Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 19 March 2016 / 9 Adar II 5776

Parshat Vayikra

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The Purpose of the Sin and Guilt Offerings

“If the anointed kohen will sin, bringing guilt upon the people...he shall offer a young bull...the anointed kohen shall take from the blood of the bull...he shall sprinkle some of the blood...toward the curtain of the Holy...but the hide of the bull and all its flesh...he shall remove to the outside of the camp...and he shall burn it on wood in fire…” (Leviticus 4:3-12)

“If the entire assembly of Israel shall err...the congregation shall offer a young bull as a sin-offering...he shall sprinkle seven times...toward the curtain...he shall remove the bull to the outside of the camp and burn it…” (Leviticus 4:13-21)

“When a ruler sins...unintentionally...he shall bring...a male goat.” (Leviticus 4:22)

“If an individual person from among the people of the land shall sin unintentionally...he shall bring as his offering a she-goat...but if his means are insufficient...two turtledoves or two young doves to G-d, one for a sin-offering and one for an elevation-offering.” (Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:7)

“...he shall bring his guilt-offering to G-d, an unblemished ram from the flock, with a value of silver shekels, according to the sacred shekel, for a guilt-offering.” (Leviticus 5:14)

The sin and guilt offerings are brought when an individual transgresses a negative commandment. The sin offering is brought when the transgression was accidental, whereas the guilt offering is brought when the individual is uncertain whether or not he actually transgressed a Torah prohibition in the first place.

There are numerous differences between the procedures followed for the elevation offering and the procedures for the sin offering. These differences can be explained by a deeper understanding of the purpose of the sin offering. Even though the individual who sins unintentionally is obviously not rebelling against G-d or denying the Torah, G-d still imposes a fine in the form of the sin offering to make people more vigilant in their observance, in order to avoid even accidental transgressions. The verse in Proverbs 12:21 states: “No mischief will befall the righteous.”

These transgressions include a wide range of accidental behaviors, such as various types of ritual impurity, eating forbidden foods, sexual transgressions, and more. When an individual occupies an important position in society, the vigilance required to avoid even accidental transgression becomes even more acute, so as not to lead others astray. This is illustrated by the fact that the Torah deals first with an accidental transgression committed by the Kohen Gadol, as his behavior will make the most profound impression on the people.

Because of the severe nature of his transgression, only a small portion of his animal offering is burned on the altar; the majority is burned outside the camp. The animal’s inner organs are burned on the altar, the place of highest sanctity, to show that his offense was unintentional. However, due to the gravity of his lack of vigilance, the rest of the body of the animal is burned outside the camp, a place lacking in holiness, as if it were nothing more than a carcass. Thus it represents the body of the Kohen Gadol that had transgressed. The Kohen Gadol also had to sprinkle some of the animal’s blood in the inner sanctuary to serve as an atonement. Such an act was not required for the elevation offering since it was not an act of atonement; rather the elevation offering represented our total connection with G-d.

The same procedures applied if the entire congregation or if the Sanhedrin transgressed accidentally. In each case, the damage resulting from that accidental transgression could be widespread, and the required atonement was therefore symbolized by sprinkling the blood and burning the majority of the animal outside the camp.

However, the sin offering of the Nasi, a leader of lower status than the Kohen Gadol or members of the Sanhedrin, was basically the same as that of a common citizen. He brings a goat instead of a bull, and the blood is not sprinkled in the inner sanctuary since his transgression does not have the same serious repercussions as the others’. Furthermore, if an ordinary citizen cannot afford a goat, he can bring two turtle doves or two young pigeons instead. Curiously, the Torah says that one is for the sin offering and the other is for an elevation offering. The sin offering refers to the act itself, which was a transgression. The elevation offering refers to the fact that the individual’s motives, however, were faultless. Since the repercussions of an accidental transgression by the Kohen Gadol, Sanhedrin member or Nasi were potentially so much greater, the positive implication of the elevation offering was entirely absent from their offering.

The guilt offering differed slightly from the sin offering, as for the common citizen it consisted of a ram, not a goat. It is necessary to understand the difference between the two types of transgression. The word for sin is chata which means, literally, “to miss the mark”, meaning to stray from what is proper by accidentally violating a Torah commandment. The offender in this case is fully aware that he violated a command; albeit through an accident. The guilt offering, however, is brought by an individual who wasn’t even sure that he violated anything at all. Thus, he wants to atone for is lack of knowledge, for his failure to know what was permissible and what was not. The guilt offering is referred to as taloy, or “suspended”, since it is not known whether there was any violation at all. Even though there is a strong element of doubt in this situation, he is still required to bring a ram, which is a very expensive animal, to prevent people from misleading themselves into thinking that they were basically innocent of doing anything wrong. Not only that, but the animal had to be evaluated in silver shekelim worth at least two selas, a not insignificant sum.

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