The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 26 May 2018 / 12 Sivan 5778

Is Teshuva a Mitzvah?

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
Library Library Library

The Zohar records a conversation between G-d and the Torah that took place before Creation. “When G-d created the world and wanted to create man, He took counsel with the Torah. The Torah replied that man was inevitably going to fall to the temptation of sin, which would cause G-d to become angry. If G-d were to repay man in accordance with his deeds, both he and the world would not endure. G-d replied, “Is it for naught that I am called merciful and compassionate?” In fact, before G-d created the world He created teshuva, repentance. G-d instructed teshuva, “I want to create the world on condition that when mankind repents from their sinful ways, you will be ready to accept them and forgive them of their sins.”

There are a number of verses in the Torah which seem to command doing teshuva. For example: “You shall return to the Lrd your G-d and heed His voice.” (Devarim 4:30, 30:2) However, it is not readily apparent if doing teshuva is considered a mitzvah. Maimonides, one of the main enumerators of the mitzvot, does not count teshuva as one of the 613 mitzvot. He does, however, count the mitzvah of confession as one of the 613 mitzvot. (Mitzvah 73; Chinuch 364)

There are several explanation offered to explain Maimonides’ position. Before presenting one of them, let us first take a look at an episode from the Talmud. If a man says to a woman “Become betrothed to me on condition that I am a tzaddik, a righteous man”, the law is that even if he has been a consummately wicked person until that moment, she is betrothed to him. For it is possible that thoughts of repentance came to this person’s mind and he has mentally committed himself to change his evil ways.

From the above it is clear that repentance is dependent on one’s heart, not words. Since teshuva is not dependent on an action, Maimonides does not count it as a mitzvah. Confession, however, requires the movement of ones lips, making it an action. He thus counts the action of confessing one’s sins as the mitzvah. It is clear that confession without intent would not constitute a mitzvah. Rather, one must confess, combining this with regret for his wicked behavior and a resolve not to act in such a manner again.

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