What is sin? To a native English speaker, the word “sin” is laden with concepts of Christian theology. In Judaism, a sin is more appropriately called an aveira, which means a transgression (based on the root for the Hebrew verb “to cross over”). However, even that term is an oversimplification, as there are several different types of transgressions.

An avon is, perhaps, best described as an action driven by desire. A person wants the pleasure of an forbidden item or act so much that they ignore their knowledge that the action is prohibited.

A pesha, on the other hand, has deliberate intention that is rooted in an urge to rebel. For this person, the action can have dire spiritual consequences. The Torah notes: “But the soul that does so [the forbidden act] with high handedness, whether he be home-born or a stranger, the same blasphemes God, and that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:30).

A chayt*, however, is an unintentional act to transgress a commandment. For instance, a person forgets to check that the snack they grabbed is kosher, or a person leans against a light switch and opens the light on Shabbat. One could refer to these types of acts as “oops,” since they were certainly not intentional. However, the Torah makes it clear that even unintentional acts have consequences. “And if one person sins through error, then he shall offer a she-goat of the first year for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for the soul that errs, when he transgresses through error, before God, to make atonement for him; and he shall be forgiven” (ibid: 27-28).

A “sin-offering,” as it is most often translated, was offered not for deliberate acts but only for unintentional transgressions. Commentaries throughout the ages have commented as to why this is so: perhaps to remind a person to be more aware of their actions, or to serve as a statement that even an accidental act has an effect on one’s soul.

*The Vidui confessional service uses the phrase Ahl chayt sheh’chah’tah’noo l’fah’neh’chah… “For the sin we committed before You…” implying that Jews as a collective did not deliberately transgress the commandments.

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