Parashat Vayikra / Removing the Shadow of a Doubt

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

This week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26) lists the subcategories of two varieties of sacrifices offered in the Portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem: asham (guilt-offering) and hattat (sin-offering). The list includes one unusual type, referred to in rabbinical literature as asham talui (potential-error offering), and the Torah describes the conditions when this offering is made: “And if any one sin, and do any of the things which the Lord hath commanded not to be done, though he know it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. And he shall bring a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to thy valuation, for a guilt-offering, unto the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him concerning the error which he committed, though he knew it not, and he shall be forgiven. It is a guilt-offering – he is certainly guilty before the Lord” (Leviticus 5:17-19).

If someone knows he has sinned, he must bring a sin-offering or asham vadai (a definite guilt offering). But what if one is unsure whether he has sinned: How will he know whether to bring a potential-error offering?

Maimonides responds thus: “In the case of a sin whose accidental commission requires a sin-offering, a person who is unsure whether he committed that sin must present a potential error offering. If he is uncertain about whether he unintentionally committed that sin, he must present a guilt-offering, as it is written, ‘though he know it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. And he shall bring a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to thy valuation, for a guilt-offering’ (Lev. 5:17-18). This offering is called a potential-error offering because it atones for a sin whose commission is in doubt; it remains a potential offering until the person is sure he committed that sin unintentionally, whereupon he must present a [second]sin-offering” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shegagot, Chapter 8, Halakha 1).

According to the Torah, everyone sins. Some sins we know about, others we are unaware of. While guilt-offerings and sin-offerings atone for sins the person is sure he has committed, the potential-error offering atones for sins he is unsure he has committed. The working assumption is that a sin creates an ontological reality: “yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.”

Maimonides is not concerned with a sin’s ontological status but instead interprets the potential-error offering as a solution to a situation whereby a person is unsure about committing a sign. A person may do something and then discover that the act was forbidden. For example, “A person eats a piece [of meat]. One witness tells him, ‘What you ate was heilev [type of animal fat Jews are forbidden to eat],’ while a second tells him, ‘You didn’t eat heilev’ … In this case, the person who ate that meat does not know whether he sinned; he must therefore present a potential-error offering” (Halakha 4).

Or, this example: “A person has sexual relations with another man’s wife. One witness states that the husband is dead [in which case the woman is a widow and no adultery was committed]. Another witness says the husband is not dead [in which case the woman is married and adultery was committed]. In such a situation, the person who had sexual relations with her must present a potential-error offering” (Halakha 5).

The doubt in that person’s mind is provoked by external circumstances: One witness says he sinned, another says he did not. In such circumstances, the person must present a potential-error offering that will “atone for the doubt.”

Maimonides is not presenting his own independent view here, but rather concurring with one of the sides in a dispute depicted in the Mishna: one that’s between, on the one hand, the Hakhamim (literally, “wise men”), a group apparently affiliated with the rabbinical School of Hillel, and, on the other, Rabbi Eliezer and Bava, son of Butei, who apparently are affiliated the School of Shamai.

“Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘A person is free to present a potential-error offering whenever he wants, and such an offering is called asham hasidim [lit., a guilt offering of the righteous].’ Bava, son of Butei, voluntarily presents a potential-error offering every single day, except on the day after Yom Kippur.

“Bava says: ‘In the name of this holy place [the Temple in Jerusalem], I declare that, if I were permitted to do so, I would bring a potential-error offering even on the day following Yom Kippur.’ However, he is told: ‘You must withhold presentation of a potential-error offering on the day following Yom Kippur unless you have reason to doubt whether or not you committed a sin.’ The Hakhamim assert that one should present a potential-error offering only for a sin whose intentional commission is punished by karet [effectively, excommunication]and whose unintentional commission is atoned for through the presentation of a sin-offering” (Mishna, Tractate Keritot, 6:3).

Maimonides supports the argument of the wise men who argue that a potential-error offering is made only if the person’s doubt as to whether he committed a sin is grounded in reality. In Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the potential-error offering’s role is much more radical: He argues that it is a totally voluntary offering, intended to fulfill a basic psychological function. According to Rabbi Eliezer, an internal factor – a person’s intuition – and not an external one – the existence of two contradictory testimonies – creates doubt in a person’s mind as to whether he did or did not commit a sin, and necessitates a potential-error offering. This intuition is a person’s baseless fear that he has unconsciously committed a sin.

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and there are no witnesses, does it make any sound? Epistemologically, the answer is no; however, if one moves into the realm of psychology, which is the subject of debate from Rabbi Eliezer’s perspective, the fact that there is a forest without any witnesses influences the zone of consciousness and creates doubt. Thus, the answer must be yes: A tree that falls in a forest makes a sound; it creates a doubt and, even if it does not fall, it still creates that doubt. The very fact that there is a forest without any witnesses creates the doubt. The unconscious realm is a power center beyond human control. The provision of an answer to doubt in the form of a potential-error offering calls attention to the existence of the limits of human consciousness.

Like the Hakhamim, Maimonides sees the potential error offering’s narrow legalistic function as intended as a solution for concrete doubts. In contrast, Rabbi Eliezer and Bava ben Butei reveal an archaic aspect of this sacrifice that provides insight into the spiritual stance of the “Righteous” – those Tannaim who are members of the School of Shamai.

Bava ben Butei presents a potential error offering daily except on the day after Yom Kippur, when a person starts out with a new, clean slate and thus can have no cause for bringing a sacrifice. However, for Bava ben Butei, this is insufficient. In his view, there is a wide, unbridgeable chasm between reality and human consciousness. He seeks to compensate for his limited consciousness through a mechanistic solution: a daily potential-error offering that will atone in the event there’s any doubt, and thus, in effect, compensate for reality’s inherent epistemological rift.

However, unnamed persons prevent Bava ben Butei from following his inclinations. According to their view, once a year, on Yom Kippur, a person’s actions are recalibrated and there is thus no need for a sacrifice on the day following Yom Kippur. Their obstinacy has philosophical meaning: They argue that, despite reality’s inherent epistemological rift, an immanent solution for that rift exists in the annual cycle. On Yom Kippur, human consciousness merges with reality.

Despite Bava ben Butei’s protests, he is powerless to do anything. His opponents force him to adopt a slightly more moderate position, whereas the wise men turn the potential error offering into a praxis with a narrow, constitutional character that is far from Ben Butei’s radicalness. Maimonides ratifies their view as a part of halakha (religious law). Although rejected, Ben Buteis’s position attests to the intensive life experience of this ancient scholar – an experience that casts profound philosophical doubts as to the capacity of human consciousness to clearly view reality.

The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant, by Peter Paul Rubens (1626).