Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. 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 the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. 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 is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

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 the 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 be the Jew I want to be?

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 exactly 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 TO PIECES 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 High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

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

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

31 thoughts on “Teshuvah 101”

  1. question:

    how does reform justify (theologically) deviating from the masorah? Is the masorah itself just a concoction of the orthodox? Did reform break away from orthodoxy, or do both represent a break from something else, something we may call “traditional” Judaism?

    i guess i hear about the orthodox movement, the reform movement — aren’t all movements sort of deviations from something core, original (that they have sort of marched away from or to one side of at least?)

    I always get the feeling that the orthodox are the “real” Jews — but maybe that’s them just making claims about our tradition that, well, they made up as part of a “movement.” It’s hard to understand what is true, what is part of a “movement.”

    Any light you could should shed would be appreciated. My biggest questions, does orthodoxy really have a larger claim to something core, or what?


    1. Tuv, those are great questions and thoughtfully expressed. I will tackle them in an upcoming post, probably after Yom Kippur.

      The very short answer I can offer now: the main difference among the streams of Judaism has to do with the source and authority of halakhah (“Jewish law”). Is it given by Divine authority and immutable, or is it to some extent (and to what extent) a human response to an experience of the Holy? We diverge there. The divergence goes way back in history but became official beginning in the 18th century, when the status of Jews in the western world began to shift.

  2. I love this article! But I have a question for you: Can you give an example of where you said that an apology is not required if doing so would cause greater pain?

    1. Sure. If I had been gossiping about you, and you didn’t know about it, I might cause you pain by telling you what I had done. So in that case, I don’t apologize to you.

  3. Rabbi Ruth, a couple of queries……

    How to make teshuvah to someone no longer here, or a stranger from many years ago(.no way of knowing or finding out who or where they are)?( two separate questions/categories)

    Any thoughts much appreciated.

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