage of appropriate initial topics. He could have begin with a definition of teshuvah, but he leaves that till Chapter Two. Alternatively, this book could have begun with the importance of teshuvah (Chapter Three) or the value of teshuvah (Chapter Seven) or even the purpose of teshuvah (Chapter Ten). Granted, Maimonides seems to count “confession” as the sole, concrete action associated with the commandment of teshuvah (although passages elsewhere in his work suggests that he may consider teshuvah commandment unto itself), but why begin the book by discussing one element of teshuvah rather than a more general principle? This question is sharpened by the fact that Maimonides interrupts his discussion of confession, with the balance occur in later chapters.
The confession is a verbal articulation of the consciousness of past wrongs. This confession is entirely private, conducted solely between an individual and God. No human being need hear this confession, unless it involves a sin against another person that requires financial or other restitution (more on this in Chapter Two). A cursory overview of the commentaries reveals certain basic elements to the process of teshuvah, including regret (haratah), confession (vidui), and abandonment of sin (azivat ha-het), sometimes in combination with resolution for the future (kabalah al ha-atid). Rabenu Yonah of Girona (d. 1263), an early critic of Maimonides who ultimately came to revere his work, argues in his magisterial Sha’arei Teshuvah that there are twenty distinct stages to the process known as teshuvah, and thirteen of those steps precede confession! Once again: why does Maimonides begin with confession?
It is true that Maimonides was a rationalist whose verbal economy is legendary among Yeshiva students. Perhaps he chose to consider the earlier stages of regret a necessary but not sufficient cause for the process of teshuvah, which begins in truth with the first confessional articulation. Saying it out loud, in other words, is what makes it real. No matter how profound the regret, teshuvah doesn’t start until we acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we have done wrong. As the Talmud puts it, “words of the heart are not words” (דברים שבלב אינן דברים).
But is this really true? Is regret without confession devoid of value for teshuvah? The locus classicus for teshuvah is the amazing story of Elazar ben Durdaya, recorded in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (17a). After a life of extreme profligacy, a passing comment from a woman of ill repute forced Elazar ben Durdaya to confront the unfortunate trajectory of his life. As the story goes, he beseeched a series of unusual agents to intercede to on his behalf: the mountains and valleys, heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, stars and the constellations, yet each refused in turn, claiming “before we ask for you, we must ask for ourselves.” Finally, Elazar ben Durdaya came to a monumental realization and pronounced a fundamental axiom of self-improvement: “the matter depends on me alone.” He lowered his head and uttered a piercing cry of such agony that his soul departed on the spot. His efforts were rewarded with a Heavenly voice that proclaimed, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has earned a place in the World to Come.”
The plain reading of the story is that Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya achieved his personal redemption through regret without confession (a number of other examples of redemption without verbal confession are provided by Rabbi Shalom Tsvi Shapiro in his commentary Meshiv Nefesh 1:3). Must one therefore go through the tedious, onerous chore of confession in order to receive Divine forgiveness? Certainly God knows our sins–shouldn’t our simple act of heartfelt regret be sufficient? Maimonides even provides support for this proposition below (1.4), at least in the context of relatively minor transgressions: “if a person feels shame, he is forgiven even before he moves from that spot.” Why all the emphasis on confession?
Confession represents a purely personal articulation of our wrongdoing. God, the Knower of all Secrets, does not need our confession to learn about our sins. Confession is rather an opportunity for us to get acquainted with our darker sides, analyzing the content of our actions and determining our level of culpability. Did we “sin,” “do wrong,” or “rebel”? There are finer points of agency to all of our transgressions, and it is incumbent upon us to analyze them thoroughly as part of the teshuvah process. In some cases, deeper reflection may reveal that we are holding ourselves to a greater degree of blame than we truly deserve. More likely, we may discover the uncomfortable truth that we have been holding ourselves to an unacceptably lenient standard, finding excuses for behavior that we would consider intolerable in others. In either case, the teshuvah process requires a slow and methodical introspection.
While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, atonement for sins involved the ritual offering of sacrifices. Providing these sacrifices, whether simple flour or expensive livestock, would not grant the forgiveness associated with a complete teshuvah if the penitent failed to confess. This is not surprising: some people find it easier to assuage their inchoate feelings of guilt by writing a check to a deserving charity, or doing a good turn for someone they have personally wronged, thinking that the positive deed cancels out an earlier negative act. While admirable, this approach to teshuvah is ultimately insufficient. Without personally realizing the full extent of the wrong, and articulating it to ourselves in a confession, we cannot take these matters to heart and effect permanent change.
An anonymous 18th century commentary entitled Yad Ha-Ketanah (“the small hand,” a self-deprecating allusion to “the strong hand,” an alternate title for Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah) sheds light on this phenomenon. Attributed to Rabbi Dov Berish Gottlieb, the Yad Ha-Ketanah argues that confession is a necessary but not sufficient cause for teshuvah. The articulation of awareness of sin, through actual speech and not merely silent meditation, represents a physical embodiment of the will that breaks through barriers to teshuvah. “Like a man trapped by the hardness of his heart, even though his essential will is to repent,” confession opens up the conduits of teshuvah like turning on a tap: the water waits at the edge of the valve, under pressure but unable to escape until the valve is opened. Merely thinking, even concentrating with all one’s mental energy, will not result in a cool glass of water. The tiny physical act of turning a faucet, however, will generate an abundance of liquid to slake the thirst.
Confession, a purely private act, represents the first shift in balance that allows teshuvah to take place. An inarticulate cry of despair, like the one uttered by Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdaya, may be sufficient to generate Divine forgiveness, but without charting a path forward it cannot be translated into effective teshuvah for life. Maimonides will continue the discussion by describing the particulars of confession in this and the following chapter.
Perhaps it is indeed possible to receive Divine forgiveness without confession, as we appear to see from the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya. Note, however, that ben Durdaya dies immediately after experiencing his profound regret. Our goal is to live after teshuvah. In order to live, we must chart a path forward. Confession is an essential element of finding that path. Indeed, finding our path is central to our spiritual lives: Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, one of the most evocative writers on the subject of teshuvah, describes that “the soul is agonized by remaining in one place and not ascending, for it needs to continually ascend from level to level…the pain of standing still penetrates to the very depths of the soul, a tremendous suffering…a complete reversal of the natural instinct and essence of the soul” (Orot ha-Teshuvah 15:3).