Return to Sender – The True Meaning of Teshuvah
Every year, on the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur, we read the prophet Hoshea’s famous words in the Haftarah: “Return O Israel until Hashem your G-d…” (Hos. 14:2). The Hebrew word shuv/shuvah (“return”) serves as the basis of the term teshuvah (“repentance”), and cognates of shuvah are used throughout the Bible to refer to repentance (e.g. Deut. 30:2). However, there is another Hebrew word which also means “return:” chazar. In fact, a lapsed Jew who returned to observance is colloquially known as somebody who was chozer b’teshuvah (literally, “returned through repentance”)—a phrase which uses two different verbs that mean “returning”. In this essay, we will explore the implications of shuv versus chazar, as well as the etymologies of their Aramaic equivalents, tuv and hadar.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that the two-letter root SHIN-BET, which is the core of the words shuv/shuvah/teshuvah, denotes returning to a prior place or situation. Other words with this root include hashavah, “returning” a lost item (Deut. 22:1) or stolen goods (Lev. 5:23) because it addresses something that happened earlier in time, and seeks to rectify it; lehashiv, “to answer,” because the answer fills the hole previously created by the question; and shev/yeshivah “dwelling,” because by settling in a given place one creates a “home base” to which he will always return. In all of these cases, cognates of shuvah are associated with returning to a place or situation where one previously stood.
Rabbi Pappenheim notes that the root SHIN-BET can also refer to reverting to one’s natural state—even if one had never previously been in that state. In this spirit, he explains that shabbat (“rest”), which also has the SHIN-BET root, denotes returning to one’s natural state of rest. In this case, even if a person had always been harried with action, his rest is still considered a “return” because it goes back to his natural state, even if not necessarily his prior state. [Rabbi Pappenheim writes that this is also the basis for the verb lashevet (“to sit”), which is also a state of rest, as well as the word shevi/shvuyah (“captive”), whose freedom of movement has been curtailed by captors, as if stuck in a position of rest.]
Similarly, when Avraham’s servant was charged with finding a wife for Yitzchak in Avraham’s homeland Harran, he asked his master what to do if the suitable girl would not agree to leave Harran, “Should I return (he’hashiv ashiv) your son to the land from which you left?” (Gen. 24:5). Although Yitzchak had never been in Harran, he could still “return” there since it was his father’s homeland, and thus by extension could be considered his “natural place.”
This theory is reflected in the prophet Yechezkel’s words,
“When a righteous man returns (shuv) from his righteousness and does iniquities, he will die through them. And when a wicked man returns (shuv) from his wickedness and does justice and righteousness, through them he will live” (Ezek. 33:18–19, see also Ezek. 18:21–27).
The Talmud (Brachos 29a) explains that “the righteous man who returns from his righteousness” is a person who had been a sinner, repented, and then returned to sinning. However, the Talmud does not explain that “the wicked man who returns from his wickedness” is a person who was at first righteous, then became evil, and then returned to his former righteousness. How, then, can the wicked man be termed a “returnee” from wickedness to righteousness if he had never been righteous to begin with?
The answer is that righteousness is man’s natural state, and sinfulness is considered unnatural. Repentance — teshuvah — brings one back to one’s innate righteousness, therefore, when a wicked person repents and becomes righteous, he is considered “returning” to that natural state. Yet, the converse is not true: when a righteous person recants his righteousness and become a sinner, he cannot justifiably be said to be “returning” to anything unless, as the Talmud explains, he had previously been a sinner.
With all this said, we can now understand the etymological basis for the word teshuvah—repentance. Teshuvah denotes a person’s journey to his natural sin-free state. He is “returning” to where he is supposed to be, regardless of whether he was once there before. Teshuvah means returning to one’s spiritual default position, his “home base.” It is the quest for peace and tranquility, the return to one’s roots. Moreover, the process of teshuvah — where one harnesses the power of his regret for his past sins as fuel for personal growth — enables one to revisit the past and recast one’s former sins as merits. When doing teshuvah, one “goes back” to his previous deeds to make amends (in the same way that hashavah/lehashiv attempt to fill holes previously created by questions or thievery).
Part of the teshuvah process entails making an about-face and figuratively “turning oneself around” in a circle to correct course. The Hebrew word for this is chazarah.
Interestingly, neither chazarah nor its verb cognates chazar/chozer appear anywhere in the Bible.* Rather they are Rabbinic (Mishnaic) Hebrew words, which variously mean to regret, recant, retract, repeat, return, or repent. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549), also known in Latin as Elias Levita, notes that the standard way of translating the Hebrew word sivuv (“go around” or “circumnavigate”) in the Targumim is with the Aramaic/Syriac word chazar and its related cognates.
In short, shuvah implies focusing on the goal of getting back to where one used to be, while chazarah focuses on the act of getting out of that rut in which one is currently stuck and making a U-turn.
The Aramaic equivalent to shuv is tuv, with the Hebrew SHIN morphing into the Aramaic TAV as quite often happens.
The Babylonian Aramaic equivalent of chazar is hadar, as the Hebrew CHET and Aramaic HEY are interchangeable, as are the Hebrew ZAYIN and Aramaic DALET. Because of those two sets of interchangeability, CHET-ZAYIN-REISH in Hebrew becomes HEY-DALET-REISH in Aramaic. Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) notes that many words with the two-letter strings DALET-REISH or ZAYIN-REISH are related to the concept of “circumscribing” or going “around” something.
In addition to carrying the same meanings as the Hebrew word chazar, the Aramaic word hadar also means “glory.” When one completes an entire Order of the Mishnah or Tractate of the Talmud, one customarily speaks to that book and says, hadran alach (“our hadar is upon you”) and hadrach alan (“your hadar is upon us”). In this context, the meaning of the word hadar is somewhat ambiguous. The common explanation given is that hadar here means the obligation to “return to” or “review” the materials studied. However, Rabbi Chaim of Friedburg (1520–1588)—the oldest brother of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609)—writes in Sefer HaChaim that it refers to the fact that the “glory” of the Jewish People depends on their devotion to studying the Oral Torah.
There is similar ambiguity regarding the term mehadrin used to denote those who light Chanuka candles in the most optimal ways. Rashi (to Shabbos 21b) writes that mehadrin refers to those who are “mehader after commandments”, while Maimonides (Laws of Chanukah 4:1) writes that mehadrin refers to those who are “mehader the commandment.” Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv (1941–2018) explains that Rashi understands the verb mehader in this context to mean those who pursue the fulfillment of commandments, such that they chase “after” such opportunities (an extension of hadar in the sense of “returning” or “go back”). Maimonides, on the other hand, understands that mehader in this context refers to those who glorify (hadar) the commandments, and thus seek to fulfill them in the most beautiful way possible.
Although there seems to be an irreconcilable dispute between Rashi and Maimonides, perhaps we can bridge that gap: Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) wrote that the two meanings of hadar are interrelated because he who beholds something in its full glory is taken aback by its grandeur, and reflexively recoils in awe. That said, it is our hope that we shall all recoil in awe of G-d, and return to the good graces of the One who sent us to This World.
* NOTE: The closest word to chazarah in the Bible is chazir (“pig”), whose root is also CHET-ZAYIN-REISH. In fact, R. Menachem Ricanati (to Lev. 11:2) writes that the pig is called a chazir because in the future G-d will “return” to us the right to eat the pig. In this way, our relationship with the pig will, after a fashion, “reverse course.” (Note that Rabbeinu Bachaya and Rabbi David Ibn Zimra write that this should not be taken literally.) Ibn Kapsi also points out that the root of chazarah only appears in the Bible in the word chazir, which he explains gets that name because pigs commonly turn around backwards to aimlessly walk in circles.
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