The Ten Days of Repentance

The days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are an important component in the process of repentance.

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The extremes to which rabbinic Judaism has gone to convince people of the possibility of repentance is illustrated in the Talmud by the story of Elazar ben Durdaya, a man who "sought out every harlot in the world."

woman praying
Praying for forgiveness at the Western Wall

Once he traveled far just to enjoy the favors of one particular woman who spit in his face and said to him, "Just as this spittle will never return whence it came, so will Elazar ben Durdaya never achieve repentance!" He was so startled and troubled by this that he immediately attempted to repent. He went and sat between two mountains and hills and said, "Mountains and hills, beg mercy for me!" They replied, "Before we can do this for you, we must beg mercy for ourselves, as it is said, 'For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken"' (Isa. 54: 10).

He said, "Heaven and earth, beg mercy for me!" They replied, "Before we can do this for you, we must beg mercy for ourselves, as it is said, 'Though the heavens should melt away like smoke, and the earth wear out like a garment'" (Isa. 51:6). He said, "Sun and moon, beg mercy for me!" They replied, "Before we can do this for you we must beg mercy for ourselves, as it is said, 'Then the moon shall be ashamed and the sun shall be abashed"' (Isa. 24:23). He said, "Stars and planets, beg mercy for me!" They replied, "Before we can do this for you we must beg mercy for ourselves, as it is said, 'All the host of heaven shall molder"' (Isa. 34:4). He said, "This is dependent upon me alone!" He placed his head between his knees and cried bitterly until he expired. At that moment a voice from heaven declared, "Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has been received in the world to come" (B. Avodah Zarah 17a).

An Equal Opportunity

Another important rabbinic tale about repentance concerns the famous apostate Elisha ben Abuya (of the first to second century CE), who was urged by his pupil Rabbi Meir to repent, but replied that he could not. When asked why that was so, he explained that he had once ridden by the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and had heard a voice proclaim, "Return, O rebellious children, I will heal your afflictions [Jer. 3:22], except for Elisha ben Abuya who knew My power and rebelled against Me" (J. Hagigah 2.1, 77b). Saul Lieberman once remarked that this was Elisha's greatest apostasy, since repentance is always open to everyone.

While repentance is the primary act to be performed during the Ten Days of Penitence, charity and prayer are no less important. Tzedakah, charity or acts of righteousness, requires that we look outside ourselves and see the needs of others. What can we do to help those who need us, financially or otherwise? In many synagogues, charity plates are put at the door before Yom Kippur so that people can make donations at that time if they have not yet done so. It is important to point out that the emphasis placed on tzedakah during this crucial time in the Jewish year merely serves to impress upon us the need to make charity a part of our lives in general. Prayer, the other action that can mitigate our sentence, as it were, is a further method of introspection and change of character. The daily prayers and the special Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur intensify the usual services in a special way.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.