The discussion of chatat, or sacrifices for unintentionally or inadvertently missing the mark, concludes with four special cases, pushing the boundary toward more intentional or advertent errors:
i) hearing a false accusation, not testifying
ii) touching unclean carcasses by accident
iii) touching human uncleanliness unknowing
iv) uttering an oath for bad purposes (swearing)
Once recognized, the sin is put right with a sheep or goat, or if you have insufficient means, two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for olah, the other for chatat – or if you have less, then grain offering, but without oil or incense, so the priest can burn a handful for you, and keep the rest, like a grain offering.
Is it about how guilty we are, or how much we have? ‘Deep pockets’ is a modern version of scaling the price to the means. Give till it hurts – sue them, squeeze them, till they squeak. That’s a sense of retribution, of warning, to make it less likely that people will repeat their sins. We are beginning, after all, to cross the line to intention, or as I call it, predictable preventable stuff.
The most interesting cases for us are the first and last. What do you owe the litigant who needs your testimony? Do you volunteer, or wait to be asked? What if people are being bad-mouthed, without cause? What if you swear something is true or false, and later learn you were wrong? Do you volunteer correction, or just shut up?
We are beginning an escalating curve. However, don’t dismiss these modest sins and remedies too quickly – repeated good habits could lead to the big stuff, easily enough! Educators like John Mighton of JUMP Math and Brent Davis of Math Minds (University of Calgary), writing an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail this month, affirm both sides of the old ‘Math Wars’ among educators: we need some drill and practice, habit and routine to relieve our working memory for connecting work, creative leaps of different kings of logic or problem-solving.
You’ve heard sports teams claiming to “give it 120%”. Here is a biblical version. If you convert religious stuff to your personal use – appropriating commonwealth for yourself – then you owe 120% - a ram and/or silver to pay off the tariff. You who scam charities, beware!
Verses 17-19 are tougher to place, across the gulfs of time and place and culture. Again, the weasel word of ‘equivalent’ expands the discretion of the priest to declare things ‘squared’. The last bit has a whole treatise of Mishnah and Talmud, called Meilah. Good lawyers counsel clients not to seek justice or truth in court, but certainty of outcome that they can live with, and live beyond.
Finally, we reach the familiar ground of pledge, fraud and robbery. If people scam other people, they owe 120%. It’s not OK to promise and fail, or defraud by false pretence and promise, or worse, to simply appropriate or coerce ownership. We not only provide for restitution, but a 20% premium.
This set of offerings is called asham. People who defraud are said by the rabbis to have taken a life – either the victim’s life in their loss, or the villain’s life in their guilt. We know this from families consumed with bad matrimonial litigation, lawsuits over small things, victim impact accounts of crimes.
Nachmanides deals with the vague middle by considering that sometimes the scrupulous don’t know whether they’ve sinned, but still need to be made right. A version of this was the Supreme Court of Canada judgment on residential schools, that we share vicarious liability for harm done, even in ignorance.
Most of the time, pledge, fraud and robbery can be addressed by appeal to witnesses. Akiba notes that this provision addresses private transactions, without witnesses, and requiring some external consequences.
Who really gives 120%? What’s restitution, once trust is lost or the costs of reparation are factored in?
When any of you sin in that you have heard a public adjuration to testify and —though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter— do not speak up, you are subject to punishment.
2 Or when any of you touch any unclean thing —whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing— and are unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty.
3 Or when you touch human uncleanness —any uncleanness by which one can become unclean— and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall be guilty.
4 Or when any of you utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose, whatever people utter in an oath, and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall in any of these be guilty.
5 When you realize your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed.
6 And you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for your sin.
7 But if you cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the LORD, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering.
8 You shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin-offering, wringing its head at the nape without severing it.
9 He shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin-offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin-offering.
10 And the second he shall offer for a burnt-offering according to the regulation. Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the sin that you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.
11 But if you cannot afford two turtle-doves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin-offering; you shall not put oil on it or lay frankincense on it, for it is a sin-offering.
12 You shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall scoop up a handful of it as its memorial portion, and turn this into smoke on the altar, with the offerings by fire to the LORD; it is a sin-offering.
13 Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for whichever of these sins you have committed, and you shall be forgiven. Like the grain-offering, the rest shall be for the priest.
14 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
15 When any of you commit a trespass and sin unintentionally in any of the holy things of the LORD, you shall bring, as your guilt-offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish from the flock, convertible into silver by the sanctuary shekel; it is a guilt-offering.
16 And you shall make restitution for the holy thing in which you were remiss, and shall add one-fifth to it and give it to the priest. The priest shall make atonement on your behalf with the ram of the guilt-offering, and you shall be forgiven.
17 If any of you sin without knowing it, doing any of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, you have incurred guilt, and are subject to punishment.
18 You shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish from the flock, or the equivalent, as a guilt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for the error that you committed unintentionally, and you shall be forgiven.
19 It is a guilt-offering; you have incurred guilt before the LORD.