Machzor Blog: A Sin By Any Other Name

Dec 30, 2012 by

11505867Folks out there – colleagues and laypeople alike – feel quite strongly about the use of the word “sin” in the new machzor. Or so it seems from the feedback we’ve heard in the piloting process.  But these strong feelings about the word “sin” fall into two opposite camps.  There are those who object to the English word sin because of its Christian overtones, the sense it carries of permanence and of somehow being stained.  Others suspect that our decision to largely use other words (though not exclusively) such as “wrong” reflects a kind of moral relativism where nothing can be catagorically labeled as, well, a sin.

 The three words that are predominately used in the Torah and in our liturgy are cheyt, avon and pesha.  According to a baraita cited in Tractate Yoma 36b, each of these words refers to a distinct kind of sin.    Cheyt refers to inadvertent sins.  Avon references deliberate sins.  Pesha, the most severe, refers to sins committed as a way of rebelling against God.

 In our Kol Nidre service, these terms are translated in one place as “wrongs,” “act of injustice,” and “moral failures.”

The word most often used throughout the liturgy is cheyt, and the translation utilized by the new machzor most often is “wrong.”  This word seems to address both those who are looking to the machzor to provide clear moral standards, as well as those who fear that the word “sin” doesn’t carry with it the possibility for change.

Here is how the Vidui Rabbah is translated in the Kol Nidre pilot draft, page 47a:

 For the wrong we have done in Your presence by the spoken word,

And for the wrong we have done in Your presence through insincere promises….

 In the draft for Yom Kippur Minchah, we introduced a very different translation of the word cheyt.  Drawing upon the oft-cited etymology of the word as derived from “missing the goal” the pilot draft, page 50a and b, offered this translation:

 For missing the mark in Your presence through a selfish or petty spirit,

And for missing the mark in your presence through stubbornness.

 Maybe it was the absence of a commentary or explanation below the line, but this creative way of translation cheyt was viewed as highly objectionable, and laypeople and rabbis alike told us that this translation simply will not work.

Even the best translation and the most insightful commentary below the line cannot fully unpack the notion of sin, or wrong, or failure.  In the same 300px-Kol_Nidrei-2Talmudic sugya referenced above the Rabbis are bothered by the fact that the order of the three primary words for sin in High Priest’s confession doesn’t make sense in light of their own definitions.  For the Rabbis, the order to sin, in increasing severity, should be cheyt, avon, and pesha.  This therefore should be the correct order of the High Priest’s confession.  But Leviticus 16: 21 prescribes that the sins transferred to the scapegoat by the confession are avon, pesha, and cheyt.  Likewise, in Exodus 34:7 (the verse that forms the basis of our selichot prayers), God is described as nosei avon, va’pesha v’chata…

The Talmud solves the problem in an ingenious way. Rabbah bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: The halakhah follows the view of the Sages. Moses was saying before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, at a time when Israel sins before you and then repents, transform for them their deliberate sins into inadvertent sins.”

In other words, the order of sins in the Torah comes not to teach us the order of the High Priest’s confession, but rather to teach that repentance has the power to change the order of what we’ve done, to transform even deliberate and rebellious sins into less severe inadvertent sins.

With regard to our translations then, might we say that teshuvah can turn “sin” into “wrong,” or even in to “missing the mark.”

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

 

Related Posts

Share This

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this intelligent and comprehensive explanation. This sort of detailed communication will alleviate some of the anxiety about the change involved in introducing a new machzor.

  2. Not being privy to the ongoing discussions, I have to ask another question: when discussing the translation of Het/Avon/Pesha, have you discussed its connection to Mitzvah? To be more specific, if we do not take literally (or at least most of our congregants do not take literally) the mitzvot, such as kashrut, av melachot on Shabbat, etc., than is Het irrelevant? How can our people feel that they are sinning if there is no sense of mitzvah?

    I don’t mean to be difficult but I think that this is an important question and one that underlies the entire Yom Kippur experience for Reform Jews. If we address this question, I think that we can find the proper translations and, more important, create the proper liturgy for this awesome day.

  3. Leon Morris

    Jordan, I think you make an excellent point — one very close to my own heart, but perhaps well beyond what a new machzor can accomplish. My own sense is that when it comes to both mitzvah and to averah, the movement hasn’t really moved much beyond the Pittsburgh Platform (the 1885 one) theologically speaking, in terms of viewing only ethical mitzvot as those whose violation is a sin. And I, for one, welcome a Reform theology that dismantles the sharp dichotomy between the ritual and the ethical mitzvot. Here I am speaking only as a colleague, and not as an editor of the machzor.

  4. BZ

    Regardless of one’s stance on ritual mitzvot, all Reform Jews agree that the ethical mitzvot are obligatory, so it’s not accurate to say there is “no sense of mitzvah”. Everyone agrees that stealing is wrong. None of the discussion above relies on the specific content of what is and isn’t forbidden.

    (And it’s quite a leap to say that the avot melachot are a “literal” reading of the mitzvot of Shabbat!)

Leave a Reply