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.