English, Readings

Sins Without Borders

The confession of sins is a key feature in the classical Jewish process of atonement in general and in the Yom Kippur liturgy in particular. The obligation to confess during Yom Kippur appears already in the Tosefta (Kippurim 4:14) where we also find, in the words of Rabbi Yehuda son of Patera, that one has to specify each individual sin. Rabbi Aqiva disagrees with that opinion but R. Yehudah’s opinion was codified and made part of the liturgy. See for example the following passage from Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva:

How does one confess? He says: ‘Please God! I have intentionally sinned, I have sinned out of lust and emotion, and I have sinned unintentionally. I have done such-and-such and I regret it, and I am ashamed of my deeds, and I shall never return to such a deed.’ That is the essence of confession, and all who are frequent in confessing and take great value in this matter, indeed is praiseworthy (chapter 1).

The list of sins that appears in almost every medieval prayer books consists of forty four sins, two for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Every line opens with the formula על חטא שחטאנו לפניך (for a sin that we have sinned before you) followed by the individual sin. The list had become so standard that it can be hardly regarded as authentic or personal in any way. Interestingly in a few medieval manuscripts we find unique lists of sins. Many of the sins in such lists are quite obvious, such as בביטול תורה (in not studying Torah) or בחילול שבת (profaning the Sabbath). However frequently we find very innovative sins such as בגילוח זקן and בגידול בלורית (shaving the beard and growing forelock) or בחימוד בגדים and בחימוד נשים (desire for cloths and desire for women).  Below is a list of the most unusual sins I found in these sources: ביין נסך (in non kosher wine), בהילוך על גבי עשבים בשבת (in walking on grass on the Sabbath), בהריגת בריה בשבת (in killing a creature [e.g., insect] on a Sabbath), בלימוד שלא לשמה (in studying the Torah not for its own sake), בקטטה בבית (in a quarrel at home), בתפלה שלא בכוונה (in prayer without the proper intention),  בתרדמה בבית התפלה (in falling asleep in synagogue), בצער בעלי חיים (in causing animals to suffer), בתשמיש (in having sex), לגרום רעה בזרעינו (in wrongdoing with our sperm), בפנות לאלילים (in worshiping idols) and בעובדינו בקרוב להם (in worshiping near them). Such lists of sins are not only very interesting but also very useful for socio-historical studies that seek to explore the everyday practices and beliefs of medieval Jewish societies, a task that I hope to embark on in the near future.

Perhaps the most unusual sin, or at the very least the most awkward formulation, I came across is found in a prayer book according to the Fez (a city in Morocco) rite, in which the confession open with the following sin על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באהבת אדם (for a sin that we have sinned before you in the love of a person). Suggestions for what that sin might be would be greatly appreciated.

And an easy fast (צום קל) for those observing.


8 thoughts on “Sins Without Borders

  1. Without knowing anything about the context (and being unduly influenced by prominent issues in my own society) ahavat adam leads to 2 possible directions for me, either homoeroticism or some sort of interaction with Gentiles that could be seen as violation of לא תחנם.
    I am curious about בתשמיש. In most of the viduy, and in the other cases you cite here, the “bet” introduces an action that is itself considered sinful: we have sinned by means of…
    But we also have, e.g, עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּדִבּוּר פֶּה and וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בְּמַאֲכָל וּבְמִשְׁתֶּה
    which i understand to mean: in the sphere of speech, or in the sphere of consumption of food and drink (rather than indicating that speaking or eating are inherently sinful.)
    I would presume that בתשמיש is similarly a general category, though this supposes less common syntax.

  2. I think you are right concerning בתשמיש as a general category of sins committed during the intercourse (whatever this may mean). And I suspect that באהבת אדם is also some general field of behavior. Perhaps it relates to the commandment ואהבת לרעך כמוך? I must confess (!) that homoeroticism didn’t cross my mind but it is an interesting suggestion.

  3. I was asked to give some references; there is a brief note by Abraham Roth on one such manuscript in the German journal Udim 5 (1974-5): 147-148. The Fez Mahzor was printed and can be found under the title (ספר אהבת הקדמונים (ירושלים תרמ”ט. This prayer-book can be viewed electronically through the National LIbrary of Israel catalogue.

  4. Thanks Ophir for this mindful and reach study. When reading this list of sins, year by year, I always have two thoughts, one is deeply troubling; the other relieving.
    a. There is a clear gap between the aspiration to include “all” possible sins we s might have committed – from aleph to tav – on the one hand and the limited scope this list (learning from you, Ophir, I better say: lists). No word about our responsibility to murders, acts of oppression and discrimination, rape and violence. Jews have apparently lived, or imagined they were living in an environment were all these seem to be far beyond any probability. Gentiles were supposedly doing such things, not Jews. The question whether this can be justified or tolerated in concern of previous generations can remain open. There is no doubt that by sticking to this list we take part in NOT living up to the responsibility we have taken upon ourselves when we (or our ancestors) have decided to have a Jewish state, to create a holistic Jewish society. All these sins are there, in the headlines of our media, in the depth of our Israeli being. If we want to take Yom Kippur (or our life) seriously and sincerely, we need to work out a new, honest and courageous list, so we might have the chance to enter next year’s Yom Kippur with a bit shorter list, or at least knowing that we have been engaged in the struggle to purify our life from those diseases.
    b. The other thought is relieving, somehow a comfort and ease. It has to do with the fact that when our tradition has formulated the list of “all’ sins, to be named at the holiest day of Hebrew calendar, what they had in mind was strictly מצוות שבין אדם לחברו (the inter-human sphere), not מצוות שבין אדם למקום )the ritual sphere). This inter-human sphere, our tradition proclaim through this list, IS the primary religious one. All the rest are only means and additions.

  5. Yaron Ben-Naeh says:

    Shalom Ophir,
    I hope you are doing well. Impressive, nice. A friend asked for my opinion – i suggest ahavat adam as an euphemism/cleansed form of mishkav zakhar, as opposed to “the normal” ahavat ishah. (we have testimonies about homosexuality and its visibilty in Morocco)
    Gmar Tov,

  6. Yaron – Well, I guess the wind is blowing in that direction. A colleague suggested that the following quotation from the רי”ף might be relevant in this context:
    פירש גאון הא דאמרינן זמרא בפומא אסיר ה”מ כגון נגינות של אהבת אדם לחבירו ולשבח יפה ביפיו כגון שהישמעאלים קורים להם אשעא”ר אבל דברי שירות ותשבחות וזכרון חסדיו של הקב”ה אין אדם מישראל נמנע מזאת

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