Teshuvah for Beginners


Archery World Cup
Archery World Cup (Photo credit: IntelGuy)


If you are a newcomer around Jewish community right now you’re probably hearing a lot about Elul. It’s the month when Jews prepare for the High Holy Days (arriving the evening of Sept 16). It began just last weekend. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.


Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.


1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of what all the preparation is for.


2. SIN is a different concept in Judaism than in Christianity. If you are from a Christian background, you need to know that the English word “sin” is a translation of two different words in Latin and in Hebrew, and the original words mean different things.  The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.


Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  (Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.)


3. PEOPLE are a prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? (The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain.) Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.


4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.


5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will observe that commandment?


6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.


7. DON’T GO CRAZY As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 


8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.


These eight elements can help you have a fruitful Elul. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past.


L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!




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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

18 thoughts on “Teshuvah for Beginners”

      1. If I have more information about the importance of these issues for my friends, then it does not seem so far removed from my own experience. Anything that helps us to take down the borders put up between different cultures and religions, brings about the possibility for peace. :)


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