One of the most interesting aspects of my job is the random assortment of questions that I’m privileged to answer. It’s always enlightening to see what others come up with that might not have occurred to you or me. Two of the more interesting questions I’ve fielded recently include, “If God spoke to Moses face to face, then what was up with the burning bush?” and “Didn’t people other than Noah have boats?”
I don’t often use these Q&A as fodder for articles but a question I received last week raised an important point, especially as we enter Elul and the yomim noraim (“Days of Awe,” AKA the “High Holidays”). A correspondent asked, “If a man is unaware that a woman is married, like she deceives him to know him carnally, then would there still be a sin?”
I certainly hope that the writer’s concern is academic rather than autobiographical but either way, it’s a valid question. It also need not be limited to adultery.
In my response, I informed the correspondent that if one performs a sinful act unintentionally, it is still a sin, though the rules are different if one acts unaware than if he acts with malice aforethought.
Consider the various offenses that might warrant punishments if performed intentionally. Depending on the offense, one might be subject to lashes, capital punishment or kareis (spiritual excision). But the ubiquitous korban chatas, AKA the “sin offering?” That was by definition limited to when one performed a prohibited act unintentionally. Leviticus 4:27 says, “If one of the people sins by doing any of the things that God commanded not be done, and he is guilty….” He sinned unintentionally but, nevertheless, he is guilty because, regardless of circumstances, he actually did the thing.
If you think that’s something, consider the asham talui (“doubtful guilt offering”). Leviticus 5:17 tells us, “If anyone sins and does one of the things that God commanded not be done, though he doesn’t know it, he is guilty and will bear his sin….”
The prototypical case of an asham talui is that there are two pieces of fat, one of which is cheilev (forbidden fat) and one of which is shumen (permitted fat). A person ate one of them but he’s not sure which. This person is “guilty” even though he’s not even sure that he did the sinful thing!
The Sefer HaChinuch explains the rationale underlying this mitzvah: it’s to condition us to tread carefully in our deeds and to be aware of what we’re doing. Maybe, before we pop something into our mouths, we want to take a second and check it out. A little effort beforehand can save us a lot of trouble down the road.
So we see that these “sin” and “guilt” offerings were brought specifically in cases where people did not act with the intention to transgress. (And these aren’t even the only ones; consider, for example, the par he’elam davar, which was brought when the courts made an erroneous ruling.) “Sin” and “guilt” are not a function of intent!
This actually makes perfect sense and it’s not unlike secular situations that we might take for granted. For example, if you accidentally parked in a “handicapped” spot (i.e., one reserved for people with disabilities) and you came out of the store to discover that you had inconvenienced someone in a wheelchair, wouldn’t you say, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize…?” Even though it was an accident, you would hopefully still take responsibility for your actions. And if you turn right on red in a state where that’s illegal, you can still get a ticket (though maybe the officer will be nice and let you go). Lack of information or even misinformation may mitigate a situation but it doesn’t completely absolve us.
Let’s look at some practical examples. I doubt that most of us go around popping random pieces of fat into our mouths but we do eat lots of other things. Often, those things have kosher certification symbols that we don’t recognize. When you see the letter K superimposed on, say, the silhouette of Chewbacca, do you shrug and say, “Well, someone says it’s kosher, so it’s on them,” or do you invest due diligence into finding out who’s behind the Chewbacca-K? If we don’t invest our best efforts, our actions are on us.
The same is true when it comes to keeping Shabbos. How often do we ask whether something is permitted on Shabbos and then just give it our best guess? In the introduction to hilchos Shabbos, the Mishnah Brurah cites Rav Yonasan Eibeschutz that it’s impossible for one who doesn’t study the laws of Shabbos to avoid regular Sabbath transgressions. It’s not sufficient to say, “I didn’t know” – we’re obligated to find out!
If we accidentally do something wrong, we are still at least partially responsible because we are obligated to do our best to know what we’re doing when we act. If we haven’t made sufficient effort to know whether something is permitted, it may not be as bad as intentionally doing something wrong but that doesn’t make it a free pass, either.
In the absence of the Temple, we do not currently have sacrifices like the korban chatas and the asham talui. Nevertheless, we still possess the tools to make things right. As we enter this time of introspection, let us make amends with God (through prayer, repentance and confession) and with our fellow man (through reparations and sincere apology). Going forward, in our interactions both mundane and Divine, let us remember the legal principle that ignorantia legis neminem excusat – ignorance doesn’t excuse us.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.