The title of Massekhet Karetot stems from its focus on Biblical transgressions for which the perpetrator is liable to receive a punishment of karet. The tractate does not deal with the definition of karet itself – which is understood as a Divinely imposed penalty and variously defined as a shortened life-span, a spiritual death, or being unable to procreate – rather with its implications in Jewish law. That is to say, situations where a person unwittingly violates a law for which the punishment is karet and will be obligated to bring a korban ḥatat – a sin offering – or where such a person is unsure whether or not he has transgressed and will be obligated to bring an asham taluy – a provisional guilt offering.
The fact that sin offerings are brought only on sins performed unwittingly teaches us a number of basic issues regarding the Torah perspective on crime and punishment. First, an offering can atone only for unwitting transgressions. Second, even an unwitting transgression is a problematic act that impacts on the spiritual standing of the perpetrator, for which atonement is necessary. This is especially clear when viewing the obligation to bring an asham taluy, where it is not certain that a sinful act had been committed, but the individual cannot deny the possibility that such an action may have taken place. Finally, the fact that even for the most serious offenses there remains the possibility for atonement.
Thus, this tractate focuses on the sin offering and the provisional guilt offering, but it does not deal with the details of their sacrifice, the animals that are brought, and so forth – topics that are taught in Massekhet Zevaḥim and Massekhet Temura. Rather it deals with the sins for which these sacrifices are brought, and the circumstances that lead a person to be obligated in these sacrifices.
The Sin Offering (Korban Ḥatat)
The sin offering discussed in Massekhet Karetot is called a ḥatat kevu’ah (a fixed sin offering), which has a number of features that distinguish it from other sacrifices whose purpose is to grant atonement. The discussions about this sacrifice that appear in the Gemara focus on four main issues:
- The sins for which the korban ḥatat is brought,
- Defining when a sin is considered to have been performed unwittingly,
- Recognizing that a sin has been performed,
- The number of sacrifices that a person will be obligated to bring.
1. The sins for which the korban ḥatat is brought
The Torah teaches that there is a clear connection between a korban ḥatat brought for an unwitting transgression and the punishment of karet (see 15:27-31). This leads to the conclusion that any purposeful sin for which the punishment would be karet, in the event that the sin was performed unwittingly the requirement is to bring a korban ḥatat in order to attain atonement. The first Mishna in Massekhet Karetot lists the sins that confer the penalty of karet. Almost half of them involve incestuous and adulterous sins, with the rest being connected with issues of desecration of God’s Name, violation of the major Jewish holidays and festivals, sins related to the Temple and the Temple service, and certain prohibitions regarding forbidden foods. In general, a korban ḥatat is brought only for violating negative commandments and not on neglecting to perform positive commandments – even those for which there is a punishment of karet (the Paschal sacrifice and circumcision). Even so, violation of negative commandments will only obligate a person in a korban ḥatat if there is a forbidden action that was performed.
Beyond establishing which sins obligate a person in a korban ḥatat, it is also essential to define what act must be performed in order to transgress the prohibition. For example, in cases of incestuous and adulterous relations, what is defined as the forbidden sexual act? Regarding forbidden foods, what is considered “eating” – how much must be eaten, how must it be eaten and within what period of time must it be eaten?
2. Defining when a sin is considered to have been performed unwittingly
As noted, the most basic requirement for bringing a korban ḥatat is that the prohibition is performed unwittingly. There are two ways in which this can happen: One possibility is a mistake made with regard to the law, that the person is fully cognizant of what he is doing, but he believes that it is permitted. A second possibility is when the individual is aware of the prohibition, but he makes a mistake with regard to the reality, e.g., when he believes that a piece of meat is permitted fat (shuman), when it is really forbidden fat (ḥelev).
When the Torah obligates an unwitting transgressor to bring a korban ḥatat it is only when the person is aware of what he is doing, but believes that it is permitted for one of the reasons mentioned above. If, however, he intended to perform one act and instead performed another, then it falls into the category of mit’asek – a level of accident further removed from the forbidden act – and he is not obligated in the sin offering. This situation is discussed at length in the fourth chapter of Massekhet Karetot, which concludes that if such a mistake was made on Shabbat the individual is not obligated in the korban ḥatat since the prohibitions of Shabbat are dependent on the person’s intentions and in this case there was no intention to perform this act. In other cases, however, e.g., in cases of forbidden foods or incestuous and adulterous relations, he would still be obligated in the sacrifice, since he derived pleasure from the forbidden act.
3. Recognizing that a sin has been performed.
As the Torah teaches (see Vayikra 4:28) one of the basic requirements of the korban ḥatat and its associated atonement is the realization and recognition that the sin has been done. Related to this requirement is the obligation to recite viduy – confession – on the animal before it is sacrificed on the altar. For this reason, if a witness testifies that someone has transgressed, but that person denies doing so, he is not obligated to bring the sacrifice. The third chapter of Massekhet Karetot discusses this topic, raising the question, for example, of whether the testimony of a pair of witnesses will obligate a person to bring a sin offering even if he denies their words. Had they testified that he had performed the forbidden act intentionally, their words would have made him liable to receive a death sentence. On the other hand, perhaps a person’s need for atonement to repair his relationship with God is based on his own certainty.
4. The number of sacrifices that a person will be obligated to bring
A large number of discussions in the Gemara deal with the question of how many sin offerings must be brought if a person transgressed unwittingly over and over again, or if he performed several different sins unwittingly. The conclusion of the Gemara is that the number of sacrifices that a person will bring is not dependent on the number of times that a forbidden act was performed, but on the number of lapses of awareness and the number of prohibitions that were transgressed. Thus, if a person ate a forbidden food over and over again while under the impression throughout that it was permitted, he will be obligated to bring only a single sin offering. If, however, while he was eating he was informed that the food was forbidden and then afterwards he mistakenly continued eating, he will be obligated to bring a sacrifice for each separate activity. Alternatively, if he ate a number of different forbidden foods, under the impression that they were all permitted, he would be obligated to bring a sacrifice for each individual prohibition. It is also possible that a person might be obligated to bring more than one sacrifice for eating a single thing that was forbidden for a number of different reasons. This is true not only with regard to forbidden foods, but also with regard to incestuous and adulterous relations, where a man and a woman might be related to one another in a number of different ways.
The laws of Shabbat are unique inasmuch as there are a number of ways that a forbidden activity might be performed unwittingly. A person may perform many different acts that are forbidden on Shabbat, yet only be obligated to bring a single sin offering, if he was under the incorrect impression that it was an ordinary weekday and not Shabbat. If he is aware that it is Shabbat and performs several of the different forbidden categories of work he will be obligated to bring a separate sin offering for each action; he may also perform several forbidden actions that all fall under a single category of work. In the third chapter of Massekhet Karetot we find a lengthy discussion about the obligation of the individual to bring sin offerings in situations where a person performs different types of work on different Shabbatot.
The Provisional Guilt Offering (Asham Taluy)
A separate discussion in Massekhet Karetot focuses on the asham taluy and the relationship between it and the korban ḥatat (sin offering).
While we did not find differences of opinion regarding the obligation to bring a korban ḥatat, the very requirement determining when to bring an asham taluy is the subject of disagreement. Some believe that an asham taluy can be brought whenever there is a question about the possibility that a Biblical prohibition was transgressed, and even that it can come as a voluntary donation even if there is no reason to think that a transgression has occurred. Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes that an asham taluy is brought only when there is some question as to whether a sin was committed for which the punishment would be karet if done on purpose. In the event that it later became clear that the sin really did take place, then the individual would still need to bring a sin offering.
The reason that the asham taluy is “provisional” is because the status of this case remains uncertain until the facts regarding the possible sin are clarified, or because the sacrifice does not offer full atonement, rather it serves to protect the individual from Heavenly punishment in the event that he did, in fact, sin unknowingly. There is a certain parallel between this sacrifice and the atonement offered by Yom Kippur. The Sages rule that if someone was obligated to bring an asham taluy and Yom Kippur fell out before he had an opportunity to do so, he will no longer need to bring the korban. This stands in contrast with the obligation to bring any other sacrifice, which remains in effect even after Yom Kippur, since Yom Kippur does not atone for known sins where one has other means of atoning for his action.
The asham taluy does not work in every case of doubtful sin. On the one hand, an asham taluy is not brought unless there is a possibility that no sin took place at all; if he is certain that a prohibition was transgressed, but it is unclear which one it was, the sacrifice is not brought. On the other hand, an asham taluy is brought only if we are certain that the possibility of transgression was before him – e.g., that there were two pieces of meat before him, one of which was kosher and the other was not, and he is unsure which he ate. If there was only one piece that was before him and we are unsure whether or not it was unkosher, eating that piece would not obligate him in an asham taluy.
As mentioned, the rules and regulations of the korban ḥatat and asham taluy are the focus of this tractate. As a segue from these topics other sacrifices that serve to atone are also discussed here. By presenting those contrasting sacrifices, the Mishna succeeds in emphasizing the unique qualities of the sin offering and the provisional guilt offering.