Asham Talui as a Paradigm of Responsibility

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Matt Landes

Parashat Vayikra describes two sacrifices brought for unintentional sins, the chatas yachid (private sin-offering, Vayikra 4:27-35) and the asham talui (contingent guilt offering, Vayikra 5:17-18).

Rashi explains that the asham talui is brought when the sinner does not know whether or not s/he committed the sin (“ולא ידע”), but knows that s/he might have sinned, as opposed to the chatas yachid, where the sinner knows s/he accidentally sinned.

The problem is that the asham talui is a larger and more expensive animal than the chatas yachid.  Why should atonement for the possibility of sin require more than atonement for the actuality of sin?

Rashi’s example of an asham talui case is:

For instance: There are permitted and forbidden animal fats (shuman and chelev) before him,

and he believed that both were permitted, and he ate of one of them.

Thereafter he is told: ‘One was chelev,’ and he is unsure whether it was the chelev that he ate.

For this he brings a contingent guilt offering,

and this protects him for so long as he is not informed that he definitely sinned.

This suggests that one must have a particular instance of possible sin in mind when bringing the asham talui.  However, in Mishnah Kerisos Chapter 6, Rabbi Eliezer states that:

Anyone can dedicate an asham talui on any day and any time that they want, and this is called an “asham chasidim (guilt offering of the superpious).”

The Mishnah continues:

They said about Bava Ben Buta that he volunteered an asham talui every day of the year, except for the day after Yom Kippur.  He said: By G-d I would have brought it that day if they had permitted me, but they say to me “Wait until you enter the realm of doubt.”

The Talmud (25a) concludes that Rabbi Eliezer was not saying that the asham talui is purely voluntary. Rather, he was the one who told Bava Ben Buta not to bring the sacrifice on the 11th of Tishrei because one must be in “בית הספק”, the realm of doubt, to bring an asham talui.  On the day after Yom Kippur, there is no possibility that one has committed a sin and not atoned for it.

Still, Bava Ben Buta probably did not have a specific sin in mind as he brought the asham talui every other day of the year.  So it seems that Rashi was describing when one must bring the asham talui, but that one may bring it in situations where the doubt is much lesser.

Rabbeinu Yonah suggests that the asham talui is heftier than the chatas yachid because someone sure of having sinned can commit to full teshuvah, because they are recognizing exactly what it is that they did wrong, but that in a case of safeik the individual will be thinking of the possibility that they might not have committed the sin.

All this suggests a complex relationship with legal doubt.  One must be careful not to pretend uncertainty where there is none, and at the same time, it can be mishnat chasidim to treat even far-fetched doubts as real.  When we are in a clear case of safeik, it is important to take the proper responsibility, and to mentally bring the larger korban that Rabbeinu Yonah calls for.

Matt Landes (WBM ‘16) is a sophomore in Columbia College studying Philosophy. Matt formerly studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and SAR High School. 

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