Rosh Hashanah and Teshuvah

Ki karov eilecha hadavar me’od (Devarim 30:14)

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a 10-day period known as the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (10 Days of Repentance). However, several commentators point out that there is no mention of confessing or repenting our sins in the entire Rosh Hashanah machzor. In what sense are the two days of Rosh Hashanah considered days of teshuvah, and in what way are we supposed to work on repenting on Rosh Hashanah?

In his sefer Pachad Yitzchak (Yom Kippur 13), Harav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, points out that the conclusion of the blessing for repentance in the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayers seems unusual. In each of the other blessings, the conclusion reflects and summarizes the content of the blessing. For example, in the blessing “Atah chonen l’adam daas — You endow man with wisdom,” we conclude “chonen hadaas — Who gives wisdom,” and in the blessing “Bareich aleinu — Bless us,” we conclude “Mevarech hashanim — Who blesses the years.” However, in the blessing for repentance, we begin “Hashiveinu Avinu l’Sorasecha — Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah” — and we conclude “Harotzeh bi’teshuvah — Who desires repentance” — which does not directly reflect the text of the blessing. In keeping with the format of the other blessings, it would seem more appropriate to conclude “Hameishiv bi’teshuvah — Who brings back in repentance.” Further, what does it mean that Hashem desires repentance, and why is it relevant, if doing teshuvah is ultimately up to us?

Rav Hutner explains, based on the well-known insight of the Mesillas Yesharim regarding the nature and impact of teshuvah. The Mesillas Yesharim questions the very concept of repentance, as often the consequences of a sin are permanent and cannot be undone; if so, how can teshuvah help to eradicate a person’s actions? The Mesillas Yesharim explains that the chessed of teshuvah is that in Hashem’s mercy, He views akiras haratzon k’akiras hacheit — the uprooting of one’s desire to sin is tantamount to uprooting the sin itself. Although it is impossible to retroactively “delete” our mistaken actions, when we confess our sins, express our regret for what we have done and accept upon ourselves not to do so again in the future, we change our ratzon — desire; and when Hashem sees a person do so sincerely and wholeheartedly, He views the uprooting of the desire as an uprooting of the actual sin.

Rav Hutner adds that in the positive direction, the Gemara (Kiddushin 40a) teaches that if a person wants to perform a mitzvah, but is prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond his control, Hashem views the person as having actually performed the mitzvah, since he had full intention and desire to do so. The lesson we derive from here is the vital role of a person’s ratzon, which determines all of our actions and choices. With this insight, we can appreciate why it is appropriate to conclude the blessing for repentance in Shemoneh Esrei with “Harotzeh bi’teshuvah,” because when there is a Heavenly desire for repentance, it correspondingly enables us to change our ratzon, the essential component to proper teshuvah.

With this introduction, Harav Yosef Elefant of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim explains that Rosh Hashanah’s place at the beginning of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah becomes quite clear. One of the primary themes of Rosh Hashanah is Malchuyos — to crown Hashem and accept Him as Melech — our King. The Vilna Gaon and Malbim both explain (Tehillim 22:29) that in contrast to the word “moshel,” which connotes a dictator who rules by force, the term “melech” is used in conjunction with a king who rules with the consent of the people. Accordingly, the concept of Malchuyos implies a willing recognition and acceptance of Hashem’s kingship, and our obligation to perform His will. In this sense, Rosh Hashanah requires us to change our ratzon to Hashem’s ratzon, and correcting our ratzon is the critical component in teshuvah. It is therefore quite appropriate to begin the 10-day period of repentance with Rosh Hashanah, as it is through Malchuyos that we arrive at the essence of teshuvah.

Q: Moshe began his speech to the Jewish people (Devarim 29:9–10) by emphasizing that all of them were present, even the converts. Since one of the essential components of conversion is circumcision, how were they able to accept converts in the desert, where the Jews themselves were unable to circumcise their newborns because the climate made it too dangerous and risky to perform circumcision (Rashi 33:9)?

A: Harav Pinchas Horowitz answers that the likelihood of danger resulting from circumcision in the wilderness was small. Although the Jewish people refrained from circumcising themselves because the Torah commands us not to place ourselves into potential peril even to perform a mitzvah, the non-Jews who were coming to convert were permitted to endanger themselves for the purpose of converting.

Harav Chaim Kanievsky suggests that if a potential convert is unable to circumcise himself due to danger to his health, he need not do so and can still convert by immersing himself in a mikveh and accepting the mitzvos upon himself.

Several additional answers are offered in M’rafsin Igri. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that the Canaanites were not accepted as full-fledged converts, but rather as servants to the Jewish people. Alternatively, Rashi writes (33:9) that the tribe of Levi circumcised their children who were born in the wilderness. The Midrash explains that because they didn’t take part in the sin of the golden calf, they weren’t endangered by doing so. Since the prospective converts didn’t take part in this sin, they were also able to circumcise themselves safely. An additional possibility is that the Canaanites were already circumcised, as was practiced by many non-Jewish nations, in which case they were only required to draw a drop of blood for the purpose of their conversions, which didn’t present the same danger as a full-fledged circumcision. Finally, it is possible that these Canaanites came to convert before the sin of the golden calf, at which time even the Jews were able to circumcise themselves.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.