What Does the Term "Teshuvah" Mean in Judaism?

 

For Jews, the term Teshuvah (pronounced teh-shoo-vah) has a critically important meaning. In Hebrew, the word translates literally as "return," and describes the return to God and with our fellow human beings that is made possible through repentance of our sins. 

The Process of Teshuvah

Teshuvah is most frequently associated with the High Holy Days—especially the Ten Days of Repentance just prior to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement—but people can seek forgiveness for wrongs they have committed at any time.

There are several stages of Teshuvah, including the sinner recognizing his or her wrongs, feeling sincere remorse and doing everything in their power to undo any damage that has been done. A sin against God may be atoned for through simple confession and request for forgiveness, but a sin committed against another person is more complicated.

If a specific person has been wronged,  the offender must confess the sin to the wronged person, put the wrong right,  and ask for forgiveness. The wronged party is not under any obligation to grant foregiveness, however, but failure to do so after repeated requests is regarded as sin in itself.  According to Jewish tradition, by the third request, the person who was wronged is required to grant forgiveness if the offender is sincerely remorseful and is taking steps to prevent similar wrongs from happening again.

The Four Steps of Atonement

In Jewish tradition, the process of atonement has four clearly defined stages: 

  • Step 1, Regret. Realize the extent of the damage and inwardly adopt of feeling sincere regret.
  • Step 2, Ceasing.  Immediately stop the harmful action.
  • Step 3, Confession and restitution. Verbalize the mistake and ask for forgiveness, either from God or from the wronged party. If possible, the wrong must be righted through compensation. If the sin is against God, acts of charity may be considered as restitution. 
  • Step 4, Resolution. Make a firm commitment not to repeat the sin in the future.

Are There Sins for Which There Is No Atonement?

Because Teshuvah requires the sinner to ask forgiveness of the person they have offended, it has been argued that a murderer cannot be forgiven for his or her crime, since there is no way to ask the wronged party for forgiveness. There are some scholars who argue that murder is a sin for which no atonement is possible.

There are two other offenses that come close to being unpardonable: defrauding the public and slander—ruining a person's good name. In both cases, it is nearly impossible to track down every person who was affected by the offense in order to offer apology and request forgiveness.

Many Jewish scholars categorize these sins—murder, slander, and public fraud—as the only unpardonable sins.