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Vayikra Korban Chatat: The relevance of halakhot that are halakhically irrelevant

Adar 5783 | March 2023


Talmud Bavli doesn’t include tractates on most of Seder Zeraim, laws particular to the land of Israel, or Seder Taharot, laws of ritual purity, yet there are tractates on most of Seder Kodshim – laws related to the Temple service. Tractates Zevachim and Menachot contain lengthy discussions on the finer points of Temple offerings by Babylonian rabbis despite being several generations after the destruction of the Temple. Why?

At the end of Massechet Menachot the rabbis bring several aggadic teachings that shed light on the matter. King Shlomo describes the sacrifices and service of the house for the name of the Lord he intends to build and concludes: “This is eternally Israel’s [obligation].”[1] The gemara brings two teachings that expound on this verse:

“Rav Giddel said, Rav said: This is the altar that remains built [in the spiritual realm] and Michael the great minister[ing angel] stands and offers a sacrifice upon it.

And Rabbi Yochanan said: These are Torah scholars who are busy with the halakhot of [the Temple] service, the verse ascribes to them as if the Temple was built in their days.”[2]

Our tradition speaks of a Mikdash Maala – a metaphysical Temple in the realms above. Though difficult to fully comprehend, perhaps these sages are teaching us that the Temple service performed by human emissaries of God reflects eternal spiritual concepts executed by metaphysical emissaries of God. Through the actions of the Temple service the Jewish People realized these truths and connected our world to them. According to Rav Giddel, even though the Temple and the service is gone from this world, the metaphysical reality continues to exist. Rabbi Yochanan’s statement seems to further this idea – when Torah scholars study the Temple service, they too connect our world to those spiritual truths, as if the Temple was built in their time.

The gemara continues with Reish Lakish’s statement that someone who engages in Torah study is considered as if they offered all the sacrifices, and Rava who teaches that someone engaged in Torah study does not need sacrifices. These opinions indicate that Torah study in general can realize the same objectives as the Temple service, at least for those who actively study. The gemara continues:

“Rav Yitzchak said: Why is it written, ‘This is the Torah (teaching) for the chatat and this is the Torah for the asham?’ Anyone who engages with the Torah of the chatat is considered as though they offered chatat and anyone who engages with the Torah of asham as though they offered asham.”

Rav Yitzchak does not think that Torah study in general can fulfill these objectives, but rather specific study of each sacrifice.

Learning about sacrifices that haven’t been brought in almost 2 millennia

Chafetz Chaim advocated for increased study of Seder Kodshim. [3] He pointed out that we’re supposed to anticipate the redemption; we pray for it several times a day. Yet when the redemption comes, speedily in our days, there will be no one knowledgeable enough to perform the Temple service. Heaven forbid our prayers are disingenuous! But if we truly meant them, we would be prepared for their fulfillment.[4]

His call to action was not limited to the Kohanim (Priests) who perform the service – since every Israelite is commanded to bring certain offerings, everyone needs to understand them. Chafetz Chaim brings the midrashim in Menachot quoted above and teaches that when the Temple stood the ultimate way to fulfill the mitzvah of korbanot was first to study the laws in depth so they could bring the offering with the proper intentions and actions. After the Temple’s destruction the Almighty provided us the opportunity to perform part of this “eternal obligation”; studying the laws can instill them in our hearts and minds, accomplishing some of the same objectives.

Chazal also tell us that children should study Torah, and specifically Vayikra because they’re “pure” and “haven’t tasted sin.”[5] Chafetz Chaim explains that the modern world is filled with heresy and impurity, but studying these laws can counteract these forces by spreading purity and sanctity.

Many modern people intellectualize their Judaism; we connect to interpersonal laws more readily than laws between a person and God. People often point to the foreignness of animal sacrifice as an excuse, but they seem just as disinterested in the other aspects of the Temple. This may be a symptom of a general lack of fervor when fulfilling other mitzvot between a person and God. Perhaps we can add that if children were to begin their Torah education with Vayikra it could “normalize” concepts such as sanctity, ritual purity, and Divine service; instead of feeling foreign to the Judaism we know, they take their rightful place as essential and eternal Torah.

With all this in mind we will look at one particular category of offering, the korban chatat.

Korban Chatat

In English the Korban Chatat is called a “sin-offering,” but some would argue that is a misnomer. Yes, all four chatat offerings described in this parsha are brought to atone for a sin, but chatat is also brought in other circumstances – both a metzora (leper) and post-partum women bring one when they are ritually pure and can once again enter the Temple, as does a nazir who fulfilled their vow of nezirut and returns to “normal” status.

Many commentaries look for some sort of sin in these cases, but it’s possible that a different understanding of the chatat is warranted. The root ch.t.a. is often translated as sin, but is actually closer to misdirected or missed the mark. It also means cleanse or purify (disinfect in modern Hebrew). In next week’s parsha it is used to describe Moshe, “he will cleanse (vayachatei) the altar.”[6] Rambam teaches that transgressions separate us from God.[7] Rav Soloveitchik explains that the spiritual impurity doesn’t merely distance us from sanctity, it also impacts the Divine Presence. He learns from the Kohen Gadol’s chatat offerings on Yom Kippur that the process of teshuva cleanses the impurity of the transgression and removes the separation from God.[8]

Our parsha describes four types of chatat, all under the umbrella of the Lord’s words to Moshe: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say: A person who accidentally transgresses (from the root ch.t.a) any of the Lord’s commandments that may not be done, and does one of them…” The section goes on to list four circumstances when the offering is brought – if the Kohen Gadol “anointed priest transgresses to the guilt of the people… If the entire assembly of Israel erred (accidentally)… if one person accidentally transgresses… when a nassi (chief – either tribal chief or king) transgresses… accidentally…”[9]

The plain meaning of the text is that a chatat is only brought for sins that are shogeg – unwitting.[10] Chazal teach that this only applies to negative commandments if the meizid – purposeful transgression while aware of the action and the prohibition – is liable for karet (lit. cut off, early death).[11] If one is mitasek, preoccupied and unaware of their action, or o’nes, compelled against their will, they are generally exempt from this obligation.

The case of shogeg is specific. The person must be aware they are performing the action, but unaware that it is prohibited. If the action is accidental or lacks intention it’s often considered mitasek or o’nes. This leads some to explain that shogeg must do teshuva and is liable for korban because there’s an element of neglect. According to Rambam the person is responsible because they could have avoided the sin if they had been more considered or cautious.[12]

How does “the entire assembly” act b’shogeg?

“If the entire assembly (eidah) of Israel erred and the matter eludes the notice of the congregation, and they do one of all the commandments of the Lord that may not be done, and they are guilty. And the transgression that they transgressed becomes known, the congregation shall bring a bull from the cattle as a chatat, and they bring it before the Tent of Assembly. The elders of the congregation put their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, and [he] slaughters the bull before the Lord…

Chazal discuss this chatat, often known as the “par he’elem davar shel tzibbur” (the communal bull for matter that was obscured) in Tractate Horayot. Rambam codified the laws in Hilkhot Shgagot.[13] The basic rabbinic interpretation is that this communal chatat is brought when the Beit Din HaGadol (Sanhedrin, highest court) rules erroneously and a majority of the community follows their ruling and transgresses a sin whose shogeg is liable to bring a chatat.[14] If the ruling permits a type of avoda zara (foreign worship) the chatat is a bull and a goat, based on a parallel source in Bamidbar.[15] In both cases, if the erroneous ruling does not cause the majority of the assembly to transgress then the communal korban is not brought.

Who is responsible?

The Torah begins with a scenario when the “entire assembly (eida)” transgressed, and then states, “the congregation (hakahal) shall bring.”[16] Are the assembly and congregation different entities?[17] Whose sin is it? Who brings the korban?

The mishna brings three opinions.[18] Rabbi Meir rules that when a majority of Israelites sin the Beit Din brings the korban.[19] Rabbi Yehuda explains that each tribe is called a congregation, and each is responsible for a korban if the majority of their population sinned. But if 7 or more tribes (a majority of tribes) sinned every tribe brings, even those that did not sin.[20] Rabbi Shimon rules that Beit Din brings a chatat and so does each tribe that sinned as a result of their ruling.

It seems clear that Rabbi Shimon views both the Beit Din and the people as responsible for this act, so each brings a chatat. Rabbi Meir’s opinion is unclear – does the Beit Din bring the chatat because they are responsible or as representatives of the people? Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion implies the onus is on the people, which seems to be the plain meaning of the text. Based on the gemara, Rambam rules the halakha is according to Rabbi Yehuda.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yehuda also rules that individuals who rely on the erroneous ruling are exempt from bringing an individual korban chatat, even if the communal chatat is not brought, indicating that the sin is only communal.[21] The sages disagree and rule that individuals are only excused if the communal chatat is brought. Rambam rules like the sages. He also rules that this korban must be bought with funds raised specially by the community.[22]

All this suggests that the communal chatat is in place of the individual chatat that each person should bring. It’s possible that it also atones for the community that may bear some responsibility, but it’s clear that the Beit Din is not liable. This should trouble us. We explained that shogeg involves some sort of negligence. How are individuals who followed their leaders responsible? Shouldn’t the Beit Din be culpable? Or the community for their failed leadership?

Liability: Terms and conditions

Chazal continue discussing conditions that limit when the law applies, and Rambam codifies a clear list based on their teachings:[23]

  1. The Beit Din only uprooted an aspect of the law, and not the entire law.[24]
  2. This aspect is not stated explicitly in the Torah (which even Sadducees observe, and a child could understand).[25]
  3. Every member of the court must be “fit to rule” – the head of the court must be in attendance and all the judges must be qualified to rule.[26]
  4. No member of the Beit Din informed them they were mistaken.
  5. The Beit Din issued a proper ruling permitting the action

These details are critical to understanding the question of responsibility. There are cases when the Beit Din is clearly in the wrong – if they were not all “kosher” judges they should not issue a ruling, if a qualified person spoke out against their error they should have heeded their words, and if it’s something so simple anyone who can read the Torah should know it then so should they. There are also times we might think individuals should have known better – if they follow the ruling of an unqualified Beit Din, if they act even though there was no clear ruling, or if they too were unaware of a basic Torah law.

If all these conditions are fulfilled there does not seem to be negligence on either side. So why is the community bringing a chatat?

It seems that this takes us back to our original explanation of korban chatat, which is not named for the sin, but for the cleansing effect it has. Ramban explains that the shogeg is called a choteh, transgressor, because the action of the transgression causes impurity, even if it was not intended as a sin.[27] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein differentiates between this explanation and the one that blames the shogeg for negligence.[28] Negligence focuses on the transgressor’s responsibility for the action. Cleansing impurity focuses on repairing the metaphysical effect of the sin.

A deeper understanding of individual and communal chatat

When an individual is aware they are doing the action, even if they are unaware it is a sin, the action affects them, the world around them, and their relationship with God. They must bring a korban. If the majority of the community (a tribe) acts in such a manner then they gather the funds to bring a communal korban in place of individual korbanot.

This is the only communal korban offered on the altar that must have semicha – the elders, representatives of each individual and the community in general, lay their hands on the korban (semicha) and say vidui, acknowledging the sin.[29] They do not do so because they need atonement, rather they act as messengers to heal the rift caused by the transgression and bring the people closer to the Almighty.

What about the ones who issued the law? None of this is possible until the leadership, the Sanhedrin, acknowledges that they were mistaken and led the people astray. To do so they must accept that their authority does not mean infallibility. Perhaps this public acknowledgement can be seen as vidui, an admission of wrongdoing, and the humility they must have to do so a form of teshuva, their way to repair their relationship with the people and with God.

[1] Divrei HaYamim II 2:3

[2] TB Menachot 110a

[3] Chafetz Chaim Likutei Halakhot on Kodshin, Introduction.

[4] There may be readers who are skeptical about this. Though Rambam states that faith in Messianic redemption is a principle of our faith, many modern Jews have trouble believing or desiring such a future. Others accept the possibility, but remain skeptical that it could happen at any moment. They envision a lengthy, natural redemption. Such skepticism is understandable – it is difficult for most humans to imagine that reality can change so drastically and quickly, that God could intercede with open miracles. Yet our Torah tells us of such miracles, and history has shown us that existence can change in an instant. Perhaps this is the reason Rambam maintained that faith in God and in the Torah means believing such a future is possible, perhaps imminently.

[5] This also prepares them to fulfill these commandments.

[6] Vayikra 8:15; 6:19 and Malbim there; 14:52. Why is the chatat brought by purified lepers, nazir, and post-partum women? Rav Mordechai Sabato explains that both the leper and post-partum woman were ritually impure for an extended period and therefore unable to ascend to the Temple. He posits that impurity in the camp of Israel affects the sanctity in the Israelite camp and resonates to the Sanctuary as well. Therefore, even if one is not at fault for their impurity and their subsequent distancing from the House of God, they must bring a chatat to cleanse the injury to the sanctity of the Temple. (I learned this with him over a decade ago, and I apologize for any inaccuracies or deficiencies in the insight. They are mine alone, due to forgetfulness, bad notes, or improper understanding.)

[7] Hilkhot Teshuva 7:7

[8] Al HaTeshuva, “Hashem lifnei hachet, v’Hashem acharei hachet”

[9] Vayikra Chapter 4

[10] The root sh.g.g. appears in the introduction in verse 2 as well as in all descriptions except for that of the anointed priest. There’s lengthy rabbinic discussion about the sin of the anointed priest – traditionally explained to be the Kohen Gadol. Rashi brings two possible interpretations, partially based on the difficult phrase in verse 2, “to the guilt of the people.” Chazal (Horayot 7a) compare his offering to the following Par He’elem Davar brought by the assembly and state that he only brings this offering if he acted according to a mistaken halakhic ruling, in circumstances parallel to the chatat of the whole assembly. For personal accidental sins he would bring a regular chatat.
Rashi brings a second plain explanation that this offering is for personal, accidental transgressions. Because the people are dependent on the Kohen Gadol to atone for them and pray on their behalf, his flaws affect them “to the guilt of the people” and so he has a special offering.

[11] Hilkhot Shgagot 1:1-3

[12] Guide to the Perplexed 3:41

[13] Chapters 12-15

[14] Horayot 2:3. There must be an active component.

[15] Bamidbar 15:22-26

[16] Vayikra 4:14

[17] If they are not the same entity then there must be another explanation as to why the Torah uses 2 different terms. The gemara breaks down the language of the verse according to each opinion.

[18] Horayot 1:5. This is Rav Ovadia of Bartenura’s explanation. The Yerushalmi has a similar explanation.

[19] This has been explained as an overall majority, a majority of the Jews who live in Israel, or a majority (of the people in a majority) of the tribes – so if 7 tribes sinned, even if they aren’t a majority of the total Israelites.

[20] Interestingly, he also rules that if the Tribal Beit Din rules erroneously the tribe also brings a communal chatat.

[21] Horayot 1:1

[22] Horayot 3b, Hilkhot Shekalim 4:2

[23] Hilkhot Shagagot 12:6-7

[24] Horayot 2:2. For example, they did not say “Shabbat does not exist” but permitted an aspect of a melacha that is forbidden, like transferring an object from private to public domain.

[25] Horayot 1:3

[26] Horayot 1:4 lists things that disqualify a judge – a convert, a mamzer (born of an adulterous or incestuous relationship), a Givonite, or an elderly man who never had children.

[27] Torat Ha’Adam, Sha’ar HaGmul, pg. 270 in Mossad HaRav Kook edition

[28] Shi’urei Har’el Horayot, “Chiyuv Chatat Ha’toleh b’beit din,” pg 61

[29] Menachot 92a. The se’ir ha’mishtaleakh, scapegoat on Yom Kippur, also has semicha, but it is not offered on the altar.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.