Grappling with Unwitting Sin

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYikra

Vidui Doesn’t Mean Confess, Says R. Mecklenburg

The Torah tells us the Jew who brings a sacrifice to atone must ve-hitvadah, Vayikra 5;5, a word I think almost universally assumed to mean admit or articulate the sin, what we call vidui. This reading assumes the root le-hodot, such as to concede a claim (hodah lo). [His example; there’s also modim in the Amidah, modeh ani on waking.]

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah disagrees, because it leaves out the essential part of vidui, the commitment to refrain from the sin in the future. He points us to Rambam’s formula for vidui in Hilchot Teshuvah 1;1. It begins with a listing of sins, true, then proceeds to declare the sinner’s regret and embarrassment over his/her failures, with a closing declaration s/he will not return to that sin. After that last phrase, Rambam writes ve-zehu ikkaro shel vidui, this is the essence of vidui, seeming to mean the commitment.

[I have seen this Rambam more than once and, conditioned by readings I had heard, automatically thought vidui got its name from the idea of listing sins, this added part necessary but not really referenced by the word vidui. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah is making two strong points, Rambam speaks of it being the essential vidui right after words which do not confess or articulate the sin.

I suppose those who read it the usual way would say the commitment not to recidivate — a word I just learned, the verb form of recidivism—is a marker of how well one has confronted one’s sin. R. Mecklenburg has another idea.]

For one more problem, both R. Akiva (Yoma 86) and Rav Kahana (an amora, from the Talmud, Berachot 34b) oppose specifying one’s sins during vidui. For R. Kahana, it is chutzpah, impudent excessive comfort with one’s failings. Sin should be embarrassing, not easily said. (Too far afield to discuss here, he brings up the idea, apparently common in his time, that it is certainly acceptable to confess one’s sins in a whisper inaudible to others; he points us to Beit Yosef Orach Chayyim 487 to say the claim is not as clear as many think, a reminder not to confine this Torah scholar to “just” the realm of Bible commentary.)

What could vidui mean, then?

To Distance Oneself From Sin

Grammatically, too, ve-hitvadah does not work as listing/confession of sin, he says, because it is reflexive, seems to mean the sinner will do something to him/herself. For confession/articulation, the Torah should have said ve-hodah. R. Mecklenburg therefore turns to another set of verses, such as va-yadu even bi, Eichah 3;53, they cast a stone at me. In addition, a yad can mean a place far from human habitation, such as the yad the Torah obligates Jews to have outside the camp, to relieve themselves and cover their eliminations, Devarim 23;13.

Were we to take vidui in the sense of yad and yadu (it’s a bit of sleight of hand, I think, because ve-hitvadah converts the yod of yad to a vav, but he’s the grammarian, not me), it could mean to distance oneself, to abandon, the sin. It is in reflexive form because sin becomes second nature, extremely difficult to overcome, so we must take part of ourselves and throw it far away. We are me-yadeh, as it were, our sinful side.

When we say vidui, the last stage of our repentance for sin, does the word mean confess or articulate, as we generally think? Not according to HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, who wants us to realize it is about changing ourselves, ridding ourselves of the part that has become infected by sin.

You Should Do It On Purpose, Yet?

My father, a”h, would occasionally respond to my excuse for some misdeed, “I didn’t do it on purpose!,” with the title for this section. R. Hirsch’s comment to 4;2 detects a similar sensibility in the Torah. In the course of a comment too rich to fully present here, he reminds us a Jew only brings a chatat if the sin happened bishgagah throughout, from start to finish the sinner did not realize his/her action was a sin [generally, either because s/he did not realize the circumstances—did not know it was already Shabbat—or did not know the halachah, the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat].

  1. Hirsch expresses it educatively differently. He says the light and strength of the Divine Will did not enlighten or guide this soul’s desires. The sinnerbishgagahhas had a darkening of his/her will, sinned not because of the error, but from within a state of error, the start and finish including this error.

His continuation expands and clarifies. Should a Jew find out s/he is in the process of sinning, before the sin finishes but beyond his/her capability to stop, there will be no chatat. For his example, the violation of hotza’ah on Shabbat involves moving something from an enclosed area (a reshut hayachid) to a public one (reshut harabim). If a Jew throws a rock not thinking it Shabbat, and remembers before it lands, there will be no chatat, even though nothing changed in the Jew’s action, only his/her awareness.

(As an interesting aside, he says the sin will be outside the realm addressed by sacrifices, an important reminder that sacrifices do not magically atone, they perform specific functions assigned by Hashem, for specific kinds of sin).

The Mental Flaw in Being Unwitting

It brings R. Hirsch back to an idea he tells us he shared in Bereshit 8;1, shegagah always involves kalut da’at. (I think we often treat kalut da’at as a claim about mental capacity, where R. Hirsch clearly means a lack of appropriate care.) The Jew is obligated to take care to have his/her actions conform to halachah, an obligation this Jew failed to heed.

At the moment of the sin, says R. Hirsch, the sinner was not chared, trembling, about the Word of God. Shegagah in his view is a sin of lack of precautions, a sort of willful sin, as a verse later in Vayikra, 16;16, says, le-pish’eihem le-chol hatatam, the pesha in every ordinary sin.

[For a time, NYC had ads on its buses about the different percentages of injury/death if people drive thirty miles per hour or forty. I think the statistics show that if we all drove twenty-five miles per hour, there would be almost none. I am not someone who drives this slowly, or aims to; R. Hirsch is pointing out that error often doesn’t happen by itself, it happens because the person did not pay enough attention.

The open question is what is enough to absolve us. R. Hirsch is saying that wherever a lack of knowledge allowed serious sin (death penalty or karet level, if deliberate), we were not careful enough, engendering a chatat need.

The Kohen Gadol Takes What He Wants

Malbim points to three times the Torah says the remainder of a minchah, a flour offering, goes to Aharon and his sons, 2;3 and 2;10 in our parsha, 6;9 in next week’s parsha. Each time adds to our understanding of the privilege of the High Priest.

The first “Aharon and his sons” (as opposed to the more common “the sons of Aharon”) tells us Aharon takes first; the second tells us need not restrict himself to the portion size that would make for an even split; and the third extends this privilege to all High Priests, beyond Aharon.

Malbim does not delve into reasons, so I will not, either, leaving it at the bare fact the High Priest has the right to take as much of menachot as he wishes, because of the Torah’s thrice speaking of “Aharon and his sons.”

The Return of R. Hoffmann

For our first experience of R. David Tzvi Hoffmann in a few weeks, he wonders why only cattle and sheep were acceptable for animal sacrifice. Rambam in Moreh III;46 says these were the species idolaters used, so Hashem took them to help Jews uproot the worship of other powers [Rambam isn’t our topic here, but there is much to say about his theory of sacrifice].

His reason doesn’t explain the Torah’s use of birds, turtledoves and pigeons. Rambam said they were easily accessible, an idea accepted by Ralbag and others. R. Hoffmann agrees with Bir (I don’t know who that is) the Torah would not certify a species for sacrifice simply out of convenience. Besides, there are many more plentiful plants than the ones we use for sacrifice. R. Hoffmann further partially accepts Bir’s suggestion, the Torah reflected what Jews had, made those the animals, birds, plants/grains for sacrifice.

It fails to explain why the Torah chose a particular species for a particular occasion. In addition, he has already pointed out (he says on page 65, because what I try to treat as a commentary is really more of a series of essays; while many line up with the verses, he takes the more modern step of speaking of pages) that only flour offerings represent a Jew’s wealth. Animal offerings symbolize the offerer him/herself.

To explain the choices, R. Hoffmann turns our attention to Abarbanel’s introduction to VaYikra, these animals were ones the prophets frequently used as a metaphor for the Jewish people. R. Hirsch added correctly (says R. Hoffmann) that each animal is meant to represent a specific human characteristic, relevant to the sacrifice at hand.

He promises to detail this with each verse and its sacrifice, a project beyond our scope here. He has lain the groundwork, however, for a view of sacrifices: flour offerings to reflect one’s wealth, and hopes/prayers about wealth, bird offerings in place of animal offerings for the poor, and animals that symbolize particular character traits, to be addressed by those sacrifices.

We take on our sins, even the sin of being unwitting, with sacrifices the book of VaYikra is beginning to lay out for us, some an issue of our wealth-and for those, the Kohen Gadol takes as much as he wants–the animal ones an issue of what parts of our character we need to improve.

About Gidon Rothstein

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