The Rambam’s Aseret Yemei Teshuva Roadmap by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


This week we shall analyze one of the richest passages in the Rambam’s Mishna Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 3:4.  A careful analysis of this remarkable passage reveals that the Rambam presents a roadmap for our actions and thoughts during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. 

The Wake Up Call

The Rambam writes that although Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana is a divine decree, there is a hidden message of the Shofar.  The message is for those who are spiritually asleep to awaken, carefully examine their behavior, perform Teshuva, and remember our Creator.  Those who forget the truth in the course of daily routines and devote all of their time to temporal matters that have no lasting impact, should improve their actions and thoughts.

We may suggest four ways of understanding this passage in the Rambam.  One possibility is that in order to fulfill the Mitzva of Tekiat Shofar properly one must be awakened to Teshuva by the Shofar blasts.  Although one has fulfilled the base level Mitzva of Tekiat Shofar simply by hearing the Shofar, one must feel summoned to Teshuva in order to fulfill the Mitzva in the fullest sense.  An analogy is the Mitzva to wave the Lulav on Sukkot.  Although one fulfills the basic Mizva of taking the Lulav even if one does not shake the Lulav, he does not fully fulfill the Mitzva if he only takes the Lulav but does not shake it (see Rambam Hilchot Lulav 7:9). 

Another possibility is that the Rambam describes a Hiddur Mitzvat Tekiat Shofar.  Hiddur Mitzva is an enhanced level of fulfillment of the Mitzva similar to the Gemara’s exhortation (Shabbat 133b) to make a beautiful Sukkah, Sefer Torah, and Tzitzit.  Hiddur Mitzva might not only apply to the enhancement of the physical beauty of the Mitzva but also to the richer psycho-spiritual experience of the Mitzva.  Another possibility is that the Rambam engages in simple Taamei

Hamizvot (explaining the reason for Mitzvot) as is common in his Mishneh Torah.  Indeed, the Mishneh Torah is not restricted to discussion of pure Halachic details.  For an extensive discussion of this point see Rav Dr. Yitzchak Twersky’s discussion of this point in his Introduction to the Code of Maimonides pp.356-514.  I should note that when I served as an assistant to Rav Soloveitchik in 1985 he noticed that I was reading this book and remarked that “it is a very good book; Yitzchak knows the Rambam virtually by heart”  (Rav Twersky zt”l was the son-in-law of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l). 

My student Dov Rosenblatt commented that it is evident that the Rambam is not engaging merely in Taamei Hamitzvot due to the fact that immediately after the Rambam describes the role of the Shofar as a wake up call, he writes “therefore, one should view himself throughout the year as half righteous and half sinful”.  Dov argues that the fact that the Rambam outlines a normative ramification of the wake up call, demonstrates that the Rambam’s discussion is not simply an exercise in Taamei Hamitzvot.

Dov, in turn, suggests that the Rambam teaches that an aspect of the Mitzva of Teshuva is to be inspired by Tekiat Shofar to do Teshuva.  Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik (see footnote number three to his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”) teaches that one is obligated to engage in Teshuva in two circumstances.  First, when one becomes aware that he has committed a sin (see Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 11:1) and second is in a time of difficulty (see Brachot 5a).  The Aseret Yemei Teshuva is certainly a time of difficulty as Hashem is judging whether we will live or die.  Indeed, the Rambam describes in the  Halacha (Hilchot Teshuva 3:3) presented before the passage we are studying, how Hashem judges the world on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  According to Dov’s approach, the juxtaposition of the Halachot in the Rambam makes perfect sense.

This approach also might explain a passage in the Piyut that Ashkenazim recite on their first night of Selichot.  They begin “Bemotzei Menuchah Kidamnucha Tefilla,” after the rest (of Shabbat) we approach You with Tefilla.  One could explain that the Motzei Menucha is not referring only to the Menucha  (rest) of the preceding Shabbat, but also to the complacency of our lives until this point.  In other words, we are saying that we have abandoned our complacency and are ready to commit to serious contemplation and improvement.  Perhaps this is a reason for the Ashkenazic custom to begin the recitation of the Selichot on Motzei Shabbat.  This might also be the reason we break our routine and recite Selichot at odd hours.  We thereby demonstrate our resolve to act differently and improve on our past behavior. 

Our analysis provides some insight into a celebrated incident that occurred in the shul in Washington Heights where Rav Moshe Soloveitchik served as the Mara Deatra. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik presents this story about his father in his essay entitled the Ish Halacha.  The Baal Tokea in Rav Moshe’s shul was a Lubavitcher Chassid and he was crying intensely immediately before Tekiat Shofar.  Rav Moshe reacted to this display of emotion by asking the Chassid whether he cries before he takes a Lulav.  His son Rav Yosef Dov, though, stated (in a public Shiur delivered in Boston in August 1985) that he does not agree with his father.  He felt that it is apparent from the Rambam that simple obedience to the divine Will is an inadequate experience for Tekiat Shofar (although it might suffice for most Mitzvot according to Mitnagdic thought, see for example Teshuvot Nodah Beyehudah 2:93 where Rav Yechezkel Landau opposes the recitation of Leshem Yichud before performing Mitzvot, unlike Sephardim and Chassidim).  The Rav strongly felt that the Rambam teaches that a richer religious experience is expected from us during the Tekiat Shofar. 

It seems that Rav Moshe Soloveitchik understands our passage as mere Taamei Hamitzvot.  On the other hand, his son Rav Yosef Dov interprets the Rambam in one of the other three possible alternatives that we suggested. 

The Absence of Vidui on Rosh Hashanah

Rav Soloveitchik (cited in Mesorah 13:9-10) poses the following basic question.  If the Shofar is supposed to spur us to Teshuva, why do we not recite a Vidui on Rosh Hashana?  The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1) stresses that Vidui is indispensible for proper Teshuva.  The Rav answers that Rosh Hashanah is not the time for Teshuva.  Rather, it is the time for Hirhur Teshuva, beginning to contemplate Teshuva.  Accordingly, Tekiat Shofar is intended to spur Hirhur Teshuva, which is at the core of the Rosh Hashana experience. 

The Content of Hirhur Teshuva

The Rambam continues that therefore one should view himself throughout the year as half righteous and half wicked.  Similarly, one should view the entire world as half righteous and half wicked.  Thus, if one commits even just one sin he has made himself and the entire world deserving of punishment and destruction.  However, if he performs even just one Mitzva he has saved himself and the world.

One might say that the Rambam is describing the content of the Hirhur Teshuva of Rosh Hashana.  The intellectual infrastructure of Teshuva is the conviction that one’s every action is vitally important to God.  A sinner suffers from poor self-esteem as he thinks that his actions do not truly matter to God.  However, a healthy self-esteem makes one realize that he is too important to sin.

The Aseret Yemei Teshuva

The Rambam continues “and because of this matter, all Jews increase their charitable donations, good deeds, and involvement in Mitzvot from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, relative to the rest of the year.”  One might say that these actions concretize the Hirhur Teshuva of Rosh Hashana.  One increases his involvement in Mitzvot to reinforce the notion that one’s good deeds truly matter to Hashem.  We engage in the Mitzvot to tip the divine scales of justice in our favor and convince ourselves that we are worthy and worthwhile in the eyes of our Creator.  Yom Kippur, accordingly, is the culmination of nine days of Hirhur Teshuva.  Yom Kippur is the day when we actually perform Teshuva. 


The Rambam concludes “and all Jews arise at night during these ten days to pray in synagogues with words of supplication and conquering, until the light of day”.  One might say that Selichot also serves to reinforce the Hirhur Teshuva.  The fact that we are empowered to add special prayers during this critical portion of the year to influence the divine judgment serves to enhance our spiritual self-esteem.  Thus, the very fact that we recite Selichot is a motivation to Teshuva.  Indeed, many Sephardic communities have the practice to blow Shofar during the recitation of Selichot.  This custom is in accordance with the Rambam who records the practice to recite Selichot in the same Halacha where he discusses how Tekiat Shofar serves as a spiritual wake up call.  We suggest that the recitation of Selichot also serves as a wake up call to Teshuva.  Indeed, the Sephardim begin Selichot every day with the following thought “son of man, why are you sleeping, wake up and call [to God] in supplications.” 


Tekiat Shofar, the recitation of Selichot, and performing more Mitzvot all serve to spur Hirhur Teshuva during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva.  Yom Kippur crowns these actions and thoughts when we engage in Teshuva on this awesome day.  The intensity of these days should transform our personalities and affect us the entire year.  One should emerge from the Yamim Noraim a much different and much better person than he was beforehand.  

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