Repentance is not a biblical concept


Parts of Hosea 14, beginning with 14:2, are read as the haphtarah (synagogue reading from the prophets) two or three times a year – with the portion of Vayeitzei, on Shabbat Shuva (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and sometimes with the portion Vayeilekh. This practice is based on the idea that a person can return to God by doing teshuva, repentance – an idea that the rabbis felt the prophet Hosea was teaching when he wrote “Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem elokekha,” “Return Israel to the Lord your God” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a). Actually, Hosea says in chapter 14 what he said several times in earlier chapters: stop worshiping idols and worship only God. According to the rabbis, repentance is accomplished by pointing out one’s misdeeds during prayers to God.

The rabbis believed that Hosea was a descendant of Jacob’s firstborn Reuben, who they say was the first of Jacob’s sons to do teshuva for selling their brother Joseph. Genesis Rabba 84:18–19 states that God said: “‘By your life, a descendant of yours will begin and open the gates of repentance.’ Who was this? This was Hosea, who said, ‘Return, Israel, unto the Lord your God.’”

As I pointed out in my Unusual Bible Interpretations: Hosea[1] to 14:2, Hosea was not speaking about teshuva, and neither Hosea nor any other prophet who lived during his time or before ever mentions repentance.

As I wrote in my book Mysteries of Judaism:[2] Repentance, teshuva in Hebrew, is a practical endeavor.[3] Repentance doesn’t magically absolve people of wrongs they committed. It’s not abracadabra. Jewish repentance practices remind people to take practical measures to correct their mistakes. Maimonides put it this way:[4] teshuva is when a person decides to abandon his or her past misdeeds, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits to assure they are not repeated. Neither the term teshuva nor the concept of repentance as we know it today appear in the Torah. The ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, believed that what one said, especially vows, or what one did cannot be erased. When an egg is broken, its shards cannot be reassembled. Misdeeds, they thought, are remedied only by punishment.[5]

Scholars suppose that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuva developed in three stages.[6] It began around 722 BCE, centuries after King Solomon’s death, when his kingdom split into two with Israel in the north and Judea in the south.[7] In that year, the Assyrians conquered the northern nation of Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land.[8] The Judeans, who lived in the south, who saw the cyclopean catastrophe were convinced that the disaster occurred to Israel because of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially their abandonment of God and worship of idols.[9] They knew that they had done the same and searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that teshuva began to develop as an idea that repentance can erase prior misdeeds. It was further entrenched after 586 BCE when Judea itself was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. The final stage began in 70 CE when the second temple was destroyed by Rome, when Jews felt again that their misdeeds caused the destruction and rabbis developed practices that they hoped would rid Jews of wrongs.

So, it is no surprise that after sitting in a synagogue all day on Yom Kippur and even if one recites all the prayers and poems and beats one’s heart, the magic fails and the congregant reverts to past practices. The synagogue service does not clean people of past deeds and overcome long-held habits. The service is designed to prompt a person to realize that change is necessary, mistakes need to be corrected. How is this done? Just as Maimonides wrote: Understand that you did wrong, decide to correct the wrong, correct it, find a way to assure you do not repeat the wrong, such as developing new habits.

Don’t resolve a slap given to a wife by rushing to a synagogue and reciting a prayer.


[1] Unusual Bible Interpretations: Hosea (Jerusalem, Gefen Publishing House, 2016).

[2] Mysteries of Judaism (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2014), 8–9.

[3] Most people understand repentance and confessions as they do sacrifices, as pseudo-magical recitations that remove misdeeds – as if words recited during a synagogue service could somehow change the past, erase the slap a husband gave his wife, and restore a loving relationship. “I don’t understand why you’re still angry,” the husband wails. “I did teshuva in the synagogue!” This isn’t the way life works.

[4] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva.

[5] This concept is still reflected in the Talmudic view that death atones. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a, Yoma 86a, Sanhedrin 43b and 47a–b.

[6] Olam Hatanakh, Devarim (Keter, 2002), 221–23.

[7] Ten tribes in northern Israel and Transjordan revolted and formed their own nation after Solomon’s son Rehoboam refused to reduce their taxes.

[8] Some escaped to the south, to Judea, but the rest disappeared from history and are known today as “the ten lost tribes.”

[9] See Hosea 8:5–13. Hosea was an eighth-century BCE prophet in Israel.