Parashat Vayikra

The Pending Guilt Offering and the Global Climate

We must take responsibility for our actions even in absence of conclusive proof we have done something wrong.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

This week's Torah portion, Vayikra, describes the various voluntary and obligatory sacrifices that God commands the Jewish people to bring. Two types of offerings, the hatat (sin offering) and the asham (guilt offering), provide atonement for unintentional transgressions against the Torah. After both of these offerings are described, the Torah presents another, puzzling form of the guilt offering:

canfei nesharim"If a person sins and commits one of the commandments of the Lord which may not be committed, but he does not know, he is guilty, and he shall bear his transgression. He shall bring an unblemished ram from the flock, with the value for a guilt offering, to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for his unintentional sin which he committed and did not know, and he shall be forgiven. It is a guilt offering; he has incurred guilt before the Lord (Leviticus 5:17-19)."

These verses elicit many questions. We have already read that the sin and guilt offerings atone for unintentional misdeeds; how does this offering differ? What does it mean, that the person "does not know"? Why is this action uniquely described as incurring guilt "before God"?

Undetermined Guilt

The Talmud reads these verses as describing a very specific type of sacrifice, called asham talui--an "undetermined guilt" offering. As opposed to the other sin and guilt offerings, which are brought when a person's action has transgressed a commandment (even if that was only realized after the fact), the asham talui is brought when it cannot be conclusively determined whether the act was, in fact, a transgression at all.

Rashi gives the following example of such a case: [a piece of] prohibited animal fat and [a piece of] permissible animal fat were placed before someone, and, thinking that both were permissible [fats], the person ate one. Then, the person was told, "One of those pieces was prohibited fat!" Now, if the person knew that the piece consumed was the forbidden piece they would bring a regular sin offering. But since it is unknown which piece was eaten, the permitted or the forbidden, the asham talui offering is proscribed.

But why does one need to bring any offering at all? The 16th century Italian commentator Sforno suggests that maybe a person in this situation would worry that bringing a sacrifice would be wrong. Since maybe the permitted piece of meat was actually eaten and there is no sin, this sacrificial offering would be unnecessary and therefore invalid. It would be bringing unconsecrated meat into the Temple.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.