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The Semantics of Sin (Aharei Mot)

Yom Kippur—in many ways the single holiest day on the Jewish calendar—is, as its name in Hebrew suggests, a day dedicated to “atonement.” For twenty-five hours we abstain from food, drink, and other physical pleasures, and immerse ourselves in prayer and self-reflection.  On multiple occasions throughout the day we recite a long list of wrongdoings that we have committed during the past year, known colloquially as the viduy—the “confession.” And we also read from the Torah, twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

The Torah readings for Yom Kippur are taken from this week’s Parshah, Aharei Mot. Their focus is on the order of sacrifices that the Kohen Gadol used to offer in the days when our Beit HaMikdash stood in Jerusalem. But the Parshah of Aharei Mot does not deal exclusively with the rituals of Yom Kippur. In fact, one who studies Aharei Mot in its entirety might conclude that the laws of the Yom Kippur worship constitute a sort of lengthy digression from the Parshah’s main topic of discussion. Here, in that vein, is a breakdown of the structure of our Parshah:

Verses Description
Lev. 16:1-2 Prohibition to “enter the sanctuary at all times,” i.e. to enter certain hallowed zones of the Tabernacle whenever one pleases, as Aaron’s sons had done
Lev. 16:3-34 Permission to enter the sanctuary “once a year,” on Yom Kippur, along with the details of the laws of that day
Lev. 17 Prohibition of offering sacrifices outside the Tabernacle
Lev. 18 Prohibition on incest and other sexual relationships

When we take a “bird’s-eye-view” of our Parshah, we discover that it addresses two fundamental categories of sin: (a) forbidden modes of worshipping Hashem; and (b) forbidden acts of sexual intercourse. This observation prompts (at least) two questions: (a) how are these two sets of laws connected to each other?; and (b) how are these two sets of laws, taken together, connected to the theme of Yom Kippur?

It is interesting to note that we do not actually read all of Aharei Mot over the course of Yom Kippur. At Shacharit we read Leviticus 16. At Mincha we read Leviticus 18. Never do we read the middle portion, Leviticus 17. Yet it is precisely in this middle portion where we find the literary link that connects our Parshah’s two strands. At the center of the chapter, Hashem declares:

They [i.e. the Israelites] shall no longer slaughter their offerings to the demons after which they are “zonim.” This shall be an eternal decree to them for their generations (Lev. 17:7).

The Torah describes the act of sacrificing outside of the Tabernacle with the root z-n-h. It is a root that only appears in one of two contexts throughout Tanach. The verb zonim, as we find it in our verse, refers idiomatically to the practice of idolatry.[i] The noun zonah, meanwhile, denotes a prostitute.[ii] It is through the use of the root z.n.h, then, that our Parshah delicately bridges its first half, which discusses forbidden modes of divine worship, with its second half, which discusses forbidden sexual relations.

Nor is this connection merely linguistic. Though z-n-h applies both to idolatry and to prostitution as a sort of technical term, its semantic import is much more benign: at its most elemental level, z-n-h simply means “to stray.”[iii] To some extent, the Torah thus intimates, the problem with idolatry and with prostitution is essentially one of “straying”—that is, of “moving away aimlessly from the right course or place.”[iv] Implicit in this terminology is the notion that before the sinner sinned, he or she was actually pursuing an acceptable end.

This perspective in fact reflects the Torah’s presentation of sin more generally. To that end, one who analyzes the nomenclature employed by the Torah to label acts which it considers inappropriate notices a remarkable pattern: all of the Torah’s terms for “sin” are related conceptually to the idea of “straying.” These “sin terms” are delineated as part of the formula of the “thirteen divine attributes” that we invoke throughout Yom Kippur:

And Hashem passed before him [i.e. Moshe] and proclaimed: Hashem, Hashem, benevolent God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity [עון] and rebellion [פשע] and sin [חטאה]… (Exod. 34:6-7).

Each of these three terms—עון, פשע and חטא—communicates the concept of “sin” in one way or another.[v] But each also carries another meaning. Consider, for instance, the way the terms are used in the following verses:

Of all these people there were seven hundred chosen men with a shriveled right hand. All these could sling a stone at a hair-breadth and not miss [the mark] [ח.ט.א] (Jud. 20:16).

And David swore further, and said, “Your father knows that I have found favor in your eyes, and he said, ‘Let not Jonathan know this, lest he become saddened.’ But, indeed, as the Lord lives, and by the life of your soul, there is but a [mis]step [פ.ש.ע] between me and death” (I Sam. 20:3).

He has walled up my roads with hewn stones, He has made my paths bent [ע.ו.ה] (Lam. 3:9).

ssThough we instinctively associate the terms ח.ט.א, פ.ש.ע and ע.ו.ה with moral or religious wrongdoing, these terms, like ז.נ.ה, are neither starkly nor even specifically axiological in origin. As demonstrated by the verses cited above, the terms merely mean “to miss the mark;” to “misstep;” to “bend” away from some ideal end.[vi] The upshot of this is that sin, from the Torah’s perspective, is not synonymous with inherent evil, as it is in, say, the Confessions of St. Augustine.[vii] Sin, in Judaism, is much subtler than that. Often it is an otherwise perfectly acceptable (and perhaps even admirable) action that acquires the status of “sin,” simply because it was undertaken at the wrong time or place; our motives were fundamentally fine, but the circumstances in which we chose to give them expression rendered our conduct indecent. That distinction may seem slight. Yet it is a distinction which, as Robert Frost once put it, can “make all the difference” in shaping the trajectory of our spiritual lives.

Perhaps it is in order to emphasize precisely this point that the two sins on which we focus in particular during the Torah reading for Yom Kippur are idolatry and incest.  Indeed, that better examples of “missing the mark” could there be? After all, one who commits avodah zarah, or who succumbs to the temptation of arayot, seeks no less than the highest form of closeness with God or with his fellow human being (as the case may be). From a religious point of view, it is difficult to conceive of nobler objectives than these; taken together, they represent the pinnacle of man’s relationships bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero.  At issue, then, is not the sinner’s desire per se. All that the Torah takes issue with is the way his desires are directed—or, rather, misdirected. We are dealing here with sordid behaviors, produced by sacred aspirations.

Thus do we return to our Parshah’s opening injunction: אל יבא בכל עת אל הקדש.  In context, these words forbid Aaron and his sons from entering the sanctuary whenever they please. Homiletically, however, the phrase might be interpreted with reference to the nature of all sin. Socrates, after all, was not far off when he observed that no man is willingly wicked.[viii] Most men indeed are not. But neither does every path paved with good intentions lead straight to heaven. Everything is holy at some time, but very few things are holy at all times. Therefore, knowing when and how to access the holy drives within us, and when and how to abstain from them, is a critical skill to possess if we wish to successfully negotiate life’s challenges and complexities.

So too is the willingness to adjust our course when we make a wrong turn. One who considers himself irredeemably tainted by dint of his misdeeds necessarily lacks the ethical imagination required for such a radical change of character. Yet the Torah, through its vocabulary for sin, assures us that we are never totally “lost.” Though we may occasionally veer off the straight and narrow, we are always capable of steering ourselves back in the right direction. We are always capable of תשובה—repentance, realignment, and ultimately, return.

Shabbat shalom!


[i] See, for instance, Exodus 34:15-16; Judges 8:22, 33; Ezekiel 20:30; I Chronicles 5:25.

[ii] See, for instance, Deuteronomy 23:19; Joshua 2:1; Judges 11:1; I Kings 3:16; Ezekiel 23:44.

[iii] Thus, for instance, Numbers 15:36—which we recite twice a day as part of keriat shema—reads: “…and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you are led astray [זנים].”

[iv] “Stray,” Oxford English Dictionary.

[v] The Talmud (Yoma 36b) distinguishes between these categories of sin as follows: “עונות are deliberate misdeeds… פשעים are rebellious deeds… [and] חטאים are inadvertent omissions.”

[vi] Incidentally, some of the analogous English expressions for sin reflect the Biblical view of sin as a form of “straying” off of the ideal path (as opposed to a form of calculated cruelty or incorrigible evil). The word “transgression,” for instance, originates in the Latin transgredi, which means to “over step” the boundary, and the word “iniquity” originates in the Latin iniquus, meaning “slanting.” Nor would it seem to be an accident that “off the derech,” i.e., “off the path,” is the euphemism used in contemporary Yeshivish to describe the lifestyle of one who has ceased to observe Jewish law.

[vii] In a fascinating (if somewhat incredulous) reflection on the psychology of sin, Augustine writes:

Let my heart now tell you what prompted me to do wrong for no purpose, and why it was only my own love of mischief that made me do it. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it. I loved my own perdition and my own faults, not the things for which I committed wrong, but the wrong itself. My soul was vicious and broke away from your safe keeping to seek its own destruction, looking for no profit in disgrace but only for disgrace itself.

[viii] Plato attributes this position to Socrates in the Protagoras: “No intelligent man believes that anybody ever willingly errs or willingly does base and evil deeds; they are well aware that all who do base and evil things to them unwillingly.”


  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you for the excellent analysis and Shabbat Shalom.

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