Yom Kippur: Degrees of Sin ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Throughout the Yom Kippur services we repeatedly confess our sins and beg for forgiveness. In doing so, we mimic the confessionals of the Kohen Gadol in the Holy Temple. The Mishnah (Yoma 4:2) relates that when the Kohen Gadolwould confess his sins and the sins of his household, he would specifically admit to three types of sins: chetavon, and pesha. These three words are not synonymous, but rather refer to different degrees of sin. The Talmud (Yoma36b) explains that chet refers to an inadvertent sin (the state of mind known as shogeg), avon refers to wanton/intentional sins (meizid), and pesha refers to sins of rebellion. Nevertheless, there are other ways of explaining the differences between these three types of sins.

When King David was nearing the end of his life, his oldest surviving son, Adonijah, began to proclaim himself as king. Batsheba, the mother of Solomon, came before her husband, King David, and demanded that he fulfill his promise that Solomon would succeed him. She said to him that if Adonijah succeeds in securing the throne, “…then I and my son Solomon will be chataim” (I Kings 1:21). What does the word chataim meanin this context? Rashi explains that chet means “lacking”, and in this case it means that Batsheba and Solomon would be lacking the royal titles due to them. Probably based on Rashi’s comment, the Vilna Gaon (in his commentary to Prov. 1:10; 13:6) writes that chet means a sin through a lacking. In other words, he writes, a chet refers to thefailure to perform a positive commandment.

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793) also understands that chet refers to the lack of fulfilling a positive commandment, but synthesizes this with the Talmud’s contention that chet refers to an inadvertent sin by explaining that it refers specifically to the failure to fulfill the commandment of repenting after one has committed an inadvertent sin.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) defends the classic rabbinic definition of chet as an inadvertent sin, but still draws an important lesson from Rashi associating chet with a “lack”. He explains that a chet is not simply the lack of something, but represents the failure to achieve a goal. A sin is therefore called a chet because the sinner deviates from the goal of mankind, and misses his intended objective. His lack of achievement in that area is called a chet.

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that chetdenotes the sinner’s lack of intentions/mindfulness when committing his sin. By contrast, an avon denotes the sin of one who “thinks too much”. He wrongly concludes that sinning is the proper way to go, and acts accordingly. A pesha refers to the sin of somebody who knows that his forbidden actions are completely wrong and should not be done, but carries them out anyways in order to rebel against G-d.

Malbim takes a slightly different approach. He understands that all three wordscouldrefer to an offense committed purposely, but reflect varying motives. A chet refers to a sin committed because a person was swayed by his physical temptations, and purposely indulged in what he knew to be wrong. An avon refers to a sin that a person commits because his intellect had been negatively persuaded, causing him to stray. Finally, a pesha refers to the iniquities of one who shamelessly sins as a way of rebelling against G-d.

Peirush HaRokeach also slightly disagrees with the Talmud’s way of differentiating between chetavon, and pesha. He explains that chet refers to an inadvertent sin, pesha refers to a willful sin, and avon refers specifically to a sin from which one derived physical pleasure or gained some other benefit.

The truth is, it’s not so simple. Rabbi Netanel Weil (1687-1769) writes that the differences between the terms chet and avon are only apparent when those terms are juxtaposed to each other. In such contexts, chet means whatever chet means, and avon means whatever avon means. However, when the terms appear on their own, without the other, then each of these terms includes all types of sins, not just the specific type of sin that it otherwise means.

Moreover, classifying sins is not so black-and-white. In his Laws of Teshuvah(Repentance), Maimonides codifies the requirement for a penitent to confess his sins by saying, “Chatati (I committed a chet), Aviti (I committed an avon), Pashati (I committed a pesha)” — the same formula that the Kohen Gadol said in the Temple.

Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874), in his seminal work Minchat Chinuch, writes that one need not necessarily make all three declarations. Rather, one should confess whatever sins are relevant in each situation. However, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach (1899-2001) disagrees with this position, and maintains that Maimonides’ wording implies that in all situations a person should always recite all three declarations. He argues that not only is this because the formula instituted for the confessional includes all three types of sins, but also for another reason: Even though these three words represent three different degrees of sin, Rabbi Shach argues that no sin is so clear-cut that it fully fits into one of these three categories. Rather, every sin has different elements of chetavon, and pesha. For example, someone may have sinned inadvertently, but that sin also contains elements of wantonness and rebelliousness. Or, conversely, somebody may have sinned rebelliously, but his sin may also have some traces of inadvertency and/or pure wantonness.

A fourth term for a “sin” appears in rabbinic sources, but not in the Bible: aveiraAveira literally means “transgression” or “violation”, and although it once specifically referred to crimes of indecency, it now colloquially serves as a general term for all types of wrongdoings. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that aveira comes from the root AYIN-BET-REISH, which means “passes” in a physical sense. He explains that the concept of an aveira is that somebody morally “passes over” his thoughts in order to not focus on the nefariousness of his deeds. We might also suggest that he who commits an aveira has crossed a rabbinic red line, and, indeed, the Talmud (Shabbat 40a) maintains that even a person who violates a rabbinic prohibition can be called an avaryan.

Terumah/Yom Kippur: To Cover up or to Clean Up, That is the Question ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Terumah/Yom Kippur

Exodus 25:17 – And you shall make a cover of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. Rashi – an ark cover Heb. כַפֹּרֶת a cover over the ark, which was open from above. He [Moses] placed it [the cover] over it [the ark] like a board.

Rashi brings no proof-text for support that the word כפורת  linguistically means cover, but Ibn Ezra compares this to the word כפרה  –atonement– which he asserts to mean covering the sin, based on Psalm 32:1 – Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

The reason Rashi did not cite כפרה as a proof that כפורת means cover is plain – Rashi holds that atonement means obliteration of the sin, not covering it, as we see on his comment regarding the phrase אכפרה פניו  uttered by Jacob prior to encountering Esau:

Genesis 32:21 – I will appease his anger with the gift that is going before me, and afterwards I will see his face, perhaps he will favor me. Rashi – Heb. אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו, I will do away with his anger (Onkelos). Similarly (Isa. 28:18): “And your treaty with death shall be nullified (וְכֻפַּר)”; (ibid., 47:11) “you shall not be able to rid yourself of it (כַּפְּרָה).” This is Aramaic, and there are many instances of it in the Talmud, e.g. (B.M. 24a): “and he wiped (וְכָפַר) his hands”; (Gittin 56a): “He wishes to wipe (לִכְפוּרֵי) His hands on this person.” In biblical Hebrew also, the sacred sprinkling basins are called כְּפוֹרֵי זָהָב (Ezra 1:10) because the priest wipes his hands on them at the edge of the sprinkling basin.

In explaining the word אכפרה, Rashi uses no less than three separate words: ביטול, העברה and קינוח – all denoting erasing and wiping out, leaving no room for doubt about his disagreement with those who render כפרה as covering. At the same time though, Rashi is careful to qualify this interpretation as applying only to כפרה related to sins and anger – apparently to exclude the כפורת, which means cover, despite the fact the words share an identical root.

In seeking to determine the core meaning of a root, one is well-advised to examine the first occurrence of the word in the Tanach. In this case, the root כפר first occurs in the story of the building of Noah’s ark: Genesis 6:14 – and you shall caulk it both inside and outside with pitch.

Here again we turn to Ibn Ezra, who comments that the term for caulking, וכפרת, means covering, which in turn relates back to the כפורת, the cover of the ark. Rashi however is mum on this point.

Another כפר derivative is the word כפירה – heresy, albeit a non-Biblical term, but one used extensively in the Talmud. In seeking to determine the core meaning of this Rabbinic term, however, we are assisted with a solid hint found in the Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer. Many examples are cited in this Midrash to emphasize G-d’s loathing of ingratitude of any sort, called כפיית טובה, one example of which is a כופר, a heretic, because his stance is actually כפירת טובה. Thus the term כפירה is equated with כפייה, which would logically mean that understanding the core meaning of כפייה would shed light on the term כפירה and כופר.

The meaning of כפייה in the Tanach is clear; Proverbs 21:14 states: מַתָּן בַּסֵּתֶר יִכְפֶּה אָף – A gift in secret covers anger. Metzudat Tzion says this means covering, and it is used in that sense in the Talmud (e.g. Shabbat 88a). Thus the term כפירה would mean simply that the heretic seeks to hide or cover the truth.

This in turn helps us understand other כפר  derivatives, such as כפיר, a young lion, and כפר, a village. Both of these words are homiletically connected by the Sages (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 43 and Eiruvin 21b respectively) to the word כפירה (perhaps because both the lion and the self-sufficient villager feel independent and “cover their eyes” to the generosity bestowed upon them by G-d and parents that brought them to this point).

With ample proof-texts to back Ibn Ezra’s stance that the core meaning of כפרה is in fact covering, what would explain Rashi’s emphatic insistence that it means nothing short of obliteration? Furthermore, instead of comparing כפרה to the obvious derivatives of כפר  Ibn Ezra cites, Rashi references Talmudic expressions as support, and only lastly cites the Biblical כפורי זהב, the obscure sprinkling vessels first mentioned only in the book of Ezra.

Another difficult Rashi may ironically help to unravel Rashi’s puzzling position about the root כפר and the word כפרה. Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses prefaces his entreaties to G-d with the following expression addressed to the Israelites:

Exodus 32:30 – And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I will obtain atonement for your sin. Rashi – I will obtain atonement for your sin Heb. אֲכַפְּרָה בְּעַד חַטַּאתְכֶם. [This means] I will place a כופר, a wiping away, and an obstruction opposite your sin to separate you from your sin.

“Wiping away” is one thing, an “obstruction” is quite another! Moses is here discussing his hope to attain atonement for the most infamous sin of all time, and he is aiming to obtain only an “obstruction”? And what of the word כופר  here – does it in fact mean wiping away or is Rashi here acknowledging that Ibn Ezra was correct all along and that כפרה indeed means aught but covering the sin?

I believe Rashi is forced in this case to confront כפר’s meaning of covering and obstruction due to Moses’ use of the word בעד, which he explains elsewhere (vis. I Sam. 1:6, Gen. 20:18, Job 2:4) to mean כנגד, in front of, in the face of. That is, because of the gravity of the sin, Moses cannot be certain that he will succeed in obtaining absolute erasure of the memory of this calamitous iniquity, and there may be no choice but to live with an “obstruction,” a barrier or a temporary covering of the sin, which may well necessitate further atonements in the future, even into future generations.

When Rashi says “I will place a כופר”, this can refer only to a noun, namely to the caulking pitch used by Noah, referring figuratively to the obstruction or covering of the great sin in question. But Rashi stresses that this is not Moses’ “atonement of choice” –surely total erasure is the ultimate goal– but because the choice is only in G-d’s hands, Moses used
the term כפר precisely, to convey both meanings.

But if the root כפר bears both meanings, why does Rashi insist in other places that כפרה means nothing but obliterating? For the same reason that Moses (according to Rashi’s interpretation), first says that he will pray for “wiping out.” The potential penitent will never approach the subject of repentance thinking that his sins will merely be covered; he wishes only for a completely clean slate. G-d surely wishes to encourage repentance, a theme oft-repeated in the Torah. There may be sins that require a greater degree of effort and time to nullify as detailed in Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva, and that is reflected by the “cover” meaning of כפר. That said, the “clean slate” begins immediately, like the כפורת  of pure gold that covered the ark, which itself was constructed in part of שיטים wood to atone for the sin that occurred at the place bearing that name (תנחומא תרומה י). Past sins may not be erased immediately, but they can ironically be utilized as the very foundation for a golden, glorious future (e.g. a penitent, clean Mob boss has the organizational, social and financial skills easily serve as a CEO of any legitimate firm).

May we all merit ultimate atonement of our sins through the service of the High priest before the ark and its כפורת.

For full Hebrew sources and previous posts, see https://www.facebook.com/groups/1669565696664822/.

שבת שלום

Shelach/Yom Kippur: Pardon Me? ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Shelach: Pardon Me?


Num. 14:19 – Please forgive (סלח) the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness.

Moses, the indefatigable shepherd, begs for mercy on behalf of his nation as is his wont, in this instance concerning the sin of the Spies. The Holy One, ever slow to anger, answers immediately in the affirmative:  Num. 14:20 – And the Lord said, “I have forgiven them in accordance with your word.”” Although as mentioned, the context here is the case of the Spies charged with reporting on the Land of Israel, our Sages comment that G-d’s benevolent utterance applies to the sin of the Golden Calf as well:  Ex. Rabba 29:7 – Yea, I will bear, and will deliver (Isa. 46:4)… “I will bear” – [the sin of the] Golden Calf. “And deliver,” as it says: And the Lord said, I have forgiven them in accordance with your word (Num. 14:20). 

One may ask however, if in fact every vestige of these egregious sins was thereby obliterated through this pronouncement of forgiveness or not? For we find numerous atonements for the Calf mentioned afterwards: 1. The acacia wood (שטים) atones for the foolishness (שטות) of the Calf (Tanch. Teruma 10). 2. The gold in the Tabernacle atones for the gold of the Calf (Ex. Rabba 51:8). 3. The calf brought for the Sin-Offering atones for the Calf (Sifra Shmini). 4. Ex. 32:34-  But on the day I make an accounting [of sins upon them], I will bring their sin to account against them; Rashi – Now I have listened to you not to destroy them all at once, but always, always, when I take an accounting of their sins, I will also account a little of this sin with the other sins. [This means that] no punishment befalls Israel in which there is not part of the punishment for the sin of the [golden] calf.Likewise, we find additional atonements associated with the sin of the Spies. 

With so many atonements required, one is led to wonder what precisely was the result of Hashem’s forgiveness for which Moses begged and entreated? 

We begin by noting that in addition to the root סלח (forgiveness) under discussion, another two roots bear similar general meanings: 1. כפר (atonement) 2. מחל (pardon). 

Regarding כפר, refer to our article on Parshat Teruma, wherein we dwelt at length on the numerous seemingly disparate meanings of the word. In short, Ibn Ezra explains כפרה to mean covering (although Rashi appears to disagree – see article for full analysis); according to which the sin is not “erased,” but is rather shielded from view.

The root מחל actually never appears in Scripture in the sense of forgiveness and atonement at all. However, its derivative מחילה is a very common word in the Talmudic vernacular. But our Sages have left hints as to the origin of this word, in the Midrashim. For example, Midrash Tan. (Shmini 6) states that although כפרה is provided in this world in conjunction with animal sacrifice, מחילה is granted after only death sans such sacrifice. However, the proof-text brought appears unconnected: I, yea I erase (מוחה) your transgressions for My sake (Is. 43:25). Note that the word מוחה quoted derives from the root מחה, whereas מחילה stems from the seemingly unrelated מחל! 

Two points may be gleaned from this anomaly immediately, however: 1. there is no Scriptural root מחל connected to pardon, as stated. 2. מחילה in Talmudic parlance  refers to the utter erasure, obliteration of sins (“absolution”; see also Midrash Tan. [ibid. 4]),  in contradistinction to כפרה which means covering, as above.

Despite the fact that מחה is found in the context of the pardoning of sin in the verse cited in Isaiah (and ibid. 44:22, Ps. 51:3, 11), the primary meaning (and the only meaning in the Pentateuch itself; vis. Gen. 6:7, Ex. 17:14, Deut. 9:14, 29:19) is clearly utter destruction. Since the word itself therefore bears ominous overtones, the Sages may have sought a similar term to refer exclusively to the erasure of sin. Additionally, the word מחילות in the sense of tunnels is used in Scripture (Is. 2:19) to describe a place of refuge. The combination of eradication of sin and refuge from G-d’s wrath is exactly what the potential penitent seeks, and this is precisely the mechanism of pardon conveyed by the word מחילה. 

We now return to the root סלח; given that the word certainly does not imply total absolution as we’ve seen, what then is the unique meaning of this word in the system of forgiveness?

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Num. 14:20) as per his wont, comments that סלח is phonetically related to שלח (dispatching) and צלח  (passing an obstacle / overcoming a challenge). סלח therefore means to proceed without delay. Hashem was in effect telling Moses that the nation must avoid getting stuck, must forge ahead spiritually, despite the momentous sins which had transpired. The nation was mired in the mud, was sinking fast in quicksand, and this was not the time to seek perfect absolution of sin. The road to obliteration of certain sins may be long and arduous, and may not even be completed in this lifetime. But the road to ultimate pardon begins with סליחה – “forge on”! 

The three roots סלח, כפר, מחל therefore would represent three different mechanisms, three stages of forgiveness and atonement. These stages could be compared to the stages of repentance described by Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance, beginning with acknowledging the sin and resolving never to repeat it, without which one is stuck, akin to the meaning of סלח described here. The next stage is כפרה, atonement which comes in stages, depending on the nature of the sin. Ultimate absolution –מחילה in Rabbinic parlance, as we have seen– for certain sins can be attained only in the World to Come.

May the Lord grant us strength to forge ahead from peak to pinnacle, to attain ever greater spiritual heights all the days of our lives.

1  [השוה גם: שמות רבה נא:ד; דברים רבה ה:יג, תנח’ וישלח י, תנח’ פקודי ב, תנח’ שלח (הוספה) יד].

2  [וכן]: שמלח:כא – אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן; אורהחיים – לא נמחק עון העגל מחק שאין רשומו ניכר,.. וביום פקדי.

3  ספרא פרשת שמיני מכילתא דמילואים.

4  חשוקיחמדבכורות(הערותבכורותל🙂 – בנפש כל חי (מערכת נ אות יד) כתב נראה שהנסכים שהיו מנסכין ביין על הקרבנות הוא לכפר על עון המרגלים… ולכן אחר מעשה מרגלים סמוך ונראה (במ’ טו:ה-י) נצטוו על פ’ נסכים, וכן נראה ממהר”ם רקאנטי (פרשת שלח) שכתב וסמך פ’ נסכים לפ’ מרגלים, לפי שחטאו בזמורה.

5  [כמצוי בתפילות יו”כ ובסליחות במשך השנה. ובתלמוד]: ב”ב קכא. – יום הכפורים יום סליחה ומחילה יום שנתנו בו לוחות אחרונות.

6 Rather it means a tunnel or shelter; see Is. 2:19 + Malbim.

7  [אמנם כתב הערוך (ערך ‘חיל’), שגזרת ‘מחל’ היא ‘חיל’ המציין העברה, כגון: דאחילו… מן שמיא (ברכות יא:). ונראה להציע ש”אחילו” נגזרת מן ‘חל’ – לשון התחלה חדשה (כמו: החלו להעלות עלות – עזרא ג:ו), ושרש ‘מחל’ הוא שרש כפול: ‘מח’-‘חל’ – ‘מח’ (לשון ‘מחה’ / ‘מחק’) ו’חל’ (התחלה)].

8  [ברם, מצאנו לשון “מחילה” (בהשאלה) בתלמוד בעניני בין אדם לחבירו, כגון]: אבותו:א – הוי צנוע וארך רוח ומוחל על עלבונו.תרומותו:א – האוכל תרומה שוגג משלם קרן וחומש… אם רצה הכהן למחול אינו מוחל. [וכך גם הביטוי ביידיש: “מוחל זיין”].

9   תנחשמיניד – קְחוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים לְחַטָּאת וְעֵגֶל (וי’ ט:ג) – שידעו הכל שנתכפר להם על מעשה העגל. אמר הקב”ה, בעולם הזה נתכפר להם ע”י קרבן, ולעה”ב אני מוחה עונותיהם שלא בקרבן.

10  בחילוף אותיות זסשר”ץ. [השוה את פרשר”ה לבר’ כד:כא, תה’ כה:יא].

11  [פרטי ההלכות משתנות לפי הנסיבות כגון סוג העבירה, יחיד ורבים, בזמן שיש קרבנות מול זה”ז וכו’. לכן יש ללמוד את כולן בהרחבה ברמב”ם הלכות תשובה].