The first sacrifice discussed in Parashat Vayikra is the voluntary ola offering – a bull, sheep, goat or bird which is burnt entirely upon the altar. Although this sacrifice is strictly voluntary, the Torah writes that one earns atonement through this sacrifice (“ve-nirtza lo le-khapeir alav” – 1:4) – clearly indicating that this sacrifice serves to bring atonement for certain transgressions. Torat Kohanim, as Rashi cites, explains that the ola atones for misdeeds for which no other punishment is ever mentioned by the Torah. Some transgressions are punishable by death – either by Beit Din, or by God – and others by lashes, and this is how one earns atonement for these offenses. The only misdeed for which the Torah does not mention any means of atonement is the neglect of a mitzvat asei – affirmative command (with the notable exceptions of berit mila and the Pesach sacrifice, the neglect of which is punishable by kareit). Chazal thus understood that the ola sacrifice serves to atone for the neglect of mitzvot asei. (It atones also for the violation of a lav ha-nitak la-asei – a prohibition associated with an affirmative command, which is treated like an affirmative command.) Although the Torah does not strictly require one to bring an ola in such a case, the way it obligates sinners in some other situations to bring an atonement sacrifice, one who neglects a mitzvat asei is given the opportunity to achieve atonement through the offering of an ola.
The Ramban raises the question of why Chazal did not consider the possibility that an ola sacrifice atones for inadvertent violations which do not require other sacrifices. The only categories of sins for which the Torah explicitly requires offering an atonement offering are inadvertent violations which, had they been committed intentionally, would be punishable by execution or kareit. For inadvertent violations which, had they been committed intentionally, are punishable by lashes or by mita bi-ydei Shamayim (death at the hands of God), the Torah does not mention any requirement of a sin offering. Why, then, did Chazal not assume that an ola sacrifice atones for these violations, and determined instead that an ola atones only for the neglect of a mitzvat asei?
The Ramban explained that since the Torah stated the punishment for intentional violations of these sins (meaning, those punishable by lashes or mita bi-ydei Shamayim), and did not mention any requirements to atone for inadvertent violations, we may assume that there are no such requirements. If a sacrifice were required for these inadvertent violations, then the Torah would have informed us of this requirement – just as it informed us of the sacrifice requirement in cases of inadvertent violations of sins punishable by execution and kareit. The fact that no clear mention is made of such a requirement suggests that there is no such requirement, and sins for which intentional violators are punished with lashes or mita bi-ydei Shamayim do not require any atonement measures when they are violated inadvertently. Therefore, Chazal determined that an ola sacrifice atones only for intentional neglect of a mitzvat asei.
In presenting this analysis, the Ramban writes that in cases of inadvertent violation of sins punishable by lashes or mita bi-ydei Shamayim, the sinners “have no bearing of iniquity, and do not require appeasement at all.” As several later writers have noted, the Ramban here seems to take the position that one who mistakenly violates one of these prohibitions bears no guilt whatsoever, and does not need atonement at all. This position would stand in direct contrast to the clear ruling of the Rambam in Hilkhot Teshuva (1:1) that repentance is required in any case of a violation of Torah law, whether one transgressed intentionally or unintentionally. However, Rav Meir Dan Platzky, in his Keli Chemda (Vayeitzei, 3), writes that the Ramban cannot possibly mean that no atonement is needed for inadvertent violation of these laws. Undoubtedly, Rav Platzky writes, the Ramban agrees that one must repent for these accidental violations, and he means only that no ritual means of atonement – such as a sacrifice – is needed in such a case.
Others suggest a distinction between the guilt one incurs through wrongdoing, and the harmful spiritual effects of sin. The Ramban writes that one who inadvertently commits one of these sins does not incur guilt, but he would agree that the individual is still negatively impacted by the wrongful act which he performed. The one who committed the act must therefore repent, to reverse the adverse spiritual effect of the act, even though he does not require atonement to erase his guilt.