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Understanding the “Aseret Yemai Teshuvah”–Ten Days of Repentance

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Immersing ourselves in heartfelt prayer and acts of kindness during the 10 days of repentance between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur can tip the balance of the scales in our favor

Edited by: JV Staff

(Some of what follows is based on these works: “The Festivals in Halachah,” by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, ZT”L, translated by Rabbi Shlomo Fox-Ashrei, and published in 1981 by Mesorah Publications (NY) and Hillel Publications (Jerusalem) and on the work “Aspaklarya,” by Rabbi Shmuel Avraham Adler, published by Aspaklarya in 1996 (Jerusalem)

Every person should view himself all year as if he were half innocent and half guilty. And that is the way he should look at the world as well, as if it were half innocent and half guilty

The term “Aseret Yemei Teshuvah” is not found in the Talmud Bavli, although the days referred to are mentioned there. The expression used in the Bavli is “the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim.” In the literature of the Geonim, we also find “the ten days from the beginning of Tishrei to Yom HaKippurim,” “the first ten days of the month of Tishrei,” “(the time) between Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim.” But the term commonly used now, “Aseret Yemai Teshuvah,” is also found in early sources. It is used in the Talmud Yerushalmi, by Pesikta Rabbati, a Midrash, and it is also found in the literature of the Geonim. But ever since the days of the Rishonim, literally the “first” or the “early” ones, referring to post-Talmudic and Geonic times; actually Torah scholars from approximately the eleventh century through the fifteenth, “Aseret Yemai Teshuvah” is the most popular title for this period of time in the Hebrew Calendar.

The special character of these days, as will be explained below, manifests itself in emphasis on “Teshuvah,” Repentance, “Tefilla,” Prayer and “Zehirut,” Spiritual Vigilance.

 

The Mitzvah of Teshuvah

The Act of “Teshuvah,” is an act applicable and appropriate for all times of the year; it is therefore not a “Mitzvat Aseh SheHaZman Garma,” a time-bound Positive Commandment. Therefore, since women are not obligated only in time-bound Positive Commandments, “Teshuvah” is applicable to men and women during the entire year.

However, in the words of the Rambam in “Hilchot Teshuvah,” “The Laws of Repentance” (2:6), “Despite the fact that “Teshuvah” and crying out to HaShem are always timely, during the Ten Days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim it is exceedingly appropriate, and is accepted immediately, as it says, ‘Seek HaShem when He is to be found’ (Yeshayahu 55:6).”

The source of this statement of the Rambam is Masechet Rosh HaShanah (18a) where it is written, “Seek HaShem when He is to be found–these are the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim.”

The Rambam continues in “Hilchot Teshuvah” (3:4) “…Every person should view himself all year as if he were half innocent and half guilty. And that is the way he should look at the world as well, as if it were half innocent and half guilty. If he would do just one sin, he would thereby tip both himself and the entire world towards the “guilty” side, and cause it great destruction. And If he would do just one “Mitzvah,” he would tip both himself and the entire world towards the “innocent” side and cause for himself and for them salvation, as it says “The Righteous Person is the Foundation of the World”–because his being righteous tipped the world for good, and saved it.”

“And because of this, the whole House of Israel have accustomed themselves to give more “Tzedakah” (Charity), and to do more good deeds, and to engage in “Mitzvot,” from Rosh HaShanah through Yom HaKippurim more then, than the rest of the year. And they have all adopted the custom of rising at night during this ten-day period and praying in the synagogues prayers of supplication and entreaties until daylight.”

In our time, most communities rise up early in the morning, except on Shabbat and Yom Tov, to say “Selichot,” special prayers composed over the generations by religious and literary geniuses, capturing the penitential spirit appropriate for the occasion.

 

Fasting as Part of the “Teshuvah” Process

Fasting is a classic response of the Jewish People to danger, as we see in Megilat Esther, where Queen Esther decreed three days of fasting by the Jewish citizens of Shushan when she learned of Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews, before she took the dangerous step of entering the King’s Throne-Room without being invited.

Stressing the point of Fasting on Shabbat, which is in general viewed as contrary to the Spirit of the Day, Rav Natronai Gaon said …”These days are different from the rest of the year, and hence our ancestors were accustomed to fast during this period, both on Shabbat and on the weekdays.”

However, both Geonim and Rishonim objected to the idea of fasting on “Shabbat Shuvah,” the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim, and especially to fasting on Rosh HaShanah itself. The principal objection to fasting on Rosh HaShanah is based on an explicit verse in the Book of Nechemiah 8:10, where we find Ezra telling the Jewish People, “Go, eat fat meat and drink sweet wine …, for today is holy to our L-rd.”

Rav Hai Gaon expresses doubt even about fasting on the weekdays, for these Ten Days were set aside as a time of Prayer and Confession, and of Return to HaShem in one’s heart. However, those who wish to and are able to fast on these days, may do so.

 

“Shabbat Shuvah”

The special character of this Shabbat, as opposed to all others, is that it is focused on assembling congregations of the Jewish People not only to commemorate HaShem’s Act of Creating the Universe and of His taking the Jewish People out of Egypt, but also to direct their attention to the need to Return to Him. Thus the custom of the Shabbat Shuvah Drashah, an inspirational sermon delivered by the religious leader of the community, usually combining “Halachah” and “Aggadah,” but the basic purpose of which is to provide “Hitorerut,” inspiration, that will cause the listeners to examine their deeds and return to HaShem.

In the Halachic Literature, we find the following remarks by the “Mateh Moshe,” “It is customary (that the Rav) deliver a talk on this Shabbat … in order to awaken the People to Repentance; and I have found support for this custom in ‘Midrash Mishlei,’ where it is written, ‘The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: When the “Chacham,” or “Sage,” sits and teaches (“doresh”), I cancel and forgive the trespasses of Israel.” Hence it is proper to deliver a talk on this Shabbat, in order that He pardon their sins; and you may find another support for this in the Zohar on Parshat Vayikra.”

“The ‘Mateh Ephraim’ writes, ‘It is the custom throughout Israel, in all the places of their dispersion, that the Rav of the City deliver a talk on that Shabbat before the assembled multitude, and many books mention the fact that this ‘Drashah’ should aim at awakening the heart to Teshuvah, with words of admonition and moral teaching … in any case, the great and righteous men of each generation have always spoken to the People (on Shabbat Shuvah) with eloquence and profundity and Halachic discourse.’ ”

As mentioned, the “Shabbat Shuvah Drashah” is an ancient tradition. Moshe Rabbenu probably delivered one on the Plains of Moav, and most of the righteous leaders of Israel who followed him, probably did the same.

 

An Early Shabbat Shuvah Drashah

One of the most inspiring “Drashot” ever given to the People of Israel came from the mouth of Hoshea, the Prophet and his close contemporary, the Prophet Yoel. The Haftarah read on this Shabbat opens with a section from Hoshea, beginning with, “Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled in your sin.” (Hoshea 14:2) After reading the fourteenth and last Chapter of Hoshea, many communities continue with a portion from the Prophecy of Yoel beginning,

“Blow the Shofar in Zion,

Proclaim a Sanctified Day of Fasting;

Call for an Assembly.”

“Gather the People, Sanctify the Congregation,

Assemble the Elders;

Gather the Children and those who Nurse from the breast;

Let the Groom go out of his room, and the Bride,

From her Bridal-Canopy.”

(Yoel 2:15-16)

and ending,

“And you shall know

That I am in the midst of Israel,

And I am your G-d,

And there is no other.”

(Yoel 2:27)

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