The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Rav Binyamin Tabory
There are thirty-six mitzvot in the Torah punishable by "karet." ("Karet" literally means "cut off"; the meaning of this punishment and its relationship to "mita bidei shamayim" [death by heaven, as opposed to court-administered execution] is discussed by Tosafot, Yevamot 2a s.v. "eishet achiv"). Intentional violation of these prohibitions renders one liable for karet; when one commits one of these violations unintentionally, he must bring a "korban chatat" (a sin offering). If one is in doubt whether he has indeed committed such a sin, he must bring an "asham taluy" (Mishna, Keritot 1:1). The Torah introduces this korban in Parashat Vayikra (5:17-19).
The Ramban explained that the different names of the various sacrifices reflect existential differences in their respective natures. The chatat is etymologically related to the word "cheit," which really means to deviate, or "miss the target." "Asham," however, is related to "shemama" desolation. This sacrifice is brought to atone for and protect one who deserves to be lost and desolate. Thus, the asham taluy, which one brings in situations of doubt, is, in one sense, more severe than the chatat. The Ramban explains that since the person involved thinks he does not actually deserve punishment, as he is unsure whether he sinned, the Torah was even more stringent in his case (Ramban Vayikra 5:15).
Rabbeinu Yona, a disciple of the Ramban, quotes and amplifies his mentor's opinion. He writes that the person who knows he sinned will be concerned and worried. He will regret his action and perform genuine teshuva (repentance). By contrast, the person who is unsure whether or not he sinned, will not find it necessary to perform teshuva for perhaps he did nothing wrong at all. The asham is therefore costlier than the chatat, as the Torah wished him to be aware of the severity of the matter, and not to take it lightly. If he does not bring his asham, he will be "shemama" - desolate (Rabbeinu Yona, Berakhot I, cited by Rav Chavel in his notes to the Ramban).
The word "taluy" literally means "hanging." The Rambam explained (Hilkhot Shegagot 8:1) that this korban atones for the case in doubt and the matter is held "hanging" in abeyance until the issue is clarified. If it is later discovered that the individual did in fact sin, he must then bring a chatat. The asham did not earn him full atonement for his misdeed; it serves merely to temporarily allay his fears and doubts.
R. Eliezer held that anyone may bring an asham taluy anytime he so desires. He felt that since this korban does not really attain atonement, but rather temporarily protects the individual, one may bring it whenever he wishes. In fact, it is recorded that Bava ben Buta brought an asham taluy every day of the year except for the day after Yom Kippur (since he undoubtedly achieved at least some level of atonement on Yom Kippur). The chakhamim however differed, and held that one may bring an asham taluy only in the specific instance where this type of doubt arises (Mishna, Keritot 6:3). The Rambam (Peirush Ha-Mishnayot ad loc.) commented that according to the chakhamim, the obligation to bring an asham taluy stems from the severity of the issue involved. The korban serves to calm and allay the fears of the person plagued by the possibility that he committed this grave sin. The Rambam codified the opinion of the chakhamim forbidding one from bringing a voluntary asham taluy (Peirush Ha-Mishnayot ad loc., Hilkhot Shegagot 8:1).
At first glance, this issue appears practically irrelevant nowadays, until the time when korbanot are restored. In truth, however, this issue bears interesting, practical ramifications even nowadays. The Tur (O.C. 1:7) writes that after the daily recitation of each of the sections of korbanot, one should say, "Master of the Universe, this should be considered and accepted as if I brought this particular korban." However, one may not say this prayer after reciting the chatat section, since one never brings a chatat unless he committed a transgression requiring a chatat. Yet, one may recite this prayer after the asham section. The Beit Yosef (ad loc.) reasoned that the Tur's ruling allowing the recitation of this prayer after the asham section demonstrates that he, like Bava ben Buta, followed the opinion of R. Eliezer. Of course, the Beit Yosef was then compelled to wrestle with the question of why this is not limited to the asham taluy. After all, a regular asham, like a chatat, certainly may not be brought voluntarily. The Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 1:7) raises another issue where this matter becomes relevant, and the Shakh suggested the Rama was unsure how to pasken, and we should therefore act stringently in this regard.
The Sefer Ha-Yereim (441 or 363) mentioned that there is only one mitzva involved, namely, to atone for sin through prayer and sacrifice. The commentary To'afot Re'em explains that this would include all korbanot brought as a result of sin: chatat, asham and asham taluy. The Rambam, however, enumerated each korban individually. In fact, he found it necessary to explain (in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, shoresh 14) why he did not list each individual sin which would require each korban, and instead listed one mitzva including those who must bring a chatat, another including everyone who must bring an asham taluy, and so on.
Rav Perla found this puzzling. Even if the Rambam listed all who must bring a chatat and all who must bring an asham as separate mitzvot, why does he count chatat and asham taluy separately? Why does he not count a single mitzva to atone for sins involving karet either through an asham taluy (when in doubt) or through a chatat (when he knows with certainty that he sinned)?
We might suggest that there exists a fundamental distinction between the atonement of the chatat and that achieved through the asham taluy. Whereas the chatat grants the sinner full atonement, the asham taluy merely "hangs" the situation in abeyance. Given that these two sacrifices yield such different results, the Rambam counts them as two separate mitzvot.
The Sefer Ha-Chinukh writes (Mitzva 128) that when it is discovered that the sin was in fact committed, the initial asham taluy is not sufficient and one must bring a chatat to complete the atonement. If it turns out that the individual did not commit the sin, it reveals that the asham taluy was sufficient, and thus no other korban is required.
This formulation would imply that even one who has not actually sinned requires the asham taluy (which the Chinukh says was "sufficient" if it turns out that no sin was committed). Quite reasonably then, the requirement to bring this korban to assuage feelings of guilt and allay fears may be considered an independent mitzva, as this obligation differs fundamentally from the obligation to earn atonement through a chatat when one knows with certainty that he has sinned.