Mi-Darkei Ha-Teshuva: The Authentic Repentance
Of the many novel insights that are presented in Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, Rambam’s development of the “darkei ha-teshuva,” “the ways of repentance,” emerges at their forefront. Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:4) states:
It is mi-darkei ha-teshuva, of the ways of teshuva, for the repentant to shout continuously before God with cries and supplications, for him to give charity according to his ability, for him to distance himself significantly from the matter with which he sinned, for him to change his name, as if to say, ‘I am a different person and not the person who committed those transgressions,’ for him to transform all of his ways into the good and straight, and for him to exile himself from his place, for exile absolves sin as it causes him to humble himself intensely.
Rambam’s formulation raises a variety of challenging questions.
Firstly, what is the source for Rambam’s description of “darkei ha-teshuva?” Kesef Mishneh assumes that Rambam’s position is anchored in a comment of Rabbi Yitzchak in Masekhet Rosh ha-Shanna (16b):
And Rabbi Yitzchak said, ‘Four things uproot a man’s fate, and these are the four: charity, shouting, changing one’s name, and changing one’s deeds. Charity, as the verse states, “And charity will save from death” (Mishlei 10); shouting, as the verse states, “And they cried out to Hashem in distress, and He would deliver them from their distresses” (Tehillim 107); changing one’s name, as the verse states, “Sarai your wife, no longer call her Sarai but Sarah,” and it is written, “And I will bless her and also give you a son from her” (Bereishit 17); changing one’s deeds, as the verse states, “And God saw their deeds,” and it is written, “And God regretted the evil He said He would do to them and did not do it” (Yona 3).’ And some say that even changing one’s place uproots his fate, as the verse states, “And God said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your land,’ and then He promises, “I will make you into a large nation” (Bereishit 12).
- Yitzchak and the “yeish omerim” delineate all five of the various darkei ha-teshuva that Rambam records. Consequently, it is not surprising that Kesef Mishneh identifies R. Yitzchak’s statement as Rambam’s source. If so, however, then one central question arises. As Ritva explains, R. Yitzchak’s “four things” are methods that can uproot one’s fate; the act of changing one’s name, in particular, divorces one from the astrological harm to which he is subject:
The purpose of changing one’s name is to declare that he is not the same person who committed sins in the past and thereby prevent others from speaking negatively about him. And, aside from this, another benefit of changing one’s name is that his astrological fate is nullified and removed from him as the Gemara (Shabbat 156a) explains about Abraham.
Yet, while R. Yitzchak’s statement concerns the changing of one’s gezar din, verdict, Rambam’s statement concerns the act of a repentant! To be sure, the act of uprooting one’s troubling destiny is distinct in character from the act of repentance. Kesef Mishneh, in fact, accentuates Rambam’s deviation from R. Yitzchak when he states:
And our Rabbi (Rambam) hints to these five things with these words.
Clearly, Kesef Mishneh recognizes that Rambam does not quote R. Yitzchak’s instruction but rather only hints to it. Rambam reinvents the application of R. Yitzchak’s words, and therefore, Rambam’s comments cannot be considered a verbatim quotation. The source for Rambam is Rosh ha-Shanna 16b, but Rambam alters its meaning.
On what basis does Rambam diverge from the simple interpretation of R. Yitzchak’s statement and broaden its scope to include not only keri’at gezar din but also teshuva? What does Rambam’s interpretation of Rosh ha-Shanna 16b reflect about his understanding of the concept of teshuva?
Moreover, Lehem Mishneh notes another critical discrepancy between Rambam’s comments and Rosh ha-Shanna 16b, Rambam’s apparent source:
And all five ways are mentioned in our rabbi’s (Rambam) words even though the Gemara (Rosh ha-Shanna 16b) says that one of the five is sufficient (to uproot one’s fate).
If Rambam’s source is Rosh ha-Shanna 16b, why does Rambam argue that all five of the behaviors detailed in the Gemara are indispensable to the accomplishment of darkei ha-teshuva? After all, according to R. Yitzchak, only one of the five behaviors is necessary to uproot one’s fate!
Perhaps a more basic question should be confronted as well. What is the meaning of Rambam’s phrase, “mi-darkei ha-teshuva?” Rambam himself coins this terminology; it does not appear in Mishnah or Gemara, and even other Rishonim do not utilize it when discussing the same concept. Even Meiri, in Hibbur ha-Teshuva, reformulates this din. Lest we assume that Rambam’s phraseology is merely coincidental, we must note that the phrase appears not only in Hilkhot Teshuva but also in Hilkhot Ta’anit (1:2):
And this thing is mi-darkei ha-teshuva, of the ways of repentance, that when suffering arises and they (Kellal Yisrael) shout and blow trumpets, all will know that because of their bad deeds, they have been distressed, as the verse states, “Your sins have cause you to stray…” (Yirmiyahu 5), and this will cause them to remove the suffering from upon them.
Rambam’s usage of the same phrase in each context, both Hilkhot Teshuvah and Hilkhot Ta’anit, suggests that the phrase carries significant meaning and is not just a convenient way of describing a proper methodology and reaction to sin. It is not merely a methodology for absolving sin. Rather, it is indicative of some broader concept and ideal. What are the full implications of darkei ha-teshuva?
To unpack the meaning of Rambam’s darkei ha-teshuva, we might begin by explaining Rambam’s veering from the simple understanding of R. Yitzchak’s comments and suggest two distinct, yet consistent, approaches.
First, in contradistinction to Ritva, Rambam may shy away from emphasizing astrological significance, especially in light of his broader rationalistic proclivities and specific rejection of this discipline. For Rambam, R. Yitzchak does focus on the uprooting of one’s gezar din, but the method employed to uproot a gezar din demands the transformation of values, personality, and merit rather than the alteration of one’s astrological or mystical fate. Therefore, it was natural for Rambam to apply R. Yitzchak’s keri’at gezar din formula to methodology of repentance since repentance and keri’at gezar din share in common the need to transform one’s personality and value system.
Second, Rambam’s application of Rabbi Yitzchak’s statement to Hilkhot Teshuva reflects Rambam’s tendency to broaden and expand throughout Hilkhot Teshuva. For Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva constitutes a climactic transition. As the final section of Sefer Mada, the Laws of Teshuva bridge the ideas of Sefer Mada with the ideas of Sefer Ahava. They accentuate the ideal service of God, a service motivated by ahava and rooted in the proper legal philosophy of Sefer Mada. For this reason, chapter ten of Hilkhot Teshuva, the section’s final chapter, centers on the “oveid mei-ahava,” the one who serves God due to his love for God. As evinced by Rambam’s stance that Laws of Teshuva are the prerequisites for avoda mei-ahava, Rambam defines and interprets the process of repentance in a most all-encompassing fashion. Teshuva, as the climax of Sefer Mada, is not indispensable to man’s life only because it facilitates his neutralizing of past sins; rather, teshuva, at its finest, is an independently vital process, one that transforms a person into an oveid Hashem and facilitates avoda mei-ahava.
Rambam’s discussion (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:3) of repentance for corrupting traits, values, and beliefs further corroborates his broad understanding of repentance. Although Rambam records that true repentance includes the uprooting of certain emotions and traits, such as anger, hatred, and jealousy, this assertion is unsourced. On what basis does Rambam justify his position? Additionally, we might question why Rambam waits until chapter seven to discuss repentance focusing on character and personality; such discussion seems relevant to the core components of repentance as outlined in chapters one and two!
Perhaps, Rambam’s understanding of teshuva, as captured by his thesis of darkei ha-teshuva, explains these apparent anomalies. If teshuva is necessary not only to counteract sin but also to propel man towards avoda mei-ahava, then perhaps chapter seven, a chapter dedicated to ma’alat ha-teshuva, the greatness of repentance, is the most appropriate context to present repentance from traits. Rambam informs us that the greatness of repentance is, precisely, its transformative potential, but for teshuva to achieve this ambition, it must be comprehensive; it must address both action and thought. Once teshuva, in its most pristine form, is the laying of groundwork for service of God mei-ahava, then no source is necessary to conclude that such teshuva must encompass repentance that holistically addresses the entire personality.
Given Rambam’s broad understanding of teshuva, his reading of Rosh ha-Shanna (16b) emerges lucid and sensible. R. Yitzchak’s statement advises one as to how to change his gezar din. Rambam then intensifies and transforms R. Yitzchak’s statement into “darkei ha-teshuva”; he expands its relevance beyond the uprooting of decrees and applies it to the institution of repentance as a whole. Rambam adds that as part of “darkei ha-teshuva,” one should not only shout, as R. Yitzchak advises for keri’at gezar din, but he should be “tzo’eik tamid,” “shouting constantly.” Moreover, he should not only yell, but he should yell “be- bechi ve-tachanunim,” with cries and pleas. And, one should not only give charity, as Rabbi Yitzchak instructs, but he should do so “ke-fi kocho,” “according to his ability.” He must not only distance himself from evil, but he must distance himself greatly– “u-mitraheik harbei.” Finally, Rambam emphasizes that one must be “meshaneh ma’asav kulan”; he must be one who “changes all of his ways.” Rambam’s intensification of Rabbi Yitzchak’s instructions reflects Rambam’s attitude towards them. For Rambam, they are part of darkei ha-teshuva. They are ways of motivating man towards and assisting him in self-evaluation and self-transformation. While for keri’at gezar din, less intense shouting or charity or changing of deeds may be sufficient, for concrete repentance that leads to avoda mei-ahava, intensification is necessary.
Furthermore, not only must these acts be strengthened qualitatively, but they must be bolstered quantitatively as well. Rambam, as Lehem Mishneh notes, requires all five actions as part of darkei ha-teshuva. For keri’at gezar din, one action may be sufficient; but, for teshuva that leads to avoda mei-ahava, all five are necessary.
The motif of “darkei ha-teshuva” as a window into teshuva dominates much of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva. Interestingly, as Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4) articulates the well-known practice to increase giving of charity and multiply acts of kindness throughout Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, he adds that the practice includes as well “eisek be-mitzvot,” “involvement in mitzvot.” For Rambam, it is not just altruistic action that should pervade the Ten Days; rather, the ba’al teshuva must make extra effort to increase his punctiliousness regarding all commandments. Rambam’s expansion of the scope of proper activity throughout Aseret Yemei Teshuva coheres precisely with his characterization of “darkei ha-teshuva.” If teshuva is to be not just an accumulation of merits but also a process of personal transformation, one that directs and facilitates avoda mei-ahava, then it must include intense involvement in all mitzvot.
Thus, while they may seem innocuous on their surface, the “darkei ha-teshuva” are indeed the means, both quantitative and qualitative, that guide one on his path towards avoda mei-ahava. They are not just an itemized list of actions to take to achieve forgiveness. On the contrary, the phrase “darkei ha-teshuva,” in its intensified form, signifies Rambam’s all-encompassing understanding of teshuva.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig is a Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
 This article is an adaptation of a series of shiurim given by Rabbi Rosensweig in 2015. The article was reviewed by R. Rosensweig and is part of a future volume of essays edited by Itamar Rosensweig and Avraham Wein.
 See also Hilkhot Teshuva (4:2) where Rambam uses the term “darkei ha-teshuva” and mentions that which prevents one from accomplishing darkei ha-teshuva.
 See Shu”t ha-Rashba (1:19). Rashba argues that exiling oneself from his locale, as R. Yitzchak advises, is beneficial not only towards shinui mazal but also towards attaining kappara for one’s sins. As we have suggested for Rambam, Rashba also does not limit the application of Rabbi Yitzchak’s advice to shinui mazal but rather includes attainment of kappara as well.
 Hilkhot Teshuva (10:2).
 For a more extensive analysis of the tenth chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, see my “Ahavat Hashem and Talmud Torah: The Telos of Teshuva,” CJF Torah To-Go (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur 5778), 28-31.
 See Migdal Oz (Teshuva 7:3) who suggests that Rambam’s source is the concept of “hirhurei aveira kashin mei-aveira” (Yoma 29a). This suggestion, however, seems difficult if not untenable; Rambam is explicit in his assertion that repentance must address not only thoughts of sin but also midot ra’ot.
 See Sefer Likutim (Teshuva 3:3), who formulates the notion of repentance as “tachlit be-fnei atzmo,” “a purpose in and of itself.” Such a characterization highlights the approach to repentance not as, solely, a reaction to sin but as a proactive effort to achieve avoda mei-ahava.