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Original Sin

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Under the Jewish theocracy, wilful disregard of the positive, or wilful infraction of the negative, commands of God as proclaimed by Moses and interpreted by the Rabbis; it thus includes crimes against God and crimes against society or an individual member thereof. This article is confined, as far as possible, to the former class. Of the three kinds of sin embraced in this division, the lightest is the "ḥeṭ," "ḥaṭṭa'ah," or "ḥaṭṭat" (lit. "fault," "shortcoming," "misstep"), an infraction of a command committed in ignorance of the existence or meaning of that command ("be-shogeg"). The second kind is the "'awon," a breach of a minor commandment committed with a full knowledge of the existence and nature of that commandment ("bemezid"). The gravest kind is the "pesha'" or "mered," a presumptuous and rebellious act against God; or a "resha'," such an act committed with a wicked intention. These three degrees are mentioned by the Psalmist (106:6): "We have sinned ["ḥaṭa'nu"], . . . we have committed iniquity ["he-'ewinu"], we have done wickedly ["hirsha'nu"]" (comp. 1 Kings 8:47; Daniel 9:5).

Various Sins.

The confession of sin by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur followed the order here given—"ḥeṭ," "'awon" "pesha'" (Yoma 36b).These three classes are subdivided under the terms "'asham" (guilt), a sin which is later repented; "ma'al," "me'ilah" (sacrilege); "tiflah" (vice, depravity); "'amal" (enormity, corruption); and "awon" (heinous crime, atrocity). The word "resha'" is generally used to express the idea of ill conduct, viciousness, criminality. The Talmudic word "'aberah" carries the idea of trespass, transgression, and includes both sin and crime.

The motive ascribed as underlying the prohibition against sin is the benefit of man. Sin defiles the body and corrupts the mind; it is a perversion and distortion of the principles of nature; it creates disorder and confusion in society; it brings mischief, misery, and trouble into communal life. Man, not God, reaps the benefit of obedience to God's laws: "If thou sinnest, what doest thou against him? . . . Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art" (Job 35:6,8).

Original Sin.

Man is responsible for sin because he is endowed with free will ("beḥirah"); yet he is by nature frail, and the tendency of the mind is to evil: "For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:21; Yoma 20a; Sanh. 105a). Therefore God in His mercy allowed man to repent and be forgiven. Jewish theologians are divided in regard to the cause of this so-called "original sin"; some teach that it was due to Adam's yielding to temptation in eating of the forbidden fruit and has been inherited by his descendants; the majority, however, do not hold Adam responsible for the sins of mankind. The Zohar pictures Adam as receiving all the departed souls at his resting-place in the cave of Machpelah and inquiring of each soul the reason of its presence, whereupon the soul laments: "Wo unto me! thou art the cause of my departure from the world." Adam answers: "Verily, I have transgressed one precept and was punished; but see how many precepts and commandments of the Lord thou hast transgressed!" R. Jose said that every soul, before departing, visits Adam, and is convinced that it must blame its own wickedness, for there is no death without sin (Zohar, Bereshit, 57b). R. Ḥanina b. Dosa said: "It is not the wild ass that kills; it is sin that causes death" (Ber. 33a). On the other hand, it is maintained that at least four persons—Benjamin, Amram, Jesse, and Chileab—died without having committed any sin and merely as the result of Adam's weakness in yielding to the temptation of the serpent. To uphold the view of the majority, R. Ammi quoted the Scripture to show that sin causes pain and death: "I visit their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes" (Psalms 39:33); "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). This verse is in contrast to another: "All things come alike to all: there is apparent one event to the righteous, and to the wicked" (Ecclesiastes 9:2; comp. Shab. 55a, b); but these two verses may perhaps be reconciled through others which declare "There is no man that sinneth not" (1 Kings 8:46); "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (Ecclesiastes 7:20; see Sanh. 105a).

The Golden Calf.

Some of the Rabbis, while disclaiming the influence of Adam's sin, made the sin of the golden calf ("the cloven foot") a hereditary one, affecting twenty-four generations, till the final destruction of the Jewish state in the time of King Hezekiah: "In the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them" (Exodus 32:34; Sanh. 102a; comp. 'Ab. Zarah 4b). Moses "was numbered with the transgressors" of the generation in the wilderness, "and he bare the sin of many" who participated in the worship of the golden calf (Soṭah 14a, in reference to Isaiah 53:12).

There is a difference between the sin of the whole people and the sin of the individual. A communal or national sin is the more severely punished as an example to other peoples, that they may be deterred from similar wickedness. For this reason public sins ought to be exposed, while the sins of individuals should rather be concealed ('Ab. Zarah 5a; comp. Yoma 86b). Rab thought to explain the apparently contradictory verses, "Blessed is he . . . whose sin is covered" (Psalms 32:1) and "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper" (Proverbs 28:13), by distinguishing between the confession of a known and the confession of an unknown sin. R. Naḥman distinguishes between a sin against God and a sin against man: the latter must be confessed openly (Yoma 86b). R. Kahana said the man is insolent who recounts his sins (Ber. 34b). The enumeration of sins included in the "'Al Ḥeṭ" is permitted only on the ground that they are of a general character, concerning the public as a unit; and every individual recites it as part of that unit, using the plural "We have sinned." In strictness, private sins must be confessed to God in silence.

What Constitutes Sin.

The earliest Biblical conception of what constituted sin is illustrated by the story of Adam's punishment, which was due to his failure to obey the divine will and his revolt against the divine government. The catastrophe of the Flood was a punishment for man's demoralization and corruption, his violence and immorality (see Genesis 6:11,12). The builders of the Tower of Babel revolted against divine government, and were dispersed (see Genesis 11:1-9). Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their heinous crimes: "The men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly" (Genesis 13:13): they were "wicked" in civil matters, "sinners" in blasphemy "exceedingly," with full appreciation of the enormity of their sins (Sanh. 109a). The Egyptians were punished for the sin of enslaving the Israelites, and for not heeding the command of God to release them. The most serious sin of the Israelites was the worship of the golden calf, contrary to God's commandments delivered from Sinai. Korah rebelled against the authority of Moses, and of the Levites, priests by the choice of God. The Canaanites practised incest and immorality: "For they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them" (Leviticus 20:23); "But for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee" (Dout. 9:5).

The principal sins for which the Israelites forfeitedtheir national existence were idolatry, immorality, judicial corruption and deception (comp. Isaiah 1:21-23), desecration of the Sabbath (comp. Jeremiah 17:21-27), and non-observance of the law relating to the release of servants after six years' service (comp. Jeremiah 34:16); citing "Arise ye and depart; for this is not your rest: because it is polluted, it shall destroy you" (Micah 2:10), the Midrash says, "God would not have hastened the destruction of Jerusalem for any transgression other than fornication." The Ten Tribes were exiled for the same cause (Num. R. 9:4). The shedding of innocent blood was the cause of the destruction of the Temple (Shab. 33a); though other reasons are given in Shab. 119b.

"'Al Ḥeṭ."

In the post-exilic period the inclination toward idolatry was eradicated, and the disposition toward fornication was weakened (Yoma 69b). The list of sins in the confession of Yom Kippur gives an idea of the rabbinical conception of sin. The "'Al Ḥeṭ" was extended from the simple formula in the Talmud (Yoma 87b) to that of the Geonim, which includes the see See ASHAMNU, 'Al Ḥeṭ, and "'Al Ḥaṭa'im" ("Seder R.'Amram," p. 48a; see also Aḥai Gaon, "She'eltot," § 167). The "Ashamnu" is in alphabetical order and enumerates the following sins: "trespass, treachery, slander, presumptuousness, violence, lying, scoffing, rebellion, blasphemy, oppression, extreme wickedness, corruption." The "'Al Ḥeṭ" qualifies man's sins and makes him ask forgiveness for the sins which have been committed against God "either (1) by compulsion or (2) voluntarily, (3) unwittingly or (4) with knowledge, (5) in private or (6) in public, (7) presumptuously or (8) without intent." The "'Al Ḥaṭa'im" classifies sins as those "for which we were obliged to bring a trespass-offering, . . . a burnt offering, . . . a sin-offering; for the sins for which we were obliged to suffer the penalty of receiving stripes, becoming childless, being extirpated or killed by death from heaven, four modes of death by bet din" ("Seder R. 'Amram," c.). The single alphabetical list of the "'Al Ḥeṭ" was formulated later; it is mentioned by Maimonides, and is found almost entire in the present "Minhag Sefarad." The double alphabetical list of the "'Al Ḥeṭ," as found in the "Minhag Ashkenaz," dates probably from the thirteenth century (comp. the Vitry Maḥzor, pp. 390-391, and the prayer-book and Maḥzor for the Day of Atonement).

Every Sin Pardonable.

Jewish theology does not admit that there is an unpardonable sin. The Mishnah says that sins are expiated (1) by sacrifice, (2) by repentance at death or on Yom Kippur, (3) in the case of the lighter transgressions of the positive or negative precepts, by repentance at any time. If one persists in sinning, depending upon receiving pardon through subsequent repentance, e.g., at Yom Kippur, his sins are not forgiven. At Yom Kippur, only sins between man and God, not sins between man and his neighbor, are expiated (Yoma 8:8,9). The graver sins, according to Rabbi, are apostasy, heretical interpretation of the Torah, and non-circumcision (Yoma 86a). The atonement for sins between a man and his neighbor is an ample apology (Yoma 85b; ATONEMENT). Repetition of the same sin may be forgiven once, twice, or even thrice, but not a fourth time: "For three transgressions of Moab [I will forgive], and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof" (Amos 2:1); "Lo, all these things worketh God oftentimes [Hebr. "twice and three times"] with man, to bring back his soul from the pit" (Job 33:29,30; Yoma 86b).

There are also lighter sins that are not punishable, but nevertheless stain the character of the most pious and righteous man; for instance, the sin of not pleading for mercy for a neighbor, if in position to do so; as Samuel said, "God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you" (1 Samuel 12:23; Ber. 12b). The Nazarite committed a sin in avoiding the moderate use of wine; the learned man sins by fasting instead of studying (Ta'an. 11b). Small sins are generally overlooked in punishment: "I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men" (Zephaniah 1:12): not by day-light, nor with the torch, but with candles, so as not to detect venial sins (Pes. 7b). R. Simeon b. Laḳish, however, cites "The iniquity of my heels shall compass me about" (Psalms 49:5) to prove that even "small sins that man tramples with his heels will surround him on the day of judgment" ('Ab. Zarah 18a). "Be heedful of a light precept as of a grave one" (Ab. 2:1). Ben 'Azzai said, "Run to do even a slight precept, and flee from [even a slight] transgression" (Ab. 4:2). Sometimes one may be justified in committing in private a sin that would, if committed in public, expose the name of God to disgrace ("ḥillul ha-shem"; Ḳid. 40a).

Responsibility for Sin.

The responsibility for sins against Judaism rests forever upon the Jew. Apostasy does not relieve him from responsibility in this respect; "Once a Jew, always a Jew." "Israel hath sinned" (Joshua 7:11) is cited by R. Abba bar Zabdai to prove that though he "sinned," yet he remains an Israelite (Sanh. 43b). The responsibility of the anointed high priest is the greatest; next is that of the representatives of all Israel; and finally that of the ruler of a faction of Jews. These representatives require each a special sacrifice in accordance with their degree of responsibility (comp. Leviticus 4:3,13,22; Hor. 3:1). The bullock sacrificed for the anointed priest and that for the people are to be burned outside of the camp as "a sin-offering of the congregation"—as a symbol of the vanishing glory of the congregation in consequence of its sins (Yer. Ta'an. 2:5). "Whosoever is in a position to prevent sins being committed by the members of his household, but refrains from doing so, becomes liable for their sins. The same rule applies to the governor of a town, or even of a whole country" (Shab. 54b). R. Sheshet said, "One is not justified in committing even a slight sin in order to prevent a graver sin by his neighbor" (Shab. 4a). One is responsible, however, only for his action, not for his evil thought, except in the case of idolatry: "That I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols" (Ezekiel 14:5; Ḳid. 39b).

As with Cain, sin leaves its mark upon the face ofthe sinner: "The show of their countenance doth witness against them" (Isaiah 3:9). The cabalist can detect any sinner by observing his forehead (Zohar, Lev., Aḥare Mot, p. 75b). Sin dulls the heart and blunts the understanding (Yoma 39a; Yalḳ. 545, after Leviticus 11:43). R. Johanan said, "Were it not for sin, there would be no need for the books of the Prophets, as Israel would have been satisfied with the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua" (Ned. 22b). Before Israel had sinned, the Shekinah rested upon it: "For the Lord thy God walked in the midst of thy camp." But sin caused the Shekinah to retire to a distance, "That he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee" (Deuteronomy 23:14; Soṭah 3b). Sin besets the path even of the righteous, which explains Jacob's fear of Esau (see Genesis 32:7); while David said, "I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living" (Psalms 27:13; Ber. 4a). The repetition of a sin makes it appear to the sinner a license (Yoma 86b). For this reason the punishment of one who steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it is to restore it fourfold (see Exodus 21:37 [A. V. 22:1]), the purpose being to uproot the disposition to repeat an evil action (B. Ḳ. 67b).

How to Prevent Sin.

As a safeguard against sin, Rabbi advised, "Know what is above thee—an eye that sees, an ear that listens, and a record of all thy deeds," Gamaliel taught that the study of the Torah combined with some worldly occupation makes one forget to sin, but that the study of the Torah alone without some manual labor increases the tendency thereto (Ab. 2:1,2). R. Ḥanina b. Dosa said, "Whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his learning will endure; but where learning precedes the fear of sin, the learning will not endure." (Ab. 3:11); "One who controls his passion once and twice will find it easy to control the third time"; "A way is left open for the sinner, and one who is willing to lead a pure life is helped." R. Johanan said that one who has passed most of his life without sin is sure to end it so, for "He will keep the feet of the saints" (1 Samuel 2:9; Yoma 38b). R. Eleazar held that residence in the Holy Land tends to prevent sin: "The people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity" (Isaiah 33:24; Ket. 111a). He who leads others to do good will be saved from doing evil himself. On the other hand, one who leads others to do evil will not be given an opportunity to repent. Thus the righteous will meet in Gan 'Eden those whom he has led to do right, and the sinner will meet in Gehinnom those whom he has misled (Yoma 87a). Anger and excitement are incentives to sin: "A furious man aboundeth in transgression" (Proverbs 29:22; Ned. 22b). "Refrain from becoming excited, and thou wilt not sin; refrain from becoming drunk, and thou wilt not sin" (Ber. 29b). One must always consider his good and evil deeds as evenly balanced; he will then appreciate the danger of committing even one sin, which would lower the scale on the wrong side. Nay, perhaps the whole world is evenly balanced, needing only one sin to outweigh all the good therein: "One sinner destroyed much good" (Ecclesiastes 9:18; Ḳid. 40b).

Prayer Against Sin.

Another safeguard against sin is Prayer: "O lead us not into the power of sin, or of transgression, or of iniquity, or of temptation; . . . let not the evil inclination have sway over us," are the introductory words of the morning prayer. The silent Yom Kippur "'Amidah" ends, "O may it be Thy will, O Lord my God, and God of my fathers, that I may sin no more; and as to the sins I have committed, purge them away in Thine abounding mercy." Other formulas are found in Berakot (16b, 17a, 60b). ADAM (2); ATONEMENT; COMMANDMENT; CONFESSION OF SIN; DEVOTIONAL LITERATURE; PUNISHMENT.

  • Johannes Hehn, Sünde und Erlösung nach Biblischer und Babylonischer Anschauung, Leipsic, 1903;
  • Justus Köberle, Sünde und Gnade im Religiösen Leben des Volkes Israel bis auf Christum, Munich, 1905.
J. D. E.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Original Sin'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​o/original-sin.html. 1901.
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