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Message in the Mishnah – Asham Taluy: Atonement for the Possibility of Sin

As you drive towards a busy intersection, you notice the traffic light turning yellow. Rather than slow down, you gun the engine, and just make it through before it turns red. Maybe. Which is why you’re not surprised when the police officer pulls you over. What he tells you does surprise you.

“Look,” he says. “I’m not sure if you ran the red or not. It was really close. So I’m giving you a ticket for possibly running the red. It’s no points – but there’s a fine. Try and be more careful next time.”

I know what you’re thinking. How can the officer give a ticket if he’s not sure if you ran the light? It would never happen in real life – that ticket would never see the light of day, much less a courtroom. But in Judaism, the Torah teaches us that even the possibility of sin has very real consequences.

The Mishnah in Keritut (chapter 4 – which we’re learning today!) discusses a fascinating sacrifice called the Asham Taluy – the “possible guilt offering”. In essence, it’s a sin offering for a sin that you might have committed. Imagine you had two pieces of meat on a buffet table – one kosher and one very much non-kosher, and you ate one of them, but you’re not sure which one you ate. The Torah requires you to bring a Korban Asham Taluy – not the normal Korban Chatat for a definite sin, but instead a sacrifice for perhaps committing a sinful act.

What’s the purpose of the sacrifice? Rashi (on Vayikra 5:17) explains that the offering, “protects him against punishment so long as he does not become cognizant that he has undoubtedly sinned.” Because he may have sinned, he runs the risk of punishment. Yet, he is not afforded the benefit and protection of a sin offering, because in the end, he might not have sinned after all. According to Rashi it’s not a punishment, but a perk – a form of insurance just in case he had actually sinned.

Rabbi Yossi in the Midrash (Sifra) offers a different perspective. He taught, “The Torah punishes one who has no sure knowledge that he has sinned; how much the more does it follow that [God] will punish him who does know that he is sinning and yet willfully does it.” According to Rabbi Yossi, the Asham Taluy is not simply a means of protection in case one had in fact sinned. Rather, the very possibility that one had sinned is, in and of itself, a sinful act that requires atonement.

So which is it? Is the Asham Taluy a form of protection and insurance, or is it a form of punishment? It depends on how you look at it.

Looking back at our traffic stop, one could of course argue that unless the police officer knows that I ran the red, I shouldn’t get a ticket. But when the light turned yellow, instead of slowing down as I should have, I hit the gas.

That was dangerous and reckless. Rather than exhibiting caution, I acted rashly and recklessly. Perhaps that recklessness itself demands its own atonement – whether I actually ran the red light – or not.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the Founder of the Mishnah Project which spreads the study of Mishnah around the world. You can join the Mishnah Yomit program by subscribing on WhatsApp at bit.ly/dailymishnah

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