Tinok shenishba (Hebrew: תינוק שנשבה, literally, "captured infant") is a talmudical term that refers to a Jewish individual who sins inadvertently as a result of having been raised without an appreciation for the thought and practices of Judaism. Its status is widely applied in contemporary Orthodox Judaism to unaffiliated Jews today.
Tinok shenishba is short for Tinok shenishba bein hanochrim, which translates as, "An infant captured [and consequently raised] among gentiles." An individual doesn't literally have to have been "captured" as an infant to fall within the definition of a tinok shenishba.
Application of tinok shenishba in Jewish law
Codification in the Talmud
Reference to the concept of tinok shenishba occurs in the Talmud. In Shavuos 5a, the Gemarah states that responsibility for inadvertent transgression is only placed upon an individual who knew the correct law at two points in time and forgot the law sometime in between. If that individual knew the law and subsequently forgot the law, and never again remembered or received a reminder, they would be an unwitting transgressor. Similarly, if an individual never knew the law in the first place, and subsequently learned the law, they would also be an unwitting transgressor. This latter example could fall under the category of a tinok shenishba.
In Shabbat 68b, there is a dispute between Rav and Shmuel on one side and Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish on the other in regards to in what type of situations would a tinok shenishba, along with a convert who was similarly raised among gentiles, be responsible for punishment and/or repentance along with the offering of animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple upon transgression of the laws of Shabbat. The halacha follows that a tinok shenishba would only be required to do one act of repentance for the many, many times they were in transgression because all their sins stemmed from a single instance of not knowing the proper laws to obey.
Practical relevance of tinok shenishba in the modern era
Maimonides speaks out strongly against those who deny the validity of the Oral Torah, including the Mishna and the Talmud, labeling them as heretics. This would include Karaite Jews. He claims they deserve neither witnesses, warning, nor judges to be punished according to Jewish law. Rather, anyone who removes them from existence merits great reward as one who removed an obstacle from the proper course of Jewish belief and practice.
However, Maimonides expresses concern for the offspring of such individuals, and excludes them from those who deserve such punishment because they participated unwittingly in their denial of Torah and mitzvos. While they are indeed sinners, he declares them unintentional participants in their lack of adherence to Jewish law and belief, similar to the case of a tinok shenishba. Rather than be pushed away, such individuals are to be drawn into the Jewish community and taught the proper way so they can become observant, pious members of community.
The notion that unaffiliated and unobservant Jews are unwitting sinners who should be taught the Jewish laws and customs and welcomed into the Torah community is the basis for the many outreach organizations (Kiruv) that exist in the modern era, including Chabad, Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach and Gateways.
The common Jewish folk in Hasidic mysticism
The Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), founder of the revivalist Hasidic movement, brought a mystical soul-dimension to the traditional Talmudic notions of the Tinuk Shenishba, and the Am ha-aretz (uneducated-boorish-rustic Jews). While the former terms derive from the pre-eminent status of Torah study in Rabbinic Jewish culture, their downside was that in the 17-18th century Eastern Europe in which Hasidism emerged, their elitist notions contributed to the physical and spiritual hardship and dissenfranchisement of the common Jewish folk from deeper Jewish affiliation.
Adjusting the former hierarchy of values, the Baal Shem Tov taught that the simple, sincere common Jewish folk could be closer to God than the scholars, for whom pride may affect their scholarly achievements, and the elite scholars could envy and learn lessons in devotion from the uneducated community. The Baal Shem Tov and later Hasidic masters made deveikut the central principle in Jewish spirituality, teaching that the sincere Divine soul essence of the artless Jew reflects the essential Divine simplicity. In contemporary Hasidic views of outreach to unobservant Jews, this mystical emphasis implies that the value of a small deed of observance by unaffiliated Jews would be able to set aside one's own spiritual development, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, "a soul may come into the World for 70 years in order to do a single deed of kindness to another person".
- Talmud Shabbos 68b
- Talmud Shavuos 5a
- To Love A Fellow Jew: Our Generation: The Tinok Shenishbah
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 3:1
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 3:3
- Entry in Hayom Yom, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Kehot pub.