What is the Purpose of the Sin Sacrifice?

joyericksonWhen one thinks of the laws of purity, ritual uncleanness is the first thing that comes to mind. I posed the question, What is the worst kind of tumah (impurity)? When asked, most consider contact with the dead to be the worst; after all, physical death is the worst thing that can happen to the physical body, so it seems to make sense.

Using terms like ritual impurity or uncleanness does not help us much in determining how to define or understand tumah, so I would like to provide you another view. In the camp of the Israelites in the wilderness, we have:

  • the area outside the camp,
  • the area of Kol Israel,
  • inside that is the camp of the Levi,
  • then the camp of the Cohen [Priests],
  • then the courtyard of the Tabernacle,
  • the Holy Place, and then
  • the Most-Holy place.

Each of these areas demand an increasing level of kedushah (holiness). For instance, only the High Priest is able to enter the most-holy place, but only twice on Yom Kippur. In the Holy place, only the Cohanim [priests] are able to enter, but only when there to perform a service. Not anyone is able to enter these areas, yet not every Cohen is able to enter either, not unless a certain level of kedushah is first achieved. For instance, a Cohen who had an emission or who inadvertently came in contact with a dead body would be disqualified from being able to performs duties at the Tabernacle until the rites to rectify the situation performed and he became ritually clean. In the end, a chattat (sin sacrifice was required). This concept of tumah / taharah (which is usually called unclean / clean) is a bit more complicated than that. I think a more accurate definition would be distance. With this idea, one becomes more distant as one suffers from more tumah or more restrictive tumah.

  1. Tumat met (contact with a dead body)
  2. Tumat ohel (exposure to inside of a roofed structure containing a dead body
  3. Contact with certain dead animals, including most creepy, crawly animals and insects
  4. Contact with certain bodily fluids—niddah (menstruation), zav / zavah (seminal discharge)
  5. Giving birth to a child (7 days for a boy and 14 days for a girl).
  6. Contact with a primary source or an object that has been in contact with a primary source of tumah.
  7. Contracting tzaraat [“leprosy”]

As a general rule, we are told uncleanness from a dead body is the worst kind of tumah. How can one argue with the answer, especially when tumat met (contact with the dead), is considered an av hatumah (a father or primary source of uncleanness), has a long and complex cleansing process, and it is contagious? However, I would like to argue against this point because tumat met simply keeps one from being able to enter the Court of the Tabernacle, yet they have access to every other location in the camp of Israel. The metzorah (the one suffering tzaraat / leprosy) on the other hand, is removed completely from the camp of kol Israel. Therefore, what is worse? It seems logical that tzaraat is a worse condition than tumat met.

The metzorah is to be brought to the Cohen[1]. The text indicates the metzorah is not given a choice: he is brought to the Cohen. If this is simply a physical malady, why would he be brought to the Cohen? Why wouldn’t the officers escort the sufferer to either the family doctor or to a secure area designated by the CDC for observation and treatment? If this disease is as contagious as we are led to believe, why would he be brought to a spiritual leader? Perhaps the malady is less physical and more spiritual than we area being led to believe.

For all forms of tumah, the process by which one is rendered clean or cured, concludes with a chattat (sin sacrifice). When a man comes into contact with the dead carcass of a lizard, he is rendered unclean. He goes through a cleansing process, provides a chattat, and at dusk, he gets the start of a new day with a new lease on a clean life. Why must he give a chattat? What if his job is to wander the plains between the tribes cleaning the carcasses of deceased creepy-crawly animals? What about the man who aids people in caring for the bodies of their dead family members? Why is he told bring a chattat offering to be rendered clean? What sin did he perform? After all, the Mishnah tells us,

These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains for him in the World to Come. These are the honoring one’s father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study mornings and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between a man and his brother[2].

There seems to be a disconnect, but only if one suffers from the idea that the chattat is used to atone for sin (see Atonement and the Lamb of G-d[3]). The woman who has finished her seven-day niddah is not guilty of sin for menstruating. She did not sin for allowing (whether on purpose or accidental) her egg to die without fertilization. The man who buried his father did not sin when he became contaminated from a dead body – even if the man is a Cohen. What sin would a woman (who gave birth to a child) commit to cause the necessity of a chattat? A woman who gives birth to a child is to bring an olah (wholly burnt offing) and a chattat. Anyone who has had a child should wonder why one of these offerings is not a korban todah (thanksgiving offering). If she, as suggested by R’Yochanan b’Zakkai to his students, made a vow that she would never again be intimate with her husband, there is already a prohibition against breaking nedarim (vows) or even vainly using Hashem’s name, so why deal with this possibility with every birth? I submit that we have a false understanding of the Chattat offering, and this may partially be the fault of Protestantism and Catholicism on our concepts of sin and forgiveness.

In each case, the text renders, and the person shall give a chattat and shall be clean at dusk. This indicates the chattat offering returns one to a higher state of kedushah. For this to be true, it must hold true elsewhere as well. The Torah of the nazir [Nazarite] are given Numbers 6. With this mitzvah, a men or women can choose to raise their kedushah for a time, dedicating their time strictly to Hashem and His service. In order to be a nazir, one must choose to never allow one’s self to be contaminated by a dead body. With this vow, the nazir becomes like a Cohen – one elevated and dedicated to Hashem. Also, the nazir’s ability to drink wine or strong drink is restricted, again, like a Cohen, but a Cohen on duty (see the clarified restrictions after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu)[4]. Third, the nazir is to keep his hair uncut throughout the nazir vow, but this is the exact opposite of the Cohanim (who are to keep their hair trimmed and neat). Therefore, the nazir are dedicated to Hashem like the Cohen, but the Nazir is no Cohen — his uncut hair invalidates any attempt to rise to the level of a Cohen.

When the nazir’s vow is ended, the nazir is to take, among other things, a chattat to the mizbeach (altar). Again, what sin did the nazir commit? One argument is that the chattat is for denying one’s self the pleasures in life that a permissible, but if that’s the case, why wouldn’t a life-long nazir be forced to bring a chattat every month or so? Instead, the life-long nazir lives his life, dies, and never brings a chattat for ending his vow.

When we look at these cases, thinking the chattat offering is for some sin committed by the person is ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, let me suggest the chattat is designed to atone for a “drop” or reduction in kedushah. When the woman enters a time of niddah, blood is expelled from her body, her kedushah falls and she is no longer able to enter the courts of the Mishkan. When a man has an issue, he ejects seminal fluids from his body and his kedushah falls, as does his wife’s. When the soul of a man departs his body, his body becomes tamei and anyone touching it or under the same roof are rendered tamei as well. A woman who gives birth is tamei for seven or 14 days.

If, in all these cases a separation causes a drop in kedushah, what of the metzorah (one suffering tzaraat or “leprosy”)? Why is the metzorah considered unclean? Traditionally, the Talmud lists seven reasons one might be afflicted with the disease, making the malady a physical manifestation of a spiritual or emotional defect: gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft, and envy[5]. The Midrash and R’Samson Raphael Hirsh focus on gossip as the main source of the malady, as have many more modern and contemporary commentators. They point out it shouldn’t be interpreted as a medical problem at all but rather as a spiritual ailment because it is treated solely by the Cohanim. These often connect the word metzorah to motzi shem ra (a person guilty of slander or libel). Here are Biblical justifications for the idea that tzaraat is caused by gossip:

  • Moses says the children of Israel will never listen to him, so God gives Moses two signs: turning his staff into a snake and then back into a staff, and afflicting his hand white with tzaraat, and then back to normal again[6].
  • Miriam, Moses’ sister, is afflicted with tzaraat after she and Aaron criticize Moses’ choice of a Cushite wife[7].[8]

These texts are examples how the rabbis came to the conclusion that tzaraat is a contagion one contacts from lashon hara. I have a theory why the Rabbis and the sages place such an emphasis on lashon hara being the sin that causes tzaraat. The creation record accounts multiple time that G-d spoke and things were created in response to his speech. Generally, this is seen as an anthropomorphic representation of G-d’s creative activities. But what if it isn’t what is G-d endowed man with the divine ability to speak?

The Lord God created Adam… And he took dust from the site of the sanctuary and from the four winds of the world, and a mixture of the waters of the world… And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the breath became in the body of Adam a spirit capable of speech, to give light to the eyes, and to give hearing to the ears[9].

The Targum seems to indicate that speech is a divine attribute gifted solely to the human race. If this is true, then it becomes a great aveira (sin) to use that speech with the intent to destroy. When we take at which is holy (or in this case a divine gift) and wield it as a weapon, its misuse will not go unnoticed.

Therefore, the metzorah is rendered unclean because his evil speech causes a separation between the victim of the evil speech and those who listen to the words; and there is nothing more infectious than drama and gossip. When we belittle another human being in order to artificially elevate our self worth, we are guilty of lashon hara (evil speech). Whenshe spoke ill of Moshe, Miriam suffered tzaraat and was expelled from the camp until the prescribed cleansing process was completed. When Korach, Datan, Aviram, and (for a short time) On, decided the current leadership was self-serving and illegitimate and they petitioned for new leadership, they committed lashon hara. Some were consumed in a fire that broke forth from Hashem and the earth swallowed Korach.

These, who suffer tzaraat, are excised from the community and sent away. They are commanded to cry, Tamei, tamei (unclean, unclean) should anyone approach. They are subjected to a solitary life of grief and remorse. The Talmud asks, How do we know we are to pray for others? The text answers, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean.’ Therefore, the Talmud is telling us that there are those who need others to pray for them because they are so distanced from G-d that Heaven no longer hears them. Such is the case of the metzorah, for G-d will not listen to the prayers of those who distance themselves from Heaven. When the metzorah wants to be restored, he must ask the very people of whom he spoke evilly to pray for him. Only then will G-d accept his teshuvah (return). Even Miriam needed Moshe (the victim) to intercede for her and G-d heard his prayers[10].

Rebbe Nachman once said the gift of speech and reason were given to most men. The highest form of this gift is when we can speak but we choose to halt our tongue in preference to another. When you can control your tongue, that’s when you know the divine gift of speech has been handed to the Master for His use.

Only you can choose: will you use the divine gift of speech to create or to destroy?

[1] Leviticus 13:2

[2] M.Peah 1:1 as modified by the Siddur

[3] http://wordpress.com/post/sladehenson.wordpress.com/63

[4] Leviticus 10:8-11

[5] b.Arakhin 16a

[6] Exodus 4:1-8

[7] Numbers 12

[8] Other later biblical characters who suffered from tzaraat are Naaman, a commander of the Aramean army (II Kings 5:1), and after interacting with him, Gehazi, a servant of the prophet Elisha, comes down with tzaraat as well. Four men with tzaraat pillage the Aramean camp after it has been abandoned (II Kings 7:3-10). King Jeroboam of Israel suffered from tzaraat (II Kings 15:5), as did King Uziah (II Chronicles 16:20-23).

[9] Targum Jonathan Genesis 2:7

[10] Numbers 12:11-13


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