By Israel Drazin


                                   Neither sin nor repentance is mentioned in the Torah.



“Sin,” a prime element in Christian theology, is chet in Hebrew, and chet means nothing more than “missing the mark.” The Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, and murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an error, an unintentional act that has harmful consequences.

Understood in this way, it should be clear that misdeeds shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt, recitations, and prayers; individuals should recognize what they did wrong, think why they did it, take actions that remedy the consequences, and assure no repetition. It is like a person shooting an arrow at a target and missing. What does he do? He doesn’t feel “guilt.”  He doesn’t seek religious absolution. He doesn’t recite prayers. He realizes his mistake. He shot an arrow but “missed the mark.” He thinks how he can avoid the mistake again, reaches back into his quiver, takes another arrow, and shoots again.



Seen this way, repentance, teshuvah in Hebrew, is a practical endeavor.[1] 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:[2] teshuvah is when a person decides to abandon his past wrong behaviors, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits of behavior to assure they are not repeated.


What is the origin of repentance?

Neither the term teshuvah 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,[3] 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.[4]

Scholars suppose[5] that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuvah developed in three stages. It began around 722 BCE, centuries after King Solomon’s death when his kingdom split in two with Israel in the north and Judea in the south.[6] In that year, the Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land.[7] The Judeans who saw the cyclopean catastrophe were convinced that the disaster occurred because of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially that many abandoned God and worshiped of idols.[8] They knew that they did the same and searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that the concept of teshuvah 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 which they hoped would rid Jews of wrongs.[9]


[1] 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 teshuvah in the synagogue!” This isn’t the way life works.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance.

[3]Biblical law forbids nullification of vows: when a person vows he must keep it. It was only in post-biblical times that rabbis changed the law to allow vow repeals. Four tragic stories showing the inability to annul vows appear in the Bible. Joshua was unable to annul the vow he made to the Gbeonites in Joshua 9:19. Jephthah in Judges 11 led Israelites in a battle and vowed that if he was successful, he would sacrifice whatever met him when he returned home. He probably expected to be greeted by his dog, but his daughter greeted him, and since he could not terminate his vow, he had to sacrifice her. The tale of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 21 is a third instance; the tribes were unable to nullify their vow not to marry their daughters to men of Benjamin. A fourth example is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27; even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it even though it was a mistaken blessing and he wanted to change it. This law only applied to men, as indicted in Numbers 30.

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

[5] Olam Hatanach, Devarim, 221-223.

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

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

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

[9] There were many practices suggested by many rabbis over the following generations such as the somewhat mystical approach of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) in his Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) and the rational view of Maimonides (1138-1204) in Guide of the Perplexed.