The “Baal HaTanya,” Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was the first Admore of Chabad. His classic work “The Tanya” is a masterpiece of mysticism and Jewish thought. Part of his collected writings, “Likutei Amarim – Tanya” is the “Igeret HaT’shuvah” the “Letter of T’shuvah,” which explores the themes of repentance and atonement. Here, we are presenting here a very condensed version, with the text in bold, and explanations in standard print. Especially noteworthy are the sections dealing with the atonement for the spilling of semen in vain and its rectifications.
The Igeret HaT’shuvah begins:
TANYA, It has been taught in a Beraita at the end of Tractate Yoma (86A): There are three types of atonement, and repentance accompanies each of them. If one failed to fulfill a positive commandment and repented, he is forgiven immediately. If one violated a prohibitive commandment and repented, his repentance is tentative [his punishment is suspended until Yom Kippur], and Yom Kippur atones [erasing the need for punishment]. If one commits a sin punishable by excision (keret) or capital punishment (by the order of the Beit Din –Rabbinic High Court), repentance and Yom Kippur are tentative [so that the individual is not yet punished], and sufferings come upon the person to scour the soul [to complete the atonement]. The scouring of the sufferings (memarkin) denotes the final stage, namely, scouring and cleansing, in order to “polish” the soul [from the stains of transgression]... as it is written, “With a rod shall I remember their sin, and with afflictions their iniquity” (Tehillim, 89:23).
For example, if a person forgets to observe a positive commandment like saying the morning Shema, then remembers and asks Hashem for forgiveness, he is immediately forgiven. If he transgresses a prohibition, like eating a forbidden food, then repents, his punishment is suspended until Yom Kippur and then his t’shuvah on Yom Kippur atones and erases the punishment. However, if he transgressions a prohibition whose punishment is being cut off before his time (excision) like eating chametz on Pesach, sufferings come upon him to cleanse him from his sin. Thus we learn that sins punishable by excision or execution are not cleaned away through repentance and Yom Kippur alone: the soul must also be scoured and cleansed through suffering, Heaven forbid.
Now the mitzvah of repentance as required by the Torah is simply the abandonment of sin. This means that he must resolve in perfect sincerity never again to revert to folly, to rebel against G d’s rule, and that he will never again violate the King’s command, neither a positive command, nor a prohibition.
This is the basic meaning of the term t’shuvah (repentance), meaning “to return” to G d with all one’s heart and soul, to serve Him, and to observe all His commandments. As it says, “Let the wicked abandon his path, and the sinful his thoughts, and return to G d….” (Isaiah, 55:7).
A widespread understanding of t’shuva and atonement is that it consists of many fasts. The Baal HaTanya explains that while fasting has a place in the atonement process, it does not replace the sufferings that are sent from Heaven to cleanse a sinner of his sins. Rather, the person who fasts seeks to cancel the evil decree and avert punishment destined for him. Since, people in our times are weaker than former generations, the Baale HaTanya states that the fasts prescribed for transgression (as found in the writings of the Arizal) are replaced by the generous giving of charity, and increased Torah study and good deeds. This understanding differs from the popular conception that repentance is synonymous with fasting on account of one’s sins.
Even in the case of sins punishable by excision or a Beit Din judgment of execution, where atonement is made complete by suffering, this means that it is G d Who brings suffering upon the sinner, in order to complete his atonement, as the verse clearly specifies, “With a rod shall I remember.”
That is to say: When G d finds a person’s repentance acceptable, when he returns to Him with all his heart and soul, out of love, then following the initiative undertaken from below... there is an awakening Above, arousing G d’s love and kindness, to scour his sin and entirely cleanse him of it through affliction in this physical world, “For a person whom the L rd loves, He chastises….” (Proverbs, 27:19).
This is something quite different from any fasts or afflictions that an individual undertakes himself.
It is for this reason that the Rambam and Sefer Mitzvot Gadol make no mention whatever of fasting as related to the mitzvah of repentance, even in the case of sins punishable by excision or capital sins. They cite only confessing [verbally] and requesting forgiveness; as the Torah prescribes, “They shall confess their sin” (Deut, 5:7).
Thus fasting is not cited. Why are confession and requesting forgiveness an integral part of repentance? Hasidut understandings of Chabad explain that every sin consists of a body and a soul. The actual misdeed itself is the “body” of the sin, and the bodily pleasure and desire with which it was committed are its “soul.” Repentance involves eliminating both these elements.
The “soul” of the sin is eradicated by the earnest regret of the individual, who is mortified and pained by his past. Inasmuch as pain is the opposite of pleasure, it negates the pleasure which had earlier aroused his desire to sin, and thereby obliterates the “soul” of the sin.
But the “body” of the sin also needs to be nullified. Simply refraining from further transgression lacks the action that would negate the sinful act itself, its “body”. This is accomplished through verbal confession, for verbalization is also considered to be an action.
Nevertheless, other Scriptural sources mention fasting as an element of repentance. The Baal HaTanya proceeds to explain:
As to what we find in the Book of Yoel, “Return to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting and weeping...,” (Yoel, 2:12) which would seem to indicate that fasting is in fact part of return and repentance, this was to nullify the Heavenly Decree that had been issued, to expunge the sin of the generation through the affliction of locusts. This is the rationale for all fasts undertaken for any trouble threatening the community, their purpose being to avert the impending harsh edict [not to erase the past, as with repentance], as in the Book of Esther, where we find that the she asked that a fast be proclaimed in order to nullify Haman’s evil decree.
Now the classic Mussar works, particularly the Rokeach and Sefer Chassidim, specify numerous fasts and mortifications for sins punishable by excision and execution. Likewise numerous fasts are prescribed for the wasteful emission of semen — a sin punishable by death by the Hand of Heaven, as the Torah recounts the deaths of Er and Onan (Genesis, 39:7-10).
The sin of spilling semen in vain is a sin whose retribution and process of atonement are similar to that of sins punishable by excision, and hence the numerous fasts prescribed are also similar.
All this might lead us to assume that the purpose of fasts is suffering — this being the manner through which atonement is brought to completion by those who are guilty of sins punishable by excision. But it has been previously stated that the suffering which completes atonement is specifically that which comes from Above, and not man-made suffering, incurred through fasting and the like. The Baal HaTanya answers this seeming contradiction by stating:
These prescribed fasts and mortifications are intended to avert the punishment of suffering at the Hand of Heaven, G d forbid.
This means that if, G d forbid, the punishment of suffering had been decreed upon an individual, he is able to exempt himself from the pending punishment it through these self-imposed fasts. Also, the fasts serve as a catalyst to inspire more fervent repentance, as the Baal HaTanya states:
Another reason [for these fasts] is to urge on and expedite the conclusion of his soul’s atonement. Also, perhaps he is not returning to G d with all his heart and soul out of love, but only out of fear.
However, all this refers to atonement and forgiveness of the sin — the offender is pardoned completely for having violated the command of the King once he has repented fully. No charge, nor semblance of an accusation, is mentioned against him on the Day of Judgment to punish him for his sin, G d forbid, in the World to Come, In his trial there, he is completely exonerated.
Nonetheless, in order that he should be acceptable before G d, as beloved of Him as before the sin, so that his Creator might derive delight from his service — in past times, he would bring an olah offering, in addition to his repentance, even for [transgressing] an ordinary positive commandment that involves no excision or execution...
Today, when we have no offerings to call forth G d’s pleasure, fasting replaces the offering. As the Talmud says, the prayer of one who is fasting is: “May my loss of fat and blood brought about through fasting be regarded as though I had offered it to You [as a sacrifice on the altar.]”
The purpose of fasting, then, is that one become acceptable to G d, just as he was before the sin. They are not undertaken as self-inflicted suffering as a self-punishment in order to atone. The purpose of this fasting is to restore the bonds of love between the penitent and his Maker. The Arizal taught his disciples, according to the principles of the Kabbalah, the number of fasts to be undertaken for many transgressions, even though they entail neither excision, nor death by Divine agency.
The latter Mussar sages — those who lived after the Arizal — were divided in their opinions about one who repeated a sin many times. Some contend that he must fast the number of fasts appropriate to that sin according to the number of transgressions. For example, the number of fasts prescribed in the writings of the Arizal for wasteful emission of semen is eighty-four. According to them, if someone commits this sin ten or twenty times, say, he must fast ten or twenty times eighty-four, and so on in all instances.
This is comparable to the chatat offering. Others compare these fasts to the olah offering brought for neglect of a positive command. The violation of a number of positive commands is atoned for by one olah.
The accepted decision in this dispute is to undertake three times the number of fasts prescribed for that particular sin, i.e., 252 fasts (three times eighty-four) for wasting semen.
This is based on a teaching in the Zohar, at the end of Parshat Noach “As soon as mortal man sins one time against the Holy One Blessed Be He, he makes a blemish [Above, at the root of his soul]… The third time he commits the sin, the stain penetrates from one side through the other....” Therefore the number of fasts ought also be three.
However, all this applies to the strong and robust, whose physical health would not be harmed at all by repeated fasts, as in the generations of yore. But whoever would be affected by many fasts, and might thereby suffer illness or pain, G d forbid, as in contemporary generations, is forbidden to undertake numerous fasts, even for sins punishable by excision or execution.
Instead, the measure of fasting is the personal estimate of what will not harm him at all. For even in those early generations, only the robust who could mortify themselves fasted so frequently. Whoever cannot fast, yet does so, is called a “sinner” (Tractate Taanit 7A). Especially if he is a student of Torah, in which case he is doubly punished, for the weakness resulting from his fast prevents him from studying Torah properly.
What, then, is his remedy [in order to be beloved by his Creator,] as he was before his sin? He should comply with the verse that says, “Redeem your sin with charity” (Daniel, 4:24).
Nevertheless, every man of spirit who desires to be close to G d, to repair his soul, and to return it to G d with the finest and most preferred repentance, should be stringent with himself. He should complete, at least once during his lifetime, the number of fasts for every grave sin incurring death at least, if only death by Divine agency. For example, for wasting semen, he should undergo the series of eight-four fasts once in his lifetime.
Since the number of fasts enumerated in the above-mentioned penances of the Arizal is exceedingly great, all who revere the word of G d are now accustomed to being unstintingly generous with charity, which is given in place of fasting, for the prevalent lack of stamina prevents them from mortifying themselves with numerous fasts.
However, all we have said refers to the culmination of the atonement — to cleaning the soul before G d, so that no vestige of former sin remains, after repentance. But the beginning of the mitzvah of t’shuvah and its essence is a true and wholehearted return to G d.
This must be explained thoroughly and comprehensively…. We must also note that the Zohar states several times that t’shuvah is not effective for violation of the Covenant and for the wasteful emission of semen. This is most astonishing, for “nothing can stand in the way of t’shuvah, even idolatry, incest, and so on” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1:1).
The Reishit Chochmah explains that the intention of the Zohar is that though t’shuvah tata‘ah (the conventional, lower level of repentance out of fear) is not effective, t’shuvah ila’ah is (the higher level of repentance out of love).
To grasp even a small glimmer of this, we must preface what Scripture and our Sages say about [what is entailed by] excision (keret) and death by the Hand of Heaven. A violator of a sin punishable by excision would actually die before his fiftieth year. In the case of death by the Hand of Heaven, he would actually die before sixty, like the prophet, Chananiah ben Azur in the Book of Jeremiah, Ch.28. Indeed, there have been instances in which the punishment of death by Divine agency was also meted out instantly, as with Er and Onan [for spilling their seed in vain].
Both Scripture and the Sages attest that those guilty of sins punishable by excision or death by Divine agency would actually die before they reached the age of fifty or sixty. This leads the Baal HaTanya to ask the following question:
But in every generation there are so many guilty individuals, who are liable to excision and death, yet who nevertheless enjoy extended and pleasant days and years!
How can this enjoyable life after 60 be explained? Here, the “Igeret HaT’shuva” begins a Kabbalistic description of t’shuvah, spanning Chapters 4-6. Among the many deep concepts, he teaches that the Jewish People are attached to Hashem, as it says: “For part of G-d is His people; Yaacov is the cord of His possession (Deut. 32:10). Yaacov, the House of Israel, is compared to a rope, the upper end bound Above, attached to Hashem, and the lower end below attached to the Nation of Israel.
Sins separate the Jewish People from G-d, as it says, “Only your sins separate you from your G-d” (Isaiah, 59:2). This is the meaning of excision, the consequence of certain grave sins. The “cord,” which is the soul extending from the Jew to its roots in the Highest Worlds, is severed and cut off, as it says, “That soul shall be cut off from before Me, I am the L-rd” (Leviticus, 22:3). Other lesser sins, that do not cause excision, cause at least a blemish in the soul. In the analogy of the cord, the soul is likened to a thick rope composed of 613 strands, representing the 613 commandments of the Torah.
When a person violates one of them, a thin strand is severed. If he violates many commandments, many thin strands are broken, and the entire cord can be severed, just like with excision. Yet even if one has incurred excision or death, an impression of his Divine soul remains within him, and through this he may live 50 or 60 years, but no more.
However, all of this occurred when Israel was on a higher plane, when the Shechinah dwelt among the Jewish People in the Beit HaMikdash…. But after the destruction, they fell from their lofty estate, and their transgressions caused the mystery of the exile of the Shechinah. Now, in exile, the life-force flowed to them through polluted channels, now dominated by the evil realm of the Sitra Achra, the Other Side, and even severe transgressors could continue to receive this polluted Divine flow after 50 and 60 years to sustain them in their evil ways, as the Baal HaTanya states:
In fact, their nurture is granted them with even greater force. Every benevolence and vitality of the life-force granted mortal man while he commits evil in the eyes of G-d, in action, or speech, or by fantasizing on sin, all issue to him from the chambers of the Sitra Achra. Man possesses choice, whether he shall derive his nurture from the chambers of the Sitra Achra, or from the chambers of holiness, from which flow all good and holy thoughts. (Ch.6)
Referring back to the analogy of the cord, when one pulls the lower end, through an action or a thought, he will pull at the higher end too. Through his evil deeds and thoughts, he draws the life-force issuing from the holy down through the Sitra Achra, from which he receives his thoughts and his deeds. This is the situation in the exile after the destruction.
This is the explanation of the statement, “Not within our hands is the reason for the tranquility of the wicked” (Avot 4:15), where “in our hands” refers to this time of exile after the destruction. This is the situation of the “exile of the Shechinah” when He grants benevolent life-force to the chambers of the Sitra Achra which He despises [to sustain sinners and not cut them off as before.]
But when the sinner performs the appropriate penitence, then he removes the evil life-force which he brought down through his evil thoughts and deeds. By his repentance, he returns the flow issuing from the Shechinah to its proper place. This is the lower t’shuva, returning the life-force from its state of exile back to the Shechinah.
There are two general elements in the path to the lower, first stage of t’shuvah. The first is to awaken supreme compassion from the source of mercy for his spirit and soul which have fallen from the lofty peak of the true Life into a deep pit, the chambers of defilement of the Sitra Achra. Divine compassion must also be aroused for the source of the soul embodied in the Name of G-d, the source of all life, as if G-d Himself had fallen into the impure chambers of the Sitra Achra, lending vitality to its forces, all brought about through the evil deeds of man, as it says, “The King is bound in tresses” (Shir HaShirim, 7:6), bound with the tresses of the mind, that is to say, that G-d is bound by man’s improper thoughts, casting the Shechinah into exile (Tikunei Zohar 21B and 124B.)
The auspicious time for this arousal of mercies is Tikun Hatzot, the midnight prayers, as they appear in many prayer books. It says there, “The crown of our head has fallen; woe to us for we have sinned” (Eichah, 5:16).
Therefore, the Holy One is called the “humiliated King” (and must be redeemed from the great anguish of His descent, as it were, into polluted realms. This is effected through our heartfelt t’shuvah, expressed in Tikun Hatzot, through the lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Shechinah’s descent into exile.)
The second element is to crush and subdue evil, the kelipah and Sitra Achra, whose entire being is arrogance, to crush it into the ground, for this is its nullification and death. Evil is crushed through a broken and shattered heart, a sense of personal unworthiness, repugnance over one’s deeds…. As it says, “The offerings of the L-rd are a broken spirit, a heart broken and shattered” (Tehillim, 51:19) meaning the cleansing and removal of the spirit of defilement and Sitra Achra. This is the spirit which must be broken.
How is the spirit of the sitra achra broken? When the heart is broken and contrite…. And how is the heart to be broken and humbled? Only a very minor part of this can be accomplished through mortification and fasts our time, when we have not the strength to fast as much as did King David; as our Sages comment on the verse uttered by him, “And my heart is slain within me” —he had destroyed it [his Evil Inclination] by fasting (Berachot 66B).
But the true humbling of the heart, so that it be broken and crushed, so that the spirit of impurity and sitra achra will be removed, is achieved through being a “master of accounting” with all the profundity of one’s mind. One should concentrate his intellect and understanding deeply for a period every day, or at night before Tikun Hatzot, to contemplate how through his sins he has brought about the exile of the Divine Presence (Shechinah), as noted above, and caused his spirit and Divine soul to be uprooted from the Divine Source of all Life, and demeaned it to a place of defilement and death, namely, the chambers of the sitra achra. He must become deeply aware that his soul has become a vehicle for them, receiving from them his vitality.
This is the understanding of the declaration of our Sages that “The wicked while living are dead” (Berachot 18B). Their ability to live is derived from the site of death and defilement.
Even one who has never violated a sin punishable by excision, or a sin incurring death by Heaven, such as vain emission and the like, but other less severe sins, nonetheless, since they cause a defect in the spirit and Divine soul, as in the analogy of the fine strands of rope that are defective or severed, as noted above, in Ch. 5, therefore, through an accumulation of sins there can eventually be a defect as grave as from one prohibition involving excision or death. This would be true even when a single sin is repeated numerous times.
In this manner the prophet compares sins to a cloud that dims the light of the sun. As the verse states, “I have erased your transgressions like a thick cloud” (Isaiah 42:12). This refers to the grave sins that are barriers between the internal aspect of the power flowing forth from G-d, and the Divine soul. This is like the separation of a thick, dark cloud that stands between the sun and the earth with its inhabitants.
The verse continues: “…and your sins like a cloud.” These are the lesser sins that man “tramples under his heel,” that obscure as does a thin and wispy cloud. In the illustration, if one obscures the sunlight streaming through a window with many fine and flimsy curtains, they will darken as much as one thick curtain will, and even more.
This is exactly so in the comparison, with all those cloud-like sins upon which man tramples indifferently, because they seem to be of little import: they obscure the Divine light by their multitudinous repetition as do many fine curtains, “darkening as much as one thick curtain will, and even more.”
So too is the parallel, all the sins that a man tramples indifferently, and certainly with those sins that our Sages often warned against, that are actually like idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.
For example: ignoring the needy, or tale-bearing, the evil tongue, that is equated to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. Likewise, the anger is likened to idolatry, and so is arrogance. There are many such cases described in the Talmud — of sins whose punishment is not as severe as that of idolatry and the like, but which nonetheless effect a similar spiritual blemish, and the sin of neglecting the study of the Torah equals them all. As our Sages assert, “G d has overlooked idolatry, immorality and bloodshed, but has not overlooked the sin of neglecting Torah study (Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7).
Thus, repeated sins such as ignoring the needy, tale-bearing, anger, and so on, though not carrying the punishment of excision or death by the Hand of Heaven, nonetheless sever the soul from its Divine Source.
For this reason it was ordained that in the order of the bedtime Keriat Shema, one should accept the four executions of the Court, stoning, burning, death by the sword, and strangulation.
Taking the “four executions” upon oneself cleanses the soul of the blemishes which one’s transgressions caused.
From this a thinking man can infer for other sins and transgressions, and for [the sin of] neglecting the study of the Torah, which is equivalent to them all.
All the above lends the thinking person a contrite heart, as he grows aware of the great stain caused even by his supposedly lesser sins. This contrition is the second preparatory step along the path to the lower level of repentance. For contrition crushes the kelipot and sitra achra and enables a man to repent truthfully, earnestly regretting his past misdeeds and firmly resolving to better his future ways.
After considering all this, he can truly plead from the inmost heart, “In Your great mercies, wipe away my sins” (Tehillim 51:3).
This verse is recited during Tikun Hatzot, a propitious time for spiritual stocktaking, which will enable him to recite it wholeheartedly.
This plea is to arouse supreme mercies of the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” (Shemot, 34:6-7, recited in the Tachanun supplication) which because of their lofty origin from the Supreme Will, these Attributes of Mercy correct all defects, as in the passage, “He bears sin and transgression, and cleanses” (there). With his awakening of mercies following the contrition, there is no further nurture for evil and the sitra achra.
This cleansing allows him to return to G-d Himself, to ascend to the greatest heights, and cleave to Him with a remarkable unity, to the original unity before the sin. This is the perfect t’shuvah, return. This state of unity and return are called t’shuvah ila’a, the superior return, which follows the t’shuva tata’a, the lower return. This is being occupied with Torah study, in reverence and fear of the Holy One… and here is the superiority of the penitent over the perfectly saintly, as the Zohar states in portion Chaya Sara (Part 2, 85A), “They draw onto themselves with a more intense longing of the heart and with greater forcefulness to approach the King.”
Ultimate union with G-d through Torah study is attained only when it is the result of love. Thus, while it is true that when one studies Torah simply out of one's acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven, he also achieves a measure of the cleaving of spirit to Spirit, this cannot compare to the degree of attachment that is attained when the same study is motivated by a love of G-d. Hence, since t’shuvah ila'ah is a manifestation of the soul's ultimate attachment with G-d, it follows that t’shuvah ila'ah means engaging in the study of Torah in awe and love of the Holy One, blessed be He, as the Zohar teaches (Part 2, 85A).
Since the violation of the covenant through wasteful emission, to say nothing of incestuous relations, or other unions prohibited by the Torah, or the Sages (for “the words of the Sages are more grave than even the prohibitions of the Torah”), causes a blemish in the mind, therefore his rectification is secured by engaging in the study of the Torah, which derives from Wisdom.
We therefore find in Tana Devei Eliyahu: "A man commits a sin and is liable to death at the hand of the Almighty, what shall he do and live? If he was accustomed to studying one page [of Written Law], let him study two; if he was accustomed to studying one chapter [of the Oral Law], let him study two chapters…."
This resembles a cord that is severed and then re-knotted: the site of the knot is much thicker than the rest of the rope. So it is with the “cord of His possession.”
If man’s attachment to G-d was severed by sin, then repentance must re-knot the cord doubly. This is accomplished through the fervent study of the Torah.
Thus Scripture states, “Through kindness and truth is sin forgiven …..,” (Mishle, 16:6), and “There is no truth but Torah….” (Berachot 5B).
Thus it is through the study of Torah that sin is forgiven.
Similarly, on the statement in Scripture that “the sin of the house of Eli will not be atoned by sacrifices and offerings” (Shmuel 1, 3:4), the Gemara comments: “By sacrifices and offerings will the sin of the House of Eli not be atoned, but it will be atoned through the study of Torah and through the practice of good deeds,” (Rosh HaShanah 1:18A)
This superior level of t’shuvah, the cleaving of his soul to the Divine soul of the world through the intellectual study of Torah and the performance of acts of kindness, is a matter of eliciting from Above.
Neither Torah study nor acts of loving-kindness by themselves elevate a person as a result of his own initiative and Divine service. Rather, he is aided from Above to reach an infinitely higher level than he would have attained alone.
But mortal man must ascend from stage to stage towards this higher level of t’shuvah and this “cleaving of spirit to Spirit” through the heart's devoted worship, particularly during Shema and its blessings, so that he might in perfect truth say during the recitation of the Shema, “You shall love the L-rd your G d with all your heart and with all your soul…..” Also “These words which I command you today shall be upon your heart….. And you shall speak of them…..”
All the above verses speak of the study of Torah. He must also perform all the mitzvot, as it is written, “He has sanctified us with His commandments.”
This [sanctification] has the same sense as in the phrase, “You are sanctified unto me” — i.e., separate from all others and wholly sanctified unto G d through the performance of His commandments.
This is the level of Kodesh HaElyon (“Supernal Holiness”), which one draws upon himself through the performance of the mitzvot.
All this is brought about through meditation on the grandeur of the Infinite One.
Meditating in this fashion gives birth to a love for G d, which is translated into the study of the Torah and the performance of mitzvot. This form of Divine service is t’shuvah ila'ah that takes the direction called milimata l’mala; it works its way upward from the initiative taken by the enterprising worshiper who elevates himself by his own strivings.
Since prayer is an expression of t’shuvah ila'ah, the higher level of return, it must be preceded by t’shuvah tata'ah, the lower level of return that is reached by the contriteness of a penitent heart.
This is what the Sages intended in the Mishna: “One should embark on worship only in an earnest frame of mind” (Berachot 30B). Rashi explains this to mean “humility”.
This is the state of t’shuvah tata'ah, in which one arouses Divine compassion for oneself,
At the same time we must note the Beraita there: “Our Sages taught, `One should embark on worship only with joy'” (Berachot 31A)
Thus, while the individual is to begin his preparations for prayer by achieving a state of bitterness of spirit, he is expected to begin his actual prayers in a state of joy.
In our bereaved generation, however, when not all are capable of turning their hearts instantly from one extreme [to the other], from humility to joy, it is advised that t’shuvah tata'ah be practiced earlier, at Tikun Hatzot; This is an especially appropriate time for the spiritual stocktaking that leads to the humility of a “broken and contrite heart,” as noted above.
Whoever cannot do this nightly should maintain an absolute minimum of once every week, before the Shabbat.
It is familiar to the initiates in the mysteries of the Torah that Shabbat is of the order of t’shuvah ila'ah. Indeed, the very letters of the word Shabbat spell tashev “You return”, as in the phrase, “You cause man to return” (Tehillim, 90:3).
For on Shabbat all the worlds ascend to their Source …., and this, too, is the time of the ascent of the soul to its Source — which constitutes the act of t’shuvah.
The worship on Shabbat in particular is an act of t’shuvah ila'ah. This will suffice for the perceptive.
We can now understand the phrase, “Return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah, 44:22). For since [as in the preceding phrase] “I have erased your sins like a thick cloud,” removing the sitra achra, and “I have redeemed you” from the evil “extraneous” forces through the arousal of Supreme compassion following the initiative taken by man below in his t’shuvah tata'ah, as explained above, therefore, “Return to Me” — with t’shuvah ila'ah.)
The matter of harboring contrary emotions simultaneously in the heart, the humility of the t’shuvah tata’a, and the gladness as well of t’shuva ila’ah, has been discussed in “Likutei Amarim,” end of Ch.34.
There, the Baal HaTanya explains that the sense of shame of a contrite heart is housed in the animal soul of a person, while joy derives from his Divine soul and the spark of godliness that animates it. The Zohar refers to this as, “Weeping is lodged in one side of the heart, and joy is lodged in the other” (Zohar, 2:255A, and 3:75A).
Joined to this is faith and confidence, the heart being firm and certain in G-d that He desires goodness, and is gracious and merciful, and generously forgiving the instant one pleads for forgiveness and atonement from Him. Not the faintest vestige of doubt dilutes this absolute conviction.
Even by human standards, this certainty of pardon is legitimate. A person must forgive as soon as he is asked for pardon. As a Divine trait, forgiveness is as swift, and infinitely more so. More so, G-d is “generous in pardon.” It is characteristic of men that if one injures another and asks his pardon which is granted, then repeats the misdeed, it becomes more difficult to grant pardon again, and certainly a third and fourth time. But by the standard of G-d, there is no difference between one and a thousand times. Divine attributes are no bounded and finite; they are infinite, as in the verse, “His mercies have not ended” (Eichah, 3:22)…. As our Sages said, “Whoever comes to purify himself is given assistance” (Shabbat 104A). Whoever comes, and as soon as he comes, and the pardon and forgiveness are also granted forthwith.
King David’s saying, “My sin is ever before me” (Tehillim, 51:5), does not imply that one ought to be constantly melancholy and humiliated, G-d forbid, for a following verse declares, “Let me hear gladness and joy” (there, verse 10). He ought all his days experience t’shuvah ila’a, which is marked by great joy. Rashi explains that the same Hebrew root of “before me” – “negdi” when referring to the Mishkan, “mineged” implies “at a distance.” Thus the intention of our verse is merely that the heart does not become haughty, that he be of humble spirit before all men, for the remembrance is before him that He has sinned before G-d.
This constant awareness of one’s sins is good counsel to be immune from anger, or any sort of resentment. The Talmud declares (Shabbat 88B) “Those humiliated who do not humiliate in turn, who hear their insult and do not retort, who perform out of love and are happy in affliction, they are meant in the verse, ‘Those who love Him shall be like the sun rising in full strength’” Whoever passes over his feelings, all his sins are passed over and forgiven (Rosh HaShanah 17A).
“Those who love Him shall be like the sun rising in full strength” (Shoftim, 5:31)
The reason for “happiness in the afflictions” of the body is that they are a great and potent favor for the sinning soul to cleanse it in This World, and to redeem it from (more painful) purification in the next.
The Ramban, in his Introduction to the Commentary of Job, writes that even the sufferings of Job for seventy years have absolutely no comparison to the suffering of a soul even briefly in Gehinnom, for the fire of This World is one part of sixty of the fire in the next. It is only that the world is built on kindness, and through mild suffering in This World one is saved from severe judgments in the Coming World.
This also applies to our Sages comment on the verse, “Sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy” (Leviticus, 11:44), that if a man sanctifies himself even only a little below, he becomes sanctified in great measure from Above (Yoma 39A).
Translation of the “Igeret HaTshuvah” taken from the bi-lingual edition of the “The Tanya” copyright by Kehot Publishing Society, and website elucidation of “The Tanya” by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg.
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg. Published and copyright by Kehot Publishing Society, all rights reserved.
The full text of “Igeret HaT’shuvah” can be found online at: