Jewish views on sin

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Judaism regards the violation of any of the divine commandments to be a sin. Judaism teaches that sin is an act, and not a state of being. Humankind was not created with an inclination to do evil, but has that inclination "from his youth." (Genesis 8:21).

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The first mention of sin as a noun is a zoomorphism, with sin (hattath) crouching at Cain's door. The first as a verb is Abimelech being prevented from sinning (khata) against God in a dream.

People do have the ability to master this inclination (Genesis 4:7) and choose good over evil (conscience)(Psalm 37:27).[1] Judaism uses the term "sin" to include violations of Jewish law that are not necessarily a lapse in morality. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia: "Man is responsible for sin because he is endowed with free will ("behirah"); yet he is by nature frail, and the tendency of the mind is to evil: "For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. viii. 21; Yoma 20a; Sanh. 105a). Therefore God in His mercy allowed people to repent and be forgiven."[2] Judaism holds that all people sin at various points in their lives, and hold that God tempers justice with mercy.

Terminology[edit]

Hebrew has several other words for sin beyond hata, each with its own specific meaning. The word pesha, or "trespass", means a sin done out of rebelliousness. The word aveira means "transgression". And the word avone, or "iniquity", means a sin done out of moral failing. The word most commonly translated simply as "sin", hata, literally means "to go astray." Just as Jewish law, halakha provides the proper "way" (or path) to live, sin involves straying from that path.

Judaism teaches that humans are born with free will, and morally neutral, with both a yetzer hatov, (literally, "the good inclination", in some views, a tendency towards goodness, in others, a tendency towards having a productive life and a tendency to be concerned with others) and a yetzer hara, (literally "the evil inclination", in some views, a tendency towards evil, and in others, a tendency towards base or animal behavior and a tendency to be selfish). The yetzer hara in some forms of Judaism means that Satan is merely an idiom or parable, rather than the fallen angel of traditional Christianity.

Role of orthopraxy[edit]

Jews recognize two kinds of sin, offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews have believed that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins. Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states the following:

One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim ("loving kindness"), as it is stated "I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

In Judaism all human beings are believed to have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. It does not teach that choosing good is impossible - only at times more difficult. There is almost always a "way back" if a person wills it. (Although texts mention certain categories for whom the way back will be exceedingly hard, such as the slanderer, the habitual gossip, and the malicious person)

Transgression[edit]

The generic Hebrew word for any kind of sin is avera (literally: transgression). Based on verses in the Hebrew Bible, Judaism describes three levels of sin. There are three categories of a person who commits an avera. The first one is someone who does an avera intentionally, or "B'mezid." This is the most serious category. The second is one who did an avera by accident. This is called "B'shogeg," and while the person is still responsible for their action it is considered less serious. The third category is someone who is a "Tinok Shenishba", which is a person who was raised in an environment that was assimilated or non-Jewish, and is not aware of the proper Jewish laws, or halacha. This person is not held accountable for his or her actions.

  • Pesha (deliberate sin; in modern Hebrew: crime) or Mered (lit.: rebellion) - An intentional sin; an action committed in deliberate defiance of God; (Strong's Concordance :H6588 (פשע pesha', peh'shah). According to Strong it comes from the root (:H6586); rebellion, transgression, trespass.
  • Avon (lit.: iniquity) - This is a sin of lust or uncontrollable emotion. It is a sin done knowingly, but not done to defy God; (Strong's Concordance :H5771 (avon, aw-vone). According to Strong it comes from the root (:H5753); meaning perversity, moral evil:--fault, iniquity, mischief.
  • Cheit - This is an unintentional sin, crime or fault. (Strong's Concordance :H2399 (חַטָּא chate). According to Strong it comes from the root khaw-taw (:H2398, H2403) meaning "to miss, to err from the mark (speaking of an archer), to sin, to stumble."

States[edit]

Judaism holds that no human being is perfect, and all people have sinned many times. However, certain states of sin (i.e. avon or cheit) do not condemn a person to damnation; only one or two truly grievous sins lead to anything approaching the standard conception of hell. The scriptural and rabbinic conception of God is that of a creator who tempers justice with mercy. Based on the views of Rabbeinu Tam in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh HaShanah 17b), God is said to have Thirteen Attributes of Mercy:

  1. God is merciful before someone sins, even though God knows that a person is capable of sin.
  2. God is merciful to a sinner even after the person has sinned.
  3. God represents the power to be merciful even in areas that a human would not expect or deserve.
  4. God is compassionate, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
  5. God is gracious even to those who are not deserving.
  6. God is slow to anger.
  7. God is abundant in kindness.
  8. God is the God of truth, thus we can count on God's promises to forgive repentant sinners.
  9. God guarantees kindness to future generations, as the deeds of the righteous patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) have benefits to all their descendants.
  10. God forgives intentional sins if the sinner repents.
  11. God forgives a deliberate angering of Him if the sinner repents.
  12. God forgives sins that are committed in error.
  13. God wipes away the sins from those who repent.

As Jews are commanded in imitatio Dei, emulating God, rabbis take these attributes into account in deciding Jewish law and its contemporary application.

Value of repentance[edit]

The Babylonian Talmud teaches that "Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one's table atones [when the poor are invited as guests]." (Tractate Berachot, 55a.)

Repentance in itself is also a means of atonement (See Ezekiel 33:11, 33:19, Jeremiah 36:3, etc.) The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah which literally means to "return (to God)." The prophet Hosea (14:3) said, "Take with you words, and return to God."

Judaism teaches that our personal relationship with God allows us to turn directly to Him at any time, as Malachi 3:7 says, "Return to Me and I shall return to you," and Ezekiel 18:27, "When the wicked man turns away from his wickedness that he has committed, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." Additionally, God is extremely compassionate and forgiving as is indicated in Daniel 9:18, "We do not present our supplications before You because of our righteousness, but because of Your abundant mercy."

The traditional liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (charitable actions) are ways to repent for sin. In Judaism, sins committed against people (rather than against God or in the heart) must first be corrected and put right to the best of a person's ability; a sin which has not also been put right as best as possible cannot truly be said to be repented.

Selflessness vs. selfishness[edit]

The rabbis recognize a positive value to the yetzer hara: one tradition identifies it with the observation on the last day of creation that God's accomplishment was "very good" (God's work on the preceding days was just described as "good") and explain that without the yetzer ha'ra there would be no marriage, children, commerce or other fruits of human labor; the implication is that yetzer ha'tov and yetzer ha'ra are best understood not as moral categories of good and evil but as selfless versus selfish orientations, either of which used rightly can serve God's will.

Or as Hillel the Elder famously summarized the Jewish philosophy:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
"And when I am for myself, what am 'I'?
"And if not now, [then] when?

Another explanation is, without the existence of the yetzer ha'ra, there would be no merit earned in following God's commandments; choice is only meaningful if there has indeed been a choice made. So whereas creation was "good" before, it became "very good" when the evil inclination was added, for then it became possible to truly say that man could make a true choice to obey God's "mitzvot" (commandments). This is because Judaism views the following of God's ways as a desirable end in and of itself rather than a means to an end.

Atonement[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Repentance in Judaism.

Atonement for sins is discussed in the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Rituals for atonement occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem, and were performed by the Kohanim, the Israelite priests. These services included song, prayer, offerings and animal sacrifices known as the korbanot. The rites for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are prescribed in the book of Leviticus chapter 15. The ritual of the scapegoat, sent into the wilderness to be claimed by Azazel, was one of these observances (Lev. 16:20-22).

Note that modern Judaism's views on sin and atonement are not identical to those in the Hebrew Bible alone, but rather are based on the laws of the Bible as seen through the Jewish oral law.

Liturgical norms[edit]

The liturgy of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days; i.e. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) states that prayer, repentance and tzedakah (the dutiful giving of charity) atone for sin. But prayer cannot atone for wrongs done, without an honest sincere attempt to rectify any wrong done to the best of one's ability, and the sincere intention to avoid repetition. Atonement to Jews means to repent and set aside, and the word "T'shuvah" used for atonement actually means "to return". Judaism is optimistic in that it always sees a way that a determined person may return to what is good, and that God waits for that day too.

A number of animal sacrifices were prescribed in the Torah (five books of Moses) to make atonement: a sin-offering for sins, and a guilt offering for religious trespasses. The significance of animal sacrifice is not expanded on at length in the Torah, though Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17 suggest that blood and vitality were linked. Conservative Jews and Christians argue at the present era that the Jews never believed that the aim of all sacrifice is to pay the debt for sins - only the sin offering and the guilt offering had this purpose; modern scholars of early Jewish history, however, often disagree and argue that this division came later.

Later Biblical prophets occasionally make statements to the effect that the hearts of the people were more important than their sacrifices - "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (I Samuel 15:22); "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6); "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17) (see also Isaiah 1:11, Psalm 40:6-8).

Although the animal sacrifices were prescribed for atonement, there is no place where the Hebrew Bible says that animal sacrifice is the only means of atonement. Hebrew Bible teaches that it is possible to return to God through repentance and prayer alone. For example, in the books of Jonah and Esther, both Jews and gentiles repented, prayed to God and were forgiven for their sins, without having offered any sacrifices.[1] Additionally, in modern times, most Jews do not even consider animal sacrifices.

On the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur - also known as the Day of Atonement-, and the ten-day period between these holidays, repentance of sins committed is based on specialized prayers and hymns, while some Jews continue the ancient methods of sacrifice. An example of a common method of "sacrificing" for the sake of repentance is simply to drop bread into a body of water, to signify the passing of sins and the hope for one to be written into the Book of Life by God once again. This is especially emphasized on what is arguably the holiest Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.

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