Parashat Naso

Punishment To Fit The Crime And The Confession

The different punishments for criminals who confess, and those who do not, shed light on the psychology of pleading guilty.

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[This text] teaches that [the sinner] is not obligated for the extra payment of one-fifth nor the sin offering based on the testimony of witnesses until he [or she] has confessed the matter. (Rashi on Numbers 5:6)

Rabbi Kahana also said: I consider a man impertinent who openly recounts his sins, since it is said [Psalms 32:1], "Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over." (Talmud, B'rachot 34b)

The verbal confession of guilt provides an indication that the sinner truly believes that all of his [or her] deeds are revealed and known to Adonai.… [By] verbally specifying the sin and regretting it, he [or she] will be more careful in the future not to stumble thereon. After he [or she] has said it with his [or her] mouth-I did such and such a thing and was foolish in my actions--he [or she] will, as a result, become reconciled with his [or her] Maker. (Sefer Hachinuch, cited by Nehama Leibowitz in Studies in Bamidbar, p. 46)

Note also the reflexive [hitpa-el] form of the Hebrew verb "to confess," hitvadeh [Numbers 5:7]. [Samson Raphael] Hirsch pointed out that this indicates that the confession consists of a man speaking to himself, admonishing his conscience. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, pp. 46-7)

For transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement provides atonement; but for transgressions between a person and another person, the Day of Atonement does not effect atonement until [the sinner] has put matters right with the harmed party. (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9)

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: The one who sacrifices his [evil] inclination and confesses [his sin] over it, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had honored the Holy One, blessed be He, in both worlds, this world and the next; for it is written, [Psalms 50:23] "Whoso offers the sacrifice of confession honors Me." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 43b)

A litigant's admission is worth one hundred witnesses. (Talmud, Gittin 64a; Talmud, Kiddushin 65b)

Sentencing guidelines for federal crimes in the United States provide for mitigation of the sentence when the convicted criminal has confessed the crime and expressed sincere regret for it. (source unknown)

Your Guide

How do Plaut's words help us understand that a sin against another person is also a sin against God? How do those same words, together with the familiar text from Mishnah, Yoma 8:9, help us understand the need for a sin offering, even after restitution has been made?

As opposed to the United States' federal criminal-sentencing law, Rashi implies that the penalty is greater when the sinner confesses. Why might that be?

Rabbi Kahana in Talmud, B'rachot 34b seems to take a negative view of a person who confesses sins publicly. What might prompt such an opinion?

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Rabbi Barry HD Block

Rabbi Barry H. D. Block has served Temple Beth-El in San Antonio since 1992, and became the congregation's Senior Rabbi in 2002.