by Rabbi Ariel bar Tzadok of KosherTorah.Com
(Reprinted with permission. About the best explanation of Shovavim that I've seen.)
Shovavim is the Hebrew term for mischief-makers. Fittingly, the word is also an acronym for the six weekly Torah portions Shemot, Vaera, Bo, Beshelah, Yitro and Mishpatim. The reading of these portions fall within the two Hebrew months of Tevet and Shevat. These two months exert a difficult astrological influence, a sort-of spiritual "Murphy's Law;" if anything can go wrong, now is the time for it. Therefore, this period is considered auspicious for fasting and the rectification of the sins of character weakness (most notably sexual sins).
There are many different types of traditions associated with these weeks, yet they are all for similar purpose, this being teshuva and tikkun. The general sin, which almost everyone is guilty of, is one form or another of sexual impropriety. This can mean forbidden relations or behaviors on one's own part, or even the mere thoughts that we allow ourselves to think.
Our Sages and especially the Masters of the Kabbalah emphasize that sexual blemishes are the greatest stains upon the soul and serve to create great distance between our Creator and ourselves. Yet, it is never enough just to proclaim our remorse or desire to repent. A change of attitude must accompany our statements of remorse. Repentance must be taken to heart and acted upon with true sincerity, not just filed away as a mere academic performance.
Honest change in one's internal character only comes about when one first changes one's external behavior. Change seldom arises independently from within; we must often help it along. We are admonished by Rabbi Meir in Pirkei Avot to do the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, for in the end doing the right thing, even for the wrong reasons will transform us internally to do the right thing for the right reasons. The actions change the attitude, not the other way around.
As important as it is for one to change one's behavior, changing attitudes is most important. Even when we are doing the right things, we must still look deep within ourselves to address our improper attitudes and desires.
Comprehensively changing what one does can only come about through a cultivation and expression of inner strength, discipline and moral character. Remorse and apologies mean nothing so long as one continues to repeat offensive behavior. Shovavim is a time for us to not only change undesirable behavior but also to reflect within one's heart upon the reasons why one has chosen wanton ways and what one can do to better oneself to no longer weakly choose to embrace foolish choices.
Teshuva means to turn away from one's wanton behavior and to choose what is good. Tikkun takes this one step further. Tikkun means to repair. It is not enough that one no longer create further damage, one must also make repair of the damage that one has already caused. This is the meaning of taking responsibility for one's actions. Only when one does what need be done to make repairs for what one has broken can it be said that one indeed has turned from their former ways and has made teshuva.
Rectification of sexual blemishes must be accomplished in two different ways. First, one must repair the spiritual damage caused by one's deeds. This is done by reciting certain prayers, meditations and by fasting. The second, yet primary method of rectification is that one must address one's personal weaknesses and character flaws that led one to stumble into the forbidden behavior in the first place. Unless one learns strength of character and addresses the heart of the problem within oneself, no amount of spiritual work will make tikkun.
To state it simply, unless one can first rectify the source of blemish within one's character, the results of those blemishes in both the physical and spiritual world cannot be rectified and wiped clean. Let no one misunderstand this, for our entire Torah is based upon this principle.
Tevet and Shevat exert a negative astrological influence, but this force of negativity (dinim) can only become manifest if and when one's reckless behavior creates a doorway for it to materialize. If we act in ways that violate Holy Torah, we create the opportunity for negative things to manifest, in the worst of ways, in this most negative of times. Therefore, if something bad happens now, it is not because Heaven ordained it so, but rather because we were not careful enough to have avoided its coming.
In conclusion, how one chooses to observe the days of Shovavim is entirely up to the individual. There are absolutely no Halakhic requirements herein, other than the perennial mitzvah of teshuva. Yet, although one is not necessarily obligated to observe the traditions of this time, it is still a wise, meritorious and spiritually helpful thing to do. One should consult with one's local Rav for specific information and details what you as an individual can do and what your community as a whole can do.
BS"D - בסיעתא דשמיא