Rabbinic Views on Sin

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Rabbinic Views on Sin

Post  Waqar Daniel on Sun 13 Dec 2009, 11:16 am

The usual rabbinic term for sin is averah, from the root avar ("to pass over"; i.e., sin is a rejection of God's will). The rabbis rarely speak of sin in the abstract but usually of specific sins. There are sins of commission and omission – in the rabbinic terminology, the transgression of negative precepts and the failure to perform positive precepts (Yoma 8:8). Sins of commission are more serious than those of omission (Yoma 85:86a), and the term averah generally refers to the former. In one respect, however, the latter are more severe. If positive precepts have to be carried out at a certain time and that time has passed, the omission cannot be rectified, e.g., the failure to recite the Shema on a particular day. To this is applied the verse (Eccles. 1:15): "That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered" (Ber. 26a). Sins involving the transgression of negative precepts are of two kinds – offenses against God and offenses against one's neighbor. The Day of Atonement brings forgiveness for sins committed against God, i.e., for purely religious offenses. It only brings forgiveness for offenses against other human beings if the wrong done to the victim has first been put right (Yoma 8:9). The intention to sin is not reckoned as sin except in the case of idolatry (Kid. 39b).

Sins are also divided into light and severe sins. The three most serious sins for the rabbis are murder, idolatry, and adultery and incest. It was eventually ruled that rather than commit these, a man must forfeit his life (Sanh. 74a). The light sins are those which "a man treads underfoot" (Tanḥ. B. Deut. 8b). A marked tendency to be observed in rabbinic homiletics is to encourage people to take the lighter sins more seriously by treating them as if they were far weightier offenses. Thus, whoever leaves the Holy Land to reside outside it is as if he had worshiped idols (Sifra, Be-Har 6); whoever bears evil tales is as if he denies the root principle of faith (Ar. 15b); whoever shames his neighbor in public is as if he had shed blood (BM 58b).

Those who cause others to sin were severely castigated by the rabbis. One who causes another to sin is worse than one who slays him, because the murderer only excludes his victim from this life, while the one who causes another to sin excludes him from the life of the world to come (Sif. Deut. 252). Jeroboam is the prototype of the one who leads others to sin (Avot 5:18).

Sin is caused by the evil *inclination (yeẓer ha-ra), the force in man which drives him to gratify his instincts and ambitions. Although called the "evil inclination" because it can easily lead man to wrongdoing, it is essential to life in that it provides life with its driving power. Were it not for the yeẓer ha-ra, remarks a rabbinic Midrash (Gen. R. 9:7), a man would not build a house, or marry, or have children, or engage in commerce. In similar vein is the curious legend (Yoma 69b) that the men of the Great Synagogue wanted to kill the yeẓer ha-ra, who warned them that if they were successful the "world would go down," i.e., would come to an end. They therefore imprisoned him for three days and then searched all the land for a new-laid egg without finding one. Passages such as these, however, must not be construed as suggesting any rabbinic acceptance of the inevitability of sin or of its condonation. The strongest expressions are used of the heinousness of sin and surrender to the yeẓer ha-ra. R. Simeon b. Lakish said "Satan, the yeẓer ha-ra, and the angel of death are one and the same" (BB 16a). The yeẓer ha-ra entices man to sin in this world and bears witness against him in the future world (Suk. 52b). The yeẓer ha-ra assaults man every day, endeavoring to kill him, and if God would not support him, man could not resist him; as it is said (Ps. 37:32): "The wicked watcheth the righteous and seeketh to slay him. The Lord will not leave him in his hand" (ibid.). Unless severe control is exercised man becomes the prey of sin. Commenting on II Samuel 12:4, it is said that the yeẓer ha-ra is at first called a "passerby," then a "guest," and finally "one who occupies the house" (ibid.). When a man sins and repeats the sin, it no longer seems to him as forbidden (Yoma 86b).

The much discussed question of whether there are any parallels to the Christian doctrine of original sin in rabbinic literature can be disposed of simply by noting that there are no such parallels. The passages which state that "four died through the serpent's machinations" (Shab. 55b) and that "the serpent copulated with Eve and infected her with his filth" (Shab. 146a), quoted in this connection, expressly exclude Israel from the effects of the serpent's machinations and his filth, and in all probability are an intentional polemic against the doctrine of original sin. Nevertheless, while the rabbis do not see sin as hereditary – that man is bound to sin because of Adam's sin – their views are far removed from "liberal" optimism regarding man's inherent goodness, as the doctrine of the yeẓer ha-ra clearly demonstrates. It is recorded that the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years whether it were better for man not to have been created (i.e., because of his propensity to sin); it was finally decided that it would have been better if he had not been created, but since he has been let him investigate his deeds (Eruv. 13b).

Counsels are given to man as to how he can rise above sin. He should know that above him there is a seeing eye and a hearing ear and that all his deeds are recorded in a book (Avot 2:1). He should reflect that he comes from a putrid drop, that he goes to a place of dust, worms, and maggots, and that he is destined to give an account and a reckoning before the King of kings (Avot 3:1). But the study of the Torah and the practice of the precepts are the best method of avoiding sin (Sot. 21a). God says: "My children! I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote; if you occupy yourselves with the Torah you will not be delivered into [the inclination's] hand" (Kid. 30b). The school of R. Ishmael taught: "My son, if this repulsive wretch [the yeẓer ha-ra] attacks you, lead him to the house of learning: if he is stone, he will dissolve; if iron, he will shiver into fragments" (Kid. 30b).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

L. Koehler, Old Testament Theology (1957), ch. 51; E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (1958), pt. 3, ch. 1; J. Scharbert, in BZ, 2 (1958), 14–26, 190–213; L.F. Hartmann, in: CBQ, 20 (1958), 26–40; D. Daube, in: JJS, 10 (1959), 1–13; idem, Sin, Ignorance and Forgiveness in the Bible (1960); R. Knierim, Die Hauptbegriffe fuer Suende im Alten Testament (1965); idem, in: VT, 16 (1966), 366–85; K. Koch, in: Evangelische Theologie, 26 (1966), 169–90; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–483. RABBINIC VIEWS: S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 219–343; G.F. Moore, Judaism (1958), 445–552; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); C.M. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1938), index; A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (1949), 95–103; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1970), 371–392.

Source

Encyclopaedia Judaica


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