The Rambam’s Understanding of Aseret Yemei Teshuvah: Teshuvah and Vidui by Ned Krasnopolsky (‘19) and Akiva Sturm (‘19)


Authors’ note: The following article is based on a Shiur given by Rabbi Daniel Fridman to the Y17C Gemara shiur on Tishrei 3, 5779.


       As we find ourselves between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it is important to focus our efforts properly. The ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. Obviously, this implies that our main goal during this period of time is Teshuvah, to literally “return” to the ways of the Torah. However, according to the Rambam, Teshuvah, by itself, is not even a Mitzvah.

Establishing the Chiyuv

       The Rambam, in Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1, writes:

       Kol Mitzvat SheBaTorah, Bein Aseh Bein Lo Ta’aseh, Im Avar Adam Al Achat Meihen Bein BeZadon Bein BeShegagah, KeSheya’aseh Teshuvah VeYishuv MeChet’o Chayav LeHitvadot”, “any Mitzvah in the Torah, whether it be a positive commandment or a negative commandment, if a person transgresses one of them, either deliberately or by mistake, once he does Teshuvah, he is obligated to confess.”

The obligation, at first glance, according to the Rambam, is simply to perform Vidui. The Rambam later writes that this Vidui is a “Vidui Devarim”, meaning that it requires a verbal expression. However, right off the bat, the Rambam establishes that Teshuvah and Vidui are inherently linked. “KeSheya’aseh Teshuvah Chayav LeHitvadot”: Teshuvah seemingly activates the obligation to perform Vidui.

Similarly, in his Sefer HaMitzvot (Mitzvah 93), the Rambam writes that we are commanded “LeHitvadot Al HaChata’im VeHa’Avonot SheChatanu Lifnei HaKel Yitaleh, ULe’Omar Otam Im Hateshuvah”, “to confess our sins and iniquities that we perpetrated before Hashem, and to say them [our confessions] together with Teshuvah.”

Additionally, in his Minyan HaMitzvot, the introduction to his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam cites BeMidbar 5:7 as the source for the Mitzvah of Vidui: “VeHitvadu Et Chatatam Asher Asu”, “they shall confess the sin they committed.” Here, the Rambam does not even mention Teshuvah. But not to discount the internal process of Teshuvah entirely, the Rambam does record in his Koteret, the heading, to Hilchot Teshuvah that there is a singular Mitzvah to do Teshuvah and Vidui, confessing your sins. Clearly, the relative status of the components of repentance maintains a level of ambiguity, and requires further examination.

The Duality of Teshuvah and Vidui

In Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2-3, the Rambam defines the Teshuvah process. One must cease his transgression, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve not to do it again. He must then recite Vidui, a verbal expression of all the things he focused on in his heart to resolve. Critically, the Rambam then notes that external Vidui without internal Teshuvah is utterly meaningless, similar to one who immerses in a Mikvah while grasping a Sheretz (an Av LeTuma’ah, a transmitter of the highest forms of spiritual impurity).

The Ramban’s  presentation of Parashat Nitzavim (30:11) corroborates this point. There, the Ramban writes that the “Mitzvah HaZot” to which Moshe refers is the Mitzvah of Teshuvah, and not all of the Torah. Otherwise, the Torah would have used the more inclusive “Kol HaMitzvot.”  In 30:14, Moshe states “Ki Karov Ailecha HaDavar Me’od, BePicha UBeLivavcha La’Asoto”, “for it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart for you to do.” Clearly, Teshuvah consists of a bilateral process, that involves both an internal and external expression.

Rosh HaShanah: Teshuvah without Vidui

       This evaluation of the Teshuvah process begs the question of how we can consider Rosh HaShanah to be days of repentance without any semblance of Vidui. The first of multiple answers can be gleaned from an unusual comment of the Rambam in Hilchot Megillah VeChanukah (3:6). He codifies that Hallel is not recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, because they are days of Teshuvah (repentance), Yir’ah (awe), and Pachad (trepidation). This effectively establishes Rosh HaShanah as a day of Teshuvah, and explains why we begin the Teshuvah process with internal reflection before engaging in Vidui. To ensure that we properly fulfill the Mitzvah, we precede Vidui with internal repentance, to avoid a half-hearted confession.

       Furthermore, the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6) also defines the ten day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as “Yimei Teshuvah VeTza’akah”, an intense duration of repentance and outcry. The Rambam (ibid. 3:4) also identifies the purpose of Shofar as an external wakeup call to “do Teshuvah and remember [our] creator.”

Yom Kippur: The Inverse Relationship between Teshuvah and Vidui

       As one approaches Yom Kippur, the external expression of Teshuvah, mainly, Vidui, should proportionately increase. The internal reflection, while still significant, diminishes in its relative importance to Vidui.

The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6), in his characterization of the theme of Yom Kippur, repeatedly stresses the importance of Vidui during the conclusion of the Teshuvah process. Vidui is so paramount to the day of Yom Kippur, that one should start their confessions on the ninth of Tishrei, the previous day, lest one asphyxiate while consuming their Se’udat Mafseket (final meal before the fast). The Rambam suggests that the Mitzvah begins then, before the start of Yom Kippur, and continues until Ne’ilah (the concluding service).


       Clearly, the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah are structured around this dual expression of repentance. May our Teshuvah be fully accepted, and may we all merit to be written and sealed into the Sefer HaChaim.

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