Back to Main Page

Teshuva: Do We Have To??

By: Mrs. Rina Zinkin

There is a very famous question discussed with regards to the opening halacha in the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah. The Rambam writes (ibid, 1:1): “If a person violates any mitzvah in the Torah, when he does teshuvah and repents from his sin, he is obligated to confess his sin orally (“viduy”) before Hashem.”

The observation which has been made and discussed by many Achronim is the Rambam’s striking formulation “when he does teshuva”. The impression conveyed by the Rambam is that teshuvah itself is not the mitzvah. It seems that according to the Rambam one is not actually obligated to do teshuvah. Rather, if he happens to be doing teshuvah, “when he does teshuvah”, then he is obligated to say viduy.

This appears to be very strange in itself. Can it really be that there is no obligation to do teshuvah? Moreover, if you take a look at the Rambam’s own heading to Hilchos Teshuvah, the Rambam does in fact enumerate teshuvah as a mitzvah? So how are we to understand the Rambam’s formulation in Perek 1, Halacha 1, which clearly implies that there is no obligation for one to do teshuvah?

Rav Mayer Twersky shlit”a suggested an answer, based on a later Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva, in Perek 2, Halacha 7. The Rambam writes: “Yom Kippur is a time of teshuva for everyone, individually and collectively. It is the time for forgiveness for the Jewish people. Therefore, everyone is obligated to do teshuvah and recite viduy on Yom Kippur.” In contrast to the opening halacha in Hilchos Teshuva, here the Rambam clearly states that there is an obligation to do teshuvah. Why?

The Torah provides us with different ways of receiving kapparah for our sins. When the Bais Hamikdash was standing, we had the vehicle of Korban Chatas, as well as the Sa’ir Hamishtaleach on Yom Kippur, to atone for our sins. Nowadays, our main source of kaparah is the Yom Kippur day itself.

So the Rambam is telling us as follows: If Hashem comes and hands us on a “silver platter” something which has the potential to be “mechaper”, to give us atonement and forgiveness for our sins, so then that obligates us to take advantage of that opportunity. The Rambam is teaching us that there is a correlation; Whenever the Torah gives us an opportunity for kaparah, that translates into an obligation to take advantage of that opportunity.  Since Yom Kippur day is ready to be “mechaper” for us if only we’ll do teshuvah, that imposes an absolute obligation upon us to do the teshuvah. However, in the beginning of Hilchos Teshuva (1:1), when discussing the general mitzvah of teshuvah all year round, when I’m not about to bring a Korban Chatas or it’s not about to be Yom Kippur, then there’s no obligation to do teshuvah. There’s no “mechaper” which imposes this immediate obligation upon me.  Only if I choose to begin the process of teshuvah, “when he does teshuvah”, then I am obligated to finish the process by saying viduy.

The message that the Rambam is teaching us here in Hilchos Teshuva is one which is applicable to all areas of religious life. Very often, we are presented with outstanding opportunities to grow, learn, and develop ourselves into greater people. However, they are not necessarily easy opportunities. All too often, due to the challenge in taking advantage of the opportunity, we are ready to let these grand opportunities drift away. It is specifically at these times in life when we must remember and review the Rambam’s fundamental principle: the greater the opportunity, the greater the obligation.

May we all merit -this Yom Kippur- to take full advantage of this priceless, once a year, opportunity of “Lifnei Hashem Tit’haru”, the opportunity to completely purify ourselves before the Hashem. 

Gemar Chasimah Tovah!!





Back to top