Virtual Talmud

Virtual Talmud

The Language of Sin

Someone once told me that the number of words a culture has for a particular idea or phenomena reflects its importance to that culture. The Yupik Eskimos are reported to have 24 words for snow, which makes sense since much of their lives hang on understanding and accurately adapting to the snow conditions around them.
If 24 words for snow is one yardstick of serious importance, then Judaism’s lexicon for “sin” is relatively paltry: averah (crossing over the line of the straight and narrow path), het (the missing the mark), ahvon (wrong doing), and peshe (negligence).
This is not a foolproof system, of course. Christianity has built its entire theology around sin and yet only has one word for sin (its modifiers, like “mortal” and “original” notwithstanding).


I think Judaism’s sin lexicon is telling. Though these words certainly focus us on human frailty and failure, they contain within them the potential for rectification. Think of it as if you were on a path and wandered off, intentionally or by accident. You could always just redirect your steps to get back on the path. If you missed the mark, you could realign your direction. If you did wrong, you can start to do right. If you were negligent, you can be more careful next time. That is why, while I agree with Rabbi Waxman that we must take more responsibility for our actions, I disagree that focusing on the idea of sin to indict does little to truly reform us.
Rather, I believe we are better helped by remembering that God created us pure, in God’s image, with the potential for great good. God indeed made us with the tendency to mess up, sometimes more badly than other times, but also with the capacity to constantly grow and change. This is one explanation of the shofar blasts: we start out whole (the whole note of the tekiah), become broken (the triple shevarim) then fractured (the nine note teruah), but can always come back to an even greater wholeness (the great tekiah gedolah).
During these 10 days (and the weeks leading up to it) we are to concentrate on our failings and weaknesses, not to wrack ourselves with indicting guilt but to see our mistakes clearly in order to correct them, where possible, in the present and avert them in the future, on our journey back to our original purity and wholeness. That is why, for me, these “sin” words do not conjure guilt as much as regret, responsibility and the desire for improvement.
I am not exactly sure where we Jews got such a bad rap for being a guilt-ridden community. Our theology certainly does not instill it. Just the opposite. Judaism is a relatively guilt-free religion. Most of the year we focus on joy and rejoicing (for which there are many words in the Jewish lexicon).
In fact, we should be filled with joy even on (or maybe especially on) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We trust that God will forgive us as long as we meet God half way, by doing the inner work of reflection (honestly acknowledging our failings), repentance ( regretting our deeds and deciding to change our ways), and atonement (seeking forgiveness of others and of God). Because God loves us and our ancestors, God forgives us, just as a good and loving parent would. How could you not be joyful about that?

Comments read comments(7)
post a comment
Richard Harwood

posted September 11, 2007 at 9:30 pm

Thanks so much for your good thoughts. I agree that our notion of sin allows us to see that we have “crossed a line” but that we can come back, that it is possible to redeem ourselves. This fits well with your urging that we think about this time of year as making ourselves (and others, to the extent that we can) “whole.” This isn’t taking the easy way out, or somehow diminshing our wrong-doings; rather, it asks us understand them, to tap into and seek to fulfill our own aspirations, and to “repair” ourselves and the world. It calls us toward something holy and real.
Thanks again,
Rich Harwood

report abuse


posted September 12, 2007 at 1:52 am

What a marvelous post. But Jews love guilt, probably because it’s the greatest motivator for change. It works.
What’s interesting about the clopping (the beating of the chest)on Yom Kippor is that if you really mean it, if you really get into it, it’s the perfect overt indicator of remorse and sadness. To get to that place, true remorse, a person has to feel that something bad has happened or WILL happen, and it’s deserved. Then the clopping feels good. We live in a culture in which adolescents manifest that self-abuse destructively by cutting.
But clopping doesn’t really hurt anyone. So perhaps there really is great chachma (wisdom)in it.
shana tova u’m’tuka

report abuse


posted September 12, 2007 at 12:00 pm

Between Rabbi Grossman and Richard’s beautiful posts I look forward with hope and joy and with thanks for G-d’s Love.
Blessings on all of us!

report abuse

Emily Cragg (Mom was a Rabinovitz)

posted September 17, 2007 at 11:54 pm

Uh, DOESN’T sin have something to do with 613 mitzvot?
Isn’t Judaism called “the Law Covenant” because in its holy writings are legal principles and reasons for good behavior and the stemming of behavior that creates harm?
Isn’t that the Blessing of G-d — that we learn cause-and-effect and right-from-wrong by His Will and Law and Presence?
That’s what I do: go back and see if my behavior (especially business law, health, hygiene and how I cook) is law-FULL in G-d’s terms … so things make sense in terms of getting good outcomes.
Maybe I do it this way because our family was never big on holidays; and this way gives me coherence with respect to the reasons and meaning that “G-d is Good,” so that I can follow his ways sensibly.
: ) Chai

report abuse

Aviella Bara

posted September 20, 2007 at 2:32 am

The comments of “clopping” is espcially real for me. I have a history of abuse and self abuse. It is a cry for that still small voice telling me all will be well. I always feel good to pound my chest during the confessions as well as prostrating myself during musaff. I feel more connected to G-d during this time. May you all be inscribed and sealed for a good sweet year.

report abuse

Paula Nelson

posted September 21, 2007 at 4:06 pm

Self abuse or “cutting” is not a function of adolesence. You are being dismissive when you say that. Make it real, understand what is really going on.

report abuse

Jim McCrea

posted September 24, 2007 at 1:57 pm

The argument was faulty for one main reason|
Sin is not a mere mistake or an inadvertant error – for to punish someone for something like that would be an injustice|
Sin is knowing what is right, and then deciding to do it anyway|
The essence of sin is that one must know the good and then do the contrary – also, one must be *free* not to do the deed, as if one were coerced or the will was forced to do a wrong where one had no choice, there would be no sin, as sin can only proceed from one`s freedom to do the wrong deed – then, and only then is punishment due in proportion to the gravity of the sin|
I don`t think that people properly understand this about sin these days (as they used to) – that is why our justice system is now so unjust with its penalties, and other systems of law are unjust in the applications of the law – for only a proper understanding of sin can allow justice to be effected in the various situations where wrong has been done|

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

The Task Is Never Finished
It has been heartwarming to read the warm responses to Rabbi Waxman's post asking Beliefnet to reconsider its decision to cancel Virtual Talmud. Virtual Talmud offered an alternative model for internet communications: civil discourse pursued in ...

posted 12:31:46pm Apr. 03, 2008 | read full post »

Some Parting Reflections
Well, loyal readers, all good things must come to an end and we’ve been informed that this particular experiment in blogging as a forum for creating wide-ranging discussion on topics of interest to contemporary Jews has run its course. Maybe ...

posted 1:00:29pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

Obama's Lesson and The Jewish Community
There are few times in this blog’s history when I have felt that Rabbi Grossman was one hundred percent correct in her criticisms of my ideas. However, a few weeks ago she called me out for citing a few crack websites on Barak Obama’s ...

posted 12:09:08pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

The Future of Race Relations
As a post-baby boomer, it is interesting to me to see how much of today’s conversation about racial relations is still rooted in the 1960s experience and rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, and the disenchantment that followed. Many in the ...

posted 4:04:41pm Mar. 25, 2008 | read full post »

Wright and Wrong of Race and Jews
Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced ...

posted 12:50:11pm Mar. 24, 2008 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.