Iggeres Ha’Teshuvah Chapter 1, Class 8

Tanya/ Iggeres Ha’Teshuvah – The Epistle on Repentance, Chapter 1, Class 8

As to what we find in the Book of Joel, “Return to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting and weeping…,”54 which would seem to indicate that fasting is in fact part of return and repentance,

וּמַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בְּיוֹאֵל: “שׁוּבוּ עָדַי בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם בְּצוֹם וּבִבְכִי גוֹ’”,

this was to nullify (Note inserted by the Rebbe: “…something which relates to the future while repentance involves forsaking the past”) the heavenly decree that had been issued, to expunge the sin of the generation through the affliction of locusts; it was not part of the act of repentance.

הַיְינוּ – לְבַטֵּל הַגְּזֵרָה שֶׁנִּגְזְרָה לְמָרֵק עֲוֹן הַדּוֹר עַל־יְדֵי יִסּוּרִים בַּאַרְבֶּה.

This is the rationale for all fasts proclaimed for any trouble threatening the community, their purpose being to avert the impending harsh edict,

וְזֶהוּ הַטַּעַם בְּכָל תַּעֲנִיּוֹת שֶׁמִּתְעַנִּין עַל כָּל צָרָה שֶׁלֹּא תָבֹא עַל הַצִּבּוּר,

as in the Book of Esther, 55 where we find that the Queen asked that a fast be proclaimed in order to nullify Haman’s evil decree.

וּכְמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בִּמְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר.

Now the classic Mussar works, particularly the Rokeach and Sefer Chassidim, specify numerous fasts and mortifications 56 for sins punishable by excision and execution;

וּמַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בְּסִפְרֵי הַמּוּסָר, וּבְרֹאשָׁם סֵפֶר הָרוֹקֵחַ וְסֵפֶר חֲסִידִים, הַרְבֵּה תַּעֲנִיּוֹת וְסִיגּוּפִים לָעוֹבֵר עַל כְּרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית־דִּין,

likewise, numerous fasts are prescribed for the wasteful emission of semen—a sin punishable by death by Divine agency, as the Torah recounts of Er and Onan, 57

וְכֵן לְמוֹצִיא זֶרַע לְבַטָּלָה, שֶׁחַיָּיב מִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה גַּבֵּי עֵר וְאוֹנָן,

and a sin whose retribution is identical in this respect to that of sins punishable by excision and hence the numerous fasts prescribed.

וְדִינוֹ כְּחַיָּיבֵי כְרֵיתוֹת לְעִנְיָן זֶה –

All this might lead us to assume that the purpose of fasts is suffering—this being the manner through which atonement is brought to completion by those who are guilty of sins punishable by excision. But it has been previously stated that the suffering which completes atonement is specifically that which comes from Above and not manmade suffering incurred through fasting and the like. The Alter Rebbe answers this seeming contradiction by stating:

These above-prescribed fasts and mortifications are intended to avert the punishment of suffering at the hand of heaven, G‑d forbid. (Note by the Rebbe: “This too relates to the future, unlike repentance, which relates to the past.”)

הַיְינוּ, כְּדֵי לִינָּצֵל מֵעוֹנֶשׁ יִסּוּרִים שֶׁל מַעְלָה חַס וְשָׁלוֹם.

This means that if, G‑d forbid, the punishment of suffering had been decreed upon an individual, he is able to exempt himself from it through these self-imposed fasts.

Another reason [for these fasts] is to urge on and expedite the conclusion of his soul’s atonement.

וְגַם, כְּדֵי לְזָרֵז וּלְמַהֵר גְּמַר כַּפָּרַת נַפְשׁוֹ.

Also, perhaps he is not returning to G‑d with all his heart and soul out of love but only out of fear.

וְגַם אוּלַי אֵינוֹ שָׁב אֶל ה’ בְּכָל לִבּוֹ וְנַפְשׁוֹ מֵאַהֲבָה, כִּי אִם מִיִּרְאָה:

Such a penitent would not enjoy the Divine reaction that comes “as water reflects the countenance” and would not be granted the completion of his atonement through suffering. Accordingly, he might undertake these fasts upon himself in order to secure this alone. Essentially, however, the suffering that brings about complete atonement (for those guilty of sins punishable by excision and death by Divine agency) is not meant to be self-inflicted but rather—heaven forfend—imposed from Above.




54. 2:12.

55. 4:16.

56.  Note by the Rebbe: “Especially problematic here is the mention of mortifications, for in the context of averting a decree, the sources speak only of fasts, as in the Books of Esther and Joel cited above. An alternative explanation must therefore be found.”

57.  Genesis 38:6-7.


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