The Dimensions of Repentance

How repentance and confession are related

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This article analyzes a selection from the Laws of Repentance by Rabbi Moses Maimonides. Maimondes, also known as the Rambam, was a Jewish philosopher who lived in the 12th century.† The Laws of Repentance are a section of his work the Mishnah Torah, which was a codification of Jewish law. Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1996 †Jason Aronson Inc.

In Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides wrote: "With regard to all the precepts of the Torah, both affirmative and negative, if a person transgresses any one of them, either willfully or in error, when he repents and turns away from his sin, he is under a duty to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is said, 'when a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit...they shall confess their sin which they have done' (Numbers 5:6‑7)--this means confess in words; and this confession is an affirmative precept."

And Maimonides continues:

"How does one confess? By saying, 'I beseech Thee, 0 Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before Thee, and have done thus and thus, and lo, I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds and will never do this again. This constitutes the essence of confession."

"This constitutes the essence of confession"--these are the core components and basic framework of confession. Of course, various additions may be made, but they must always center around the three fundamental components, which are: 1) acknowledgment of sin ("I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed'); 2) remorse ("I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds'); 3)resolution for the future ("I will never do this again'). These three stages constitute "the essence of confession."

And Maimonides adds: "The more one confesses and elaborates on this matter, the more praiseworthy he is. And, also, those under an obligation to bring sin‑offerings and trespass‑offerings, who bring their sacrifices for sins committed either in error or willfully, are not acquitted [of their sins] by means of these offerings until they repent and confess in words..." In other words, sacrifice alone cannot bring acquittal; confession is a sine qua non, and without it repentance cannot take place. Even if one has decided to abandon sin and to radically alter one's way of life, it does not amount to a complete act of repentance; without confession acquittal is denied. Confession is mandatory not only for those who, having sinned are obligated to bring sacrifices, but also for "those who have incurred the judicial penalty of death or punishment of stripes"--"they do not attain acquittal through death or [by the punishment of]stripes, until they repent and confess. Similarly, one who inflicts a wound on another person or causes him monetary damage, is not acquitted even after he has paid [the injured party] what he owes him, until he confesses and penitently resolves never to commit the same offense again..."

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.