It is a serious misunderstanding to think that in the time that the Temple stood people could bring sacrifices to atone for sins that they committed. In fact under most circumstances, sacrifices could be brought for atonement only for certain sins and only when the sin was done accidentally.
- A sheep or a female goat by an individual sinner (Vayikra 4:27-28, 31)
- A male goat by the nasi – the king (Vayikra 4:22-23)
- A bull by the bet din – the High Court or by the mashiah – the High Priest
only if they were sins for which the punishment is zedono karet ve-shigegato hatat – for doing them with malice aforethought would have been karet (literally “being cut off”) – a heavenly punishment, and if done by accident would have obligated the perpetrator in a sin-offering.
This last clause, that an accidental perpetrator would be obligated to bring a sin-offering, appears to be redundant, since that is precisely what we are trying to determine. Tosafot explain that it is simply a common phrase to say zedono karet ve-shigegato hatat, but that the point is that it must be something for which a person would receive karet, if done on purpose. In fact, the Rosh points out, this expression acts as a reminder that almost all cases where the punishment is karet, the atonement for doing the act accidentally is a hatat – a sin-offering.
The first Mishnah in Masechet Keritot enumerates 36 forbidden acts for which a person would receive the punishment of karet when done on purpose. If any of these are done accidentally, the person who does them must bring a hatat with the exception of five –
- Someone who does not perform a brit milah (circumcision)
- Someone who does not bring a korban pesach (Passover sacrifice)
- A megadef – someone who blasphemes
- A tameh – someone who is ritually impure who eats of kodshim (sacred food)
- A tameh who enters the precincts of the Temple
Of these five, no sacrifice is brought for the first three since the person did not perform a punishable act. The last three do not bring an ordinary sin-offering, but a different sacrifice, instead (see 5:1-13).