Updated: Sep 6, 2021
The act of translation assumes that for every word in one language, equivalents can be found in another. But this may be untrue, especially when we are dealing with ideas that are central and unique to Judaism.
We may then fall into the error of equating a Jewish idea with one drawn from another culture when the two are in fact dissimilar, even opposite.
This is the case with the three words constantly on our minds during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. In English they are repentance, prayer and charity.
How far these differ from their Jewish counterparts - teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah - the Rebbe emphatically explains.
The Service of the Ten Days
We express the hope that on Rosh Hashanah G‑d blessed us with a "good and sweet year" to come, a year made fruitful by children, health and sustenance.
But there is no limit to goodness and blessing. Thus, during the Ten Days of Teshuvah we have the opportunity through our service, to cause G‑d to grant us yet greater benefits from His "full and expansive hand."
What is this service? It is, as we say in our prayers, "repentance, prayer and charity" which avert evil and bring the good. But the words "repentance, prayer and charity" are misleading.
By thus translating the Hebrew terms teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah we are led into a false comparison of these three elements of the religious life as they exist in Judaism and outside it.
In fact, there are crucial differences. Teshuvah is not repentance. Tefillah is not prayer. And tzedakah is not charity.
Teshuvah and Repentance
"Repentance" in Hebrew is not teshuvah but charatah. Not only are these two terms not synonymous. They are opposites.
Charatah implies remorse or a feeling of guilt about the past and an intention to behave in a completely new way in the future. The person decides to become "a new man." But teshuvah means "returning" to the old, to one's original nature.
Underlying the concept of teshuvah is the fact that the Jew is, in essence, good. Desires or temptations may deflect him temporarily from being himself, being true to his essence.
But the bad that he does is not part of, nor does it affect, his real nature. Teshuvah is a return to the self.
While repentance involves dismissing the past and starting anew, teshuvah means going back to one's roots in G‑d and exposing them as one's true character.
For this reason, while the righteous have no need to repent, and the wicked may be unable to, both may do teshuvah.
The righteous, though they have never sinned, have constantly to strive to return to their innermost. And the wicked, however distant they are from G‑d, can always return, for teshuvah does not involve creating anything new, only rediscovering the good that was always within them.
Tefillah and Prayer
"Prayer" in Hebrew is not tefillah but bakashah. And again these terms are opposites. Bakashah means to pray, request, beseech. But tefillah means, to attach oneself.
In bakashah the person asks G‑d to provide him, from above, with what he lacks. Therefore when he is not in need of anything, or feels no desire for a gift from above, bakashah becomes redundant.
But in tefillah the person seeks to attach himself to G‑d. It is a movement from below, from man, reaching towards G‑d. And this is something appropriate to everyone and at every time.
The Jewish soul has a bond with G‑d. But it also inhabits a body, whose preoccupation with the material world may attenuate that bond.
So it has constantly to be strengthened and renewed. This is the function of tefillah. And it is necessary for every Jew.
For while there may be those who do not lack anything and thus have nothing to request of G‑d, there is no-one who does not need to attach himself to the source of all life.
Tzedakah and Charity
The Hebrew for "charity" is not tzedakah but chessed. And again these two words have opposite meanings.
Chessed, charity, implies that the recipient has no right to the gift and that the donor is under no obligation to give it. He gives it gratuitously, from the goodness of his heart. His act is a virtue rather than a duty.
On the other hand tzedakah means righteousness or justice. The implication is that the donor gives because it is his duty. For, firstly, everything in the world belongs ultimately to G‑d. A man's possessions are not his by right. Rather, they are entrusted to him by G‑d, and one of the conditions of that trust is that he should give to those who are in need.
Secondly, a man has a duty to act towards others as he asks G‑d to act towards him. And as we ask G‑d for His blessings though He owes us nothing and is under no obligation, so we are bound in justice to give to those who ask us, even though we are in no way in their debt. In this way we are rewarded: Measure for measure. Because we give freely, G‑d gives freely to us.
This applies in particular to the tzedakah which is given to support the institutions of Torah learning. For everyone who is educated in these institutions is a future foundation of a house in Israel, and a future guide to the coming generation. This will be the product of his tzedakah - and his act is the measure of his reward.
These are the three paths which lead to a year "written and sealed" for good.
By returning to one's innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G‑d (tefillah) and by distributing one's possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty.1
1. Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. II, pp. 409-411.