Punishment To Fit The Crime And The Confession

The biblical approach stands in sharp contrast to American federal sentencing guidelines.

Commentary on Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89


  • A census of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Koathites between the ages of 30 and 50 is conducted and their duties in the Tabernacle are detailed. (Numbers 4:21-49)
  • God speaks to Moses concerning what to do with ritually unclean people, repentant individuals, and those who are suspected of adultery. (Numbers 5:1-31)
  • The obligations of a nazirite vow are explained. They include abstaining from alcohol and not cutting one’s hair. (Numbers 6:1-21)
  • God tells Moses how to teach Aaron and his sons the Priestly Blessing. (Numbers 6:22-27)
  • Moses consecrates the Sanctuary, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings. Moses then speaks with God inside the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 7:1-89)

Focal Point

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with Adonai, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to Adonai for the priest — in addition to the ram of expiation with which expiation is made on his behalf. (Numbers 5:5-8)

Your Guide

Why does the text characterize a sin against another person as “breaking faith with God?”

What is the purpose of mentioning the guilty party’s awareness and confession of his or her sin?

Why does the harmed party receive more than the amount that was taken from him or her?

Once restitution has been made with the additional 20 percent penalty, what is the function of the sin offering?

Which is the most important kind of confession in the type of case described in the text: confession to one’s self, confession before God, or public confession? Why? To what extent do the circumstances of the sin change the relative importance of these confessions?

Which of the three kinds of confession seems most significant to you if you have sinned? Why?

By the Way…

“Thus breaking faith with Adonai” [Numbers 5:6]. A fundamental statement underlying Torah laws: The injury is done to God as well as to man [sic]. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 1,050)

[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] “Who so offers the sacrifice of confession honors Me.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 43b)

A litigant’s admission is worth 100 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?

What is the implied relationship between the confessor and God according to the texts from Talmud B’rachot 34b, Sefer Hachinuch, and Talmud Sanhedrin 43b?


Under the United States’ court system, a criminal who confesses is likely to face a lesser sentence than one who pleads not guilty. To some degree, that relative leniency for those who admit guilt is a result of the plea bargain, a common practice designed to relieve the glut in our criminal justice system. Also, the American public seems to view the person who confesses guilt as more deserving of mercy.

It is odd then that Rashi seems to propose just the opposite: A person convicted of robbery must pay back what has been stolen, but a person who confesses to the crime must pay back what has been stolen plus an additional 20 percent and must also bring an offering to the Temple. With this ruling, Rashi distinguishes between two types of confessors: On the one hand, some people would confess because they are cynically motivated by the desire to lessen the consequences to them; others, however, would choose to admit their guilt precisely because they are eager to pay their debt and truly find forgiveness.

The former group will find no solace in our text but is well served by our current criminal justice system, no doubt for sound practical reasons. The latter group, sincere penitents, is Rashi’s concern. By making an extra payment to the person who has been harmed, the repentant sinner can truly set matters right with that person. Then, by making a sin offering to God, the truly apologetic wrongdoer will feel right with God once again.

Today, in place of the ram, we offer God the prayers of our lips and hearts, and we offer sacrifices in the form of giving tzedakah (charity). Thus does this text provide solace to those who wish to confess and repent.

Provided by the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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