First Step to Teshuvah
The pasuk in Mishlei (1:2) says “The parables of Shlomo, the son of David, the king of Israel, to know chochmah and mussar to understand sayings of wisdom.” The commentaries explain the difference between chochmah and mussar by explaining that chochmah is the knowledge to differentiate between what is and what is not permitted. Mussar is meant to help bring those ideas into action. This is accomplished through repetitively stressing the disgracefulness of transgressions and the nobility of mitzvot and through giving advice on how to battle one’s yetzer hara (evil inclination) and come to do the right thing. One without the other doesn’t work, as it says in Pirkei Avot (3:23): Without wisdom there is no fear of Heaven, and without fear of Heaven there is no wisdom (see Sha’arei Teshuva 3:3 and Meiri on Mishlei 1:2).
Let’s begin with the first part of what it says in Avot: “Without wisdom there is no fear of Heaven.” If one is unaware of what is required of him, he may easily transgress the Torah, even if he means well. For example, someone may decide to work on the midah (character trait)of hakarat hatov (giving gratitude), and he reads all the books on how important this midah is. So, when he comes to pay back his friend money lent to him, he adds a little bit, as a token of gratitude. Though he obviously meant well, he is actually transgressing the prohibition of takingor payinginterest.
Another example is someone who reads plenty of mussar about speaking lashon hara and its severity. He thus takes great care to guard his mouth and never speak ill of anyone. However, when one questions him on an appropriate marriage or business partner, he silently refuses to reveal any negative traits about his friend, even though it may be required by halacha. Even if he knows that in such a situation he may be required to reveal the information, if he doesn’t know the conditions that one has to meet before relating the information it still doesn’t help him avoid the offense of speaking lashon hara (see Chafetz Chaim 4:11 and 10:1-2). In such a situation, while one is trying to follow halacha and guard his tongue, he is, in fact, transgressing halacha.
Even though in the cases above the person didn’t intend to commit a transgression, and did not purposefully transgress, the gemara still says that such an individual needs kapara (atonement; Nazir 23a). Especially in such cases when he wasn’t fully innocent, as he should have made time to learn the appropriate halachot. Halacha is, after all, the user’s guide for life. The Chafez Chaim says that this is why the Midrash says that one who lacks knowledge can’t learn mussar. The simple understanding is that the mussar wouldn’t help one who doesn’t have an understanding of halacha (See introduction Shemirat Halashon). As it is elegantly said in Avot (2:6): An unlearned person can not be a chasid (scrupulously observant person). (See Midrash Shmuel on Avot 3:23; Elef Hamagen of Rabbi Eliezer Papo, drush rishon l’Shabbat Teshuva; Chazon Ish’s Emuna U’bitachon perek 3).
There isn’t much a person can possibly do without knowing halacha, as almost every area of one’s life requires knowledge of the appropriate halachot. How can he speak if he isn’t versed in the laws of lashon hara, flattery and hurtful speech (ona’at devarim)? How can he listen to his friend speak without knowing the laws of when one is and is not allowed to accept lashon hara? How can he eat without knowing the intricate halachot of which beracha to make on mixtures of food? If he doesn’t make any preceding beracha, then the gemara says it is considered as if he stole the food (Berachot 35b), and if he makes an unnecessary beracha then he also transgressed a Rabbinical decree and at times, according to some opinions, even a Torah law. How can one do business without knowing the laws of buying and selling, overcharging, the intricate laws of taking interest and the laws of paying one’s workers on time? Needless to say, on Shabbat, where there are so many intricate laws, knowledge of halacha is crucial. Just moving certain things may be a problem because of muktzah, or selecting something from a mixture may fall under the prohibition of borer without the appropriate conditions. This is so to such an extent that the Ya’arot Devash says that if someone hasn’t learned hilchot Shabbat thoroughly it is impossible not to transgress Shabbat. In all of these scenarios we see it is impossible to live as a religious Jew without thorough knowledge of halacha. As the Chazon Ish states: With every movement one needs to seek the counsel of the Shulchan Aruch.
One of the things we ask forgiveness for in the Viduy is for “viduy
peh,” which is confession of the mouth. This is referring to just reciting the Viduy without meaning it, as the Rambam says: Anyone who confesses but didn’t make up in his heart to leave those (inappropriate) things is compared to someone who dips in a mikveh with a dead animal in his hands (Hilchot Teshuva 2:3). When one declares he will not perform an aveira again without a background in halacha, his Viduy, too, is somewhat superficial. After all, how can he proclaim that he will not transgress again if he doesn’t know what the transgression consists of? Unless one is trying his hardest and makes time to learn halacha his Viduy is hardly sincere. With this we can understand the gemara that says that Chazal instituted the beracha of asking for help to do teshuva
after the beracha of asking for knowledge based on the verse in Yeshayahu (6:10) which says “His heart will understand and he will return” (See Megillah 17b). The simple reason behind this order is that the only way one can do proper teshuva is through adequate knowledge of what
The gemara says that whoever learns two halachot a day is promised to be a “ben Olam HaBa”(Nidah 73b). The commentaries add that this is only through learning halacha, and not just gemara (see Drisha on Yoreh Deah 246). We are also told to begin with learning the halachot that pertain to one’s everyday life, as the Mishnah Berurah writes that a person’s main learning should be in the section Orach Chaim of the Shulchan Aruch because its halachot come up all the time (Shem Olam, Sha’ar Hitchazkut, perek 7; also in introduction to Mishna Berura I). With all this said, setting aside time to learn the relevant halachot is perhaps the most proper and crucial thing to take on in this auspicious time for teshuva. May we all merit making the most of this time. Be’ezrat Hashem, in a future essay, we will address the second part of what it says in Pirkei Avot, that if there is no fear of Heaven there is no wisdom.