Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayikra 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayikra 5759/1999

Sinning Unwittingly (Bishgaga)

Joseph Agur,

of blessed memory,

Department of Talmud

Chapter 4 of Leviticus deals entirely with sin-offerings: those brought by a person who incurs guilt unwittingly (vv. 2, 27-35); by the high priest who has incurred guilt "so that blame falls upon the people" (vv. 3-12); in the name of the entire community when it incurs guilt unwittingly (13-21); and by a leader (chieftain) who incurs guilt (22-26). All the sins referred to here involve guilt being incurred unwittingly and are sins regarding which the Torah commands the sinner to bring a sin offering.

The basic question that arises is why must a person who has sinned unwittingly (a shogeg) bring an offering? After all, it is not a case of a person who has done wrong willfully and deserves punishment; rather, of a person who innocently, whether out of forgetfulness or mistake, does something which he subsequently discovers was forbidden. Why does the Torah punish such a person? What logic is there in requiring a person who has sinned unwittingly to bring an offering? Many Rabbis have discussed this question. Some of their views on the matter are presented below.

In 4:2 we read: "When a person [lit. soul] unwittingly incurs guilt..." Nahmanides comments on this verse as follows:

Since thought takes place in the soul and it is the soul that sins unwittingly, Scripture says here "soul." The reason offerings are imposed on the soul that sins unwittingly is that all these sins bring disgrace to the soul and cause an imperfection in it, so that the soul will not be worthy of meeting its Maker unless it is made pure of all sin. But for this the dull-witted of the world would not be worthy of coming before Him; therefore, the soul that sins unwittingly must bring an offering, so that it be worthy of closeness to the Lord who gave it. That is why the word "soul" is used here.

Nahmanides perceives all of human actions as stemming from the faculty of thought, which resides in the soul. Even if a person does not intend to sin, and his sin was committed unwittingly and unintentionally, nevertheless the sinful action stems from the person's thought (what we might call "the subconscious" in modern psychology). Moreover, even sins committed unwittingly are a blot on a person's soul. The offering serves to purify the sinner's soul and to prepare it for closeness to G-d when its time come, as it is written: "And the lifebreath returns to G-d who bestowed it" (Eccles. 12:7).[1]

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a different explanation:

A shogeg sins because of inadvertence or forgetfulness, i.e., because at the moment of sinning he is not attentive with body and soul to acting in accordance with the commandments and the Torah, because he is not, in the words of the prophet, "concerned (hared) about My word" (Is. 66:2). This lack of concern and rigorous attention to living according to the Torah and its commandments is the essence of the sin committed "unwittingly." Therein lies the "transgression" which comes in the wake of the "sin," as it is written, "of transgression, ... whatever their sins"[mipish'ehem lekhol hatatam] (Lev. 16:16).

In contrast to Nahmanides, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch does not relegate the unwittingly committed act to the subconscious; rather, he stresses the element of carelessness, the danger of being unthinking, of not paying sufficient attention to a person's every deed. Although the purpose of the sacrifice is to atone for a sin and make amends for an act done unconsciously, it serves another (and perhaps no less significant) purpose, namely to direct a person to take greater care in avoiding sin and to be meticulous in all one's deeds so as to avoid the danger of sinning. A similar approach is taken by Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman:

According to the tradition of our Rabbis, there are two sorts of shogeg: 1) Ignorance of the law or the contents of the law, ... i.e., not knowing that a certain deed is forbidden. 2) Ignorance of one's actions; i.e., a person knows of a certain proscription, but does not realize that a certain action constituted a violation of that law. Even a person who sins unwittingly must atone for not taking care and being properly scrupulous... Every person must sort out his path and direct his life so that he is constantly aspiring towards G-d's way.

Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman's remarks proceed from the same underlying assumption as Rabbi S. R. Hirsch: that unwitting sins are due primarily to lack of attentiveness on the part of the sinner: either failing to heed the law or failing to heed one's actions. Either way, unwitting sin is a sort of negligence, "not taking care and being properly scrupulous."[2]

After the general statement on sin offerings (verse 2), the Torah proceeds to discuss sins committed by the "anointed priest." The language of Scriptures here is unusual: "If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people." Was does it mean to "incur guilt, so that blame falls upon the people"? Ibn Ezra suggests two ways of interpreting these words, "le-ashmat ha'am": According to one interpretation (found also in other commentators such as Rashbam and Hizkuni), the sin of the high priest lay in giving incorrect instruction which caused the people to sin unwittingly--based on the verse, "They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel" (Deut. 33:10). In other words, the high priest himself personally sinned, albeit by mistake, by giving the people wrong instructions which they followed. This interpretation essentially lays greater responsibility on the high priest: if he is not extremely cautious, he might lead the entire people astray.

According to the second interpretation suggested by Ibn Ezra, the sin was that of the high priest himself, who due to his elevated status is punished more severely than a simple person who sins unwittingly. In a similar vein, Rashi, and likewise Sforno, refer to the homily in Leviticus Rabbah, "When the high priest sins, the people are to blame." Sforno goes even further, citing the mishnah, "When a person makes a mistake in his prayers, it is a bad omen for him; and if he be the Reader for a congregation, it is a bad omen for those who appointed him" (Berakhot 5.5). Sforno explains further,

Therefore with regard to the high priest it does not say "and he realizes his guilt" as it does with regard to all the others who have sinned;[3] since indeed by saying "he realizes his guilt" that indicates a warning to repent, but this does not fall on the high priest, since the sin was not of his witting at all, but happened to him by the fault of the people.

What Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and Sforno are saying is that the High Priest sinned because of the people; this explanation places enormous responsibility on the public: if the public does not act properly, the high priest is the one who bears the blame. On the other hand, responsibility is also placed on the high priest: it is his duty to lead the people, to know to warn them so that they not sin. A clear reciprocal message is conveyed here: there is not and cannot be a severance between the people and their spiritual leaders. Each are integrally bound with the other, one side obliged to give guidance and direction, the other obliged to have the sense to avoid evil. This interpretation explains why the Rabbis understood verse 13, "If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred," as referring to the Sanhedrin, the body which instructs the people in the Halakhah.

Much has been written on verse 22, "In case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt," (asher Nasi yeheta) so we shall not elaborate here. Suffice it to cite Tractate Horayot 10b on these words: "Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai said, 'Fortunate (Ashrei-- a play on words) is the generation whose leader brings an offering for sinning unwittingly. If their leader himself brings an offering, imagine what the common person must do!'" Rashi explains, "In other words, if the king, who does not feel subordinate, feels he must bring an offering for sinning unwittingly, all the more so the common pewfeel subordinate."

Indeed, in his commentary on this verse Sforno stresses that, "indeed it occurs that the leader sins." Even a president, king, or sovereign--though he feel lofty and above all else--does sin. Since we are dealing with unwitting sins, this brings us back to what we said at the outset: he may sin either through lack of awareness or lack of caution. The ruler has a duty to be doubly careful lest he sin unwittingly, in which case, in the words of Sforno, "he himself must recognize his transgression."


[1] From this it follows, according to Nahmanides, that the souls of the wicked (whom he calls the "dull-witted of the world") do not return to G-d and meet the divine countenance.

[2] Interestingly, even in the Jewish law of torts (nezikin), negligence (according to its definition in modern law) is termed a "criminal offense." Cf. S. Albeck, Pesher Dinai ha-Nezikin ba-Talmud, p. 195.

[3] Cf. Lev. 4:13, 22, 27.