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The Importance of Engaging in Personal Inventories

October 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Philosophy

The Importance of Engaging in Personal Inventories

by Yaakov Bieler

             It is self-apparent that a central component of Judaism is Teshuva (repentance.)[1] Since man is a conflicted, dualistic creature[2] and therefore aspirations to totally achieve spiritual, moral and religious perfection are by definition impossible to realize, the individual striving for higher levels of holiness must per force accept that all is never well and adjustments if not fundamental repairs are always going to be in order.[3] Consequently instead of viewing Teshuva as the second element in a type of meta-Lav HaNitak LeAseh (a negative Commandment that is corrected by a subsequent positive Commandment),[4] [5]  by virtue of the fact that repentance is not a tailored and specific reaction to a particular transgression that was freely decided upon by the perpetrator, but rather the required and inevitable consequence for any and all sins that in one form or another are understood to result from the dialectical nature of man, there will be aspects of everyone’s actions and thinking that will require repentance over the course of a lifetime.  Although the Ten Days of Repentance very much focus upon the need for everyone to engage in Teshuva, and might lead one to think that during the other 355 days of the year, repentance does not have to remain at the fore of his concerns, numerous primary sources attest to the assumption that repentance is always in order and must be considered a high priority for an individual’s everyday religious thinking.[6]

             However, simply recognizing that one should repent on an ongoing basis, does not mean that there is always sufficient awareness regarding exactly what  a person may have done or is currently doing,  is in need of correction. The same reasons why a person is disqualified from testifying about himself in a court of law—Adam Karov Eitzel Atzmo[7] (a person is considered biased regarding himself) and Ein Adam Meisim Et Atzmo Rasha[8] (a person cannot incriminate himself in a criminal matter)—indicate that it is difficult for an individual to be objective about his shortcomings, thereby undercutting the first step in the Teshuva process, Hakarat HaChet[9] (recognizing the sin.)

             A practice intended to address this problem that although recommended in many Halachic as well as Mussar sources, does not seem to be sufficiently widespread among observant individuals, is called “Pishpush[10] Ma’asim” (careful review/inspection of actions.)

RaMA, Orech Chayim 603:1

And it is appropriate for every person to search out and “LePashpeish B’Ma’asav” during the Ten Days of Repentance…

While the immediate temporal context of the RaMA’s words are the days beginning with Rosh HaShana and concluding in Yom HaKippurim, and such a review might be helpful for correcting a finite number of errors in judgment and action that have taken place relatively recently, nevertheless by the time we reach this particular period of the year, it is difficult to recall many of the things that we might have done much earlier on. The inability to recall with any kind of specificity what we might have done months, weeks or even days ago is glaringly reflected in the text of Hatarat Nedarim, also associated with the Aseret Yemai Teshuva:

…both those known to me and those I have already forgotten, regarding all of them, I hereby express my retroactive regret, and ask and seek their annulment…

To be sure, according to the law, one who regrets and seeks annulment must specific the vow. But please know, my masters, that it is impossible to specify them, for they are many

Consequently, only if Pishpush Ma’asim would take place in an ongoing manner, over shorter periods of time that would allow for precise identification of shortcomings and anticipating possible  forgetfulness and sheer volume, repentance could be so much more effective and focused. 

An additional timeframe that allows for better evaluations because shorter time periods elapse before the next PishPush Ma’asim exercise, is to use fast days for opportunities of introspection and inventorying one’s behavior:

Mishna Berura, 549:1, #1

…therefore each person is obligated to take to heart during those days (fast days) LePashpeish B’Ma’asav, and to repent at those times, because the essence is not the fasting…because the fast is only the preparation for repentance…

Adding fast days to the Ten Days of Repentance[11] as occasions for personal evaluation divides up the Jewish year into more manageable units—Yom HaKippurim until Asara BeTevet (89 days), Asara BeTevet until Ta’anit Esther (62 days),[12] Ta’anit Esther until Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (120 days),[13] Shiva Asar B’Tammuz until Tisha B’Av (20 days),[14] Tisha B’Av until Asaret Yemai Teshuva (49 days.) The year is further segmented by the suggestion contained in the following source:

Birchei Yosef Orach Chayim #417

It is a custom in Israel in several places to fast on Erev Rosh Chodesha

Footnote #a

In the book Reishit Chachma, Sha’ar HaTeshuva Chapt. 4 #21, he wrote, “…The essence of the fast is LePashpeish and to analyze that which he has sinned throughout the (previous) month and to repent…and if a person only fasts without considering his sins, it is practically as if he has done nothing…”

Folding in the Roshei Chadashim would then create the following sequence: Aseret Yemai Teshuva until Erev Cheshvan (20 days), Cheshvan until Erev Kislev (29 days), Kislev until Erev Tevet (29 days), Tevet until Asara B’Tevet (9 days); Asara B’Tevet until Erev Shevat (18 days), Shevat until Erev Adar (28 days), Adar until Ta’anit Esther (13 days), Ta’anit Esther until Erev Nissan (16 days), Nissan until Erev Iyar (29 days), Iyar until Erev Sivan (28 days), Sivan until Erev Tammuz (29 days), Tammuz until Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (16 days), Shiva Asar B’Tammuz until Erev Menachem Av (12 days), Menachem Av until Tisha B’Av (8 days), Tisha B’Av until Erev Ellul (20 days), and Ellul until Erev Tishrei (28 days).

Even more frequent Pishpush Ma’asim will obviously make the process that much more manageable:

Mishna Berura on 250:1, #3

…the books have written that a person should think about repentance and Yepashpeish B’Ma’asav every Erev Shabbat

Of course the ultimate and most effective time frame to be able to engage in serious and precise Teshuva is proposed by Magen Avraham and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 239:1

He should read upon his bed the first paragraph of Sh’ma and bless “HaMapil” and say “Yoshev BeSeter Elyon”…

Magen Avraham, #7

…therefore one Yepashpeish B’Ma’asav that he has done throughout the day

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 71:3

It is appropriate for every God-fearing individual that before he goes to sleep, Yepashpeish B’Ma’asav that he did throughout the day…


             Pishpush Ma’asim is a powerful prerequisite to Teshuva and if we are serious about self-improvement, we should assure that we engage in this type of meaningful and effective process.


[1] Devarim 30:2 is cited by some commentators as the Toraitic source for the Commandment to repent.

[2] The combination of a spiritual soul and a material body with which man is endowed is an uneasy one fraught with tension and inconsistency.

[3] Kohelet 7:20 captures such a sensibility when he writes, “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and sins not.

[4] A typical example of such a relationship between a negative and positive Commandment, is negative Commandment against thievery, which is so fundamental to all societies that it even is numbered among the seven Noachide Commandments (Sanhedrin 56a ff.), and the specifically Jewish positive obligation for the thief to return that which has been stolen to the victim, as stated in VaYikra 5:23.  See Chinuch #130.

[5] A specific positive Commandment that by definition entails a portion of the undoing of the transgression of a particular negative Commandment.

[6] The assumption that repentance should be a continual concern for the religious individual is clearly articulated in the following well-known Talmudic passage:

Shabbat 153a

R. Eliezer said: Repent one day before your death. His students inquired of R. Eliezer: And does a person know when he will die? He said to them: All the more so, one should repent today, lest one die tomorrow, and such an approach will result in him spending all of his days in repentance

[7] Encyclopedia Talmudit, Vol. 1, Col. 189-93, Jerusalem, 5733.

[8] Ibid. Col. 548-51.

[9] RaMBaM, Mishne Tora, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1.

[10] “Pishpeish”, the noun, connotes a bug. Consequently the verb “Pishpeish” suggests the scrutiny that would be applied to try to find and remove such bugs.

[11] Since Tzom Gedalya occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, this argument clearly relates to the other traditional Jewish fast days.

[12] This assumes a non-leap year; during a leap year, when there is an extra Adar, the period covered would be 92 days.)

[13] Although Ta’anit Bechorot is observed on Erev Pesach, the loophole of attending a Siyum has effectively removed it from consideration as a fast day that would engender thoughts of Teshuva.

[14] Although this time period is significantly shorter than the others, the ever-increasing Aveilut extent during the Three Weeks could all contribute to Pishpush Ma’asim.

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