Sin - Three Little Words

by David Brooks

Given on Eikev (27 August 2005) at Adath Shalom, Ottawa, Canada


Parashat Eikev comes in the midst of the second Discourse of Moses to the people of Israel prior to his death.  Moses has a lot to say about reward and punishment, and that is my starting point.  My d’var could be called “Three Little Words” – not “I love you,” but et, cavon and peshac, which are the three classical Hebrew words for sin.  Actually, there are some 20 terms for sin in Biblical Hebrew, but these three are most common.* In rabbinic Hebrew, the common term is  caverah (literally=” transgression”) which is a general term still in use today which covers, depending on context, anything from a foul in athletics to trespassing on property to adultery.

It is a rabbinic principle that there is no redundancy in the Torah.  One word can have several meanings, but no two words can mean the same thing.  Therefore, we have to begin with the ways in which the rabbis distinguished among the three.  The source in each case is Etz Hayim (pp. 682-83), citing BT Yoma 36b):

·     et is the simplest, and the lightest of the three.  It derives from a root that means to miss the mark, and it is used for sins committed inadvertently through ignorance or forgetfulness, or from failure to carry out some duty properly.  Today we might call it a mistake rather than a sin.* As an example, at least before ingredients were carefully listed on all food products, it was quite possible to eat graham crackers without realizing that many contained lard.

·     cavon is more serious.  It derives from a root that means “twisting,” and it is used for sins committed deliberately but as a result of (presumably) temporary weakness; the temptation was just too much to overcome in a specific instance.  As an example, you have gone to a fish restaurant intending to eat something with fins and scales, but you succumb to delights of paella (a Spanish dish with shellfish).

·     peshac is the most serious.  It derives from a root that means “rebellion,” and it is used to refer not just to a single sin but to a deliberate decision not to follow some element of halakhah – in effect, a breach of the covenant.* As an example, you decide not to have a kosher kitchen, which implies that you reject all or a large part of the religious law about what Jews are allowed to eat.


So much for definition.  I have two questions that I want to deal with today:

§     First, do these three types of sin make up an exhaustive set?  That is, do they collectively cover the full range of possible sins we might commit?

§     Second, even if they do cover all possible sins, are their definitions adequate?

I will tell you right now that the answers to my questions are:  “No,” the three sins are not exhaustive; and, “No,” the definitions are not adequate.  But, in the end, from the Torah’s perspective, the answers are “Yes” to each question.  Given that enigma, you will not be surprised if I go on to say that the two questions do not yield easy answers. 

Though the three words appear as a triad nearly 20 times in the Tanach – perhaps most significantly in the passage where the attributes of God are described (Exodus 34:6) – in many more cases only one or two of the three is present.  I could not discern any pattern that would account for any specific combination of the three words.  When all three appear, the order always seems to be cavon then peshac and then et – violation,  then rebellion then error or mistake – not a logical ordering to my mind.  My conclusion is that the Talmudic definitions were inferred from those times when the three words appear together, and they definitions do not necessarily apply to any specific use.  For example, when God talks to Cain (NJV in Etz Hayim on Gen. 4:6), the text says:

“Surely, if you do right,

 There is uplift.

 But if you do not do right,

 Sin crouches at the door.”

The word used for “sin” is et, and it is hardly likely that it means ignorance or forgetfulness.

Despite these lapses, there is some logic in the use of the three words in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).* The root t (mistake or error) appears 459 times, cwn (violation) 229 times, and pshc (rebellion) 136 times, which is consistent with the frequency with which such sins can be expected to occur.  Perhaps we just have to accept the conclusion in Encyclopedia Judaica that, despite numerous exceptions, generally the accepted definitions do hold.*

Let’s go on to the two questions.  First, do the three types of sin cover the full range of possible sins?  No, they do not, and the most obvious situation is someone who stays within the letter of the law but is still manipulative or cheating or offensive or careless.  For example, there is nothing in Torah that says one must not be a drunkard (so long as you use only kosher wine or whiskey), nor anything that says you have to be clean for meals (so long as you perform the ritual hand washing and say the appropriate blessings).  The rabbis described such a person as naval birshut haTorah.  He or she observes the mitzvot but is still a jerk or a slob or worse.

Similarly, there is nothing in these definitions that say anything about whether it is the first, second or tenth similar offence.  True, the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) is clear that a sequence of sinning and repenting, and then sinning and repenting, again does not work, at least not if that is your intention.  But what if each time you repent with the genuine intention of teshuvah – as do many problem drinkers and gamblers?  This situation is not treated in the Mishnah.

Second, are the definitions adequate?  No, they are not, and the most obvious reason is that they make no reference to the severity of the offence.  One commits the sin of cavon by eating paella or by manslaughter, between which anyone can make a distinction.  Further, there is the issue of premeditation, which is clear enough in the case of peshac (rebellion), but which does not seem to be reflected in the definitions of cavon and et.  Surely it is different if one deliberately avoids checking the labels on packages of food and thus chooses to remain ignorant, or if one deliberately goes to a restaurant that specializes in paella and then orders as a result of temptation he or she knew in advance would be overwhelming.  And what about manslaughter.  Is there no difference between a driver who kills someone in an auto accident and someone who kills in a jealous, but unpremeditated, rage?

So, what are we to make of a triad of definitions that is neither exhaustive nor adequate?  How can I say that the answers are really “Yes” when I have shown them to be “No.  I have a weaker answer and then a stronger answer.

The weaker answer is that Midrash Rabbah and other commentaries are full of discussion about sin, and they cover all of the concerns that I have raised above.  The rabbis were careful to infer what might be called “non-escape” clauses from the text, and then to use these clauses in their interpretations.  Good examples are found in the “Reflections” sections of our Machzor.  For example, page 343 quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel:  “It is not said: You shall be full of awe because I am holy, but: You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).  As the Holiness Code in Leviticus states, this means that one “should not be guilty of any injustice” (emphasis added).  And a bit later, the text asks us to, ". . . follow My statutes, and observe My commandments to do them . . ." (Leviticus 26:3).  Since “commandments” is taken to mean “mitzvot,” the word “statutes” must mean something else, and almost universally it is taken to mean going beyond the requirements of the Law.  As Reb David says in the name of Rabbi Shaps (of JET in Ottawa), there are many more than 613 mitzvot.  The 613 are merely those that are Biblically explicit.

The stronger answer is that my premise is wrong.  The three little words are not meant for the human uses to which I have been putting them.  One of the most fundamental principles of the Yom Kippur ritual is that it only atones for sins committed against God, and the triad of definitions is meant to apply specifically to those sorts of sins.  For better or for worse, sins against God have no degrees of severity, no concern for premeditation.  As stated in Encyclopedia Judaica, the three words:

denote a "sin" in the theological sense of the word when they characterize a human deed as a "failure," a "breach," or a "crooked" action with reference to prescriptions that proceed finally from the stipulations of the Covenant. It is not the external nature of the act that makes it sinful. In biblical thought, the relation that creates the right to God's protection also creates the sin.

This position is perhaps easier to understand with ritual aspects of the covenant than with human relationships.  With ritual, it is evident whether something is, or is not, an error, a transgression or a rejection – any one of which is a religious sin – and, once the determination is made, that is the end of it (except for bringing the appropriate kind of sacrifice to the Temple and for making atonement with God).

None of the foregoing is true for sins against other human beings.  Even in Biblical times, the rabbis recognized that human relationships required a different kind of law and both direct atonement and restitution.  Restitution can not of course play – is really inconceivable – for sins against God.  In modern times, some rabbis have added a new category:  sins against nature – environmental sins – which require less atonement but a whole lot more restitution.

In summary, et, cavon and peshac still stand as important categories in Halachah and in ritual, but they are both too stark and too limited to be applied to life as people live it on a daily basis.




* See entry on Sin in Encyclopedia Judaica.