Under rabbinic law, a person who accidentally violates Shabbat would need to bring a sin offering. On today’s page, the rabbis suggest that this is more than a matter of just counting up the actions performed and “charging” the correct number of sacrifices for the infractions. Instead, they offer a detailed analysis of the person’s psychology.
The mishnah that today’s page discusses distinguishes between someone who forgets that it is Shabbat and someone who forgets that a given kind of action is prohibited:
One who knows about the concept of Shabbat [but forgets which day is Shabbat] and performs many kinds of labor on many different Shabbatot, is obligated to bring a sacrifice for each Shabbat. One who knows that it is Shabbat, and performs many different kinds of prohibited labor, on many different Shabbatot, is obligated [to bring a sin offering] for each kind of labor.
In the Gemara, the rabbis ask why the penalties are different for these two cases:
What is the difference between the former clause and the latter clause? Rav Safra said: in the former case, he stops what he is doing when he realizes that it is Shabbat, and in the later case, he stops when he realizes that what he is doing is a form of prohibited labor. Rav Nahman said to him: but he would only stop what he is doing on Shabbat because it is a form of prohibited labor, and the only reason he would stop doing a form of prohibited labor is because it is Shabbat! Rather, Rav Nahman said: Why did the merciful one [i.e. God, in the Torah] obligate someone to bring a sacrifice? Because of an act of forgetting. In the former case, he only forgot one thing [that it was Shabbat], while in the second case, he forgot many things [that each action was a form of prohibited labor].
From the outside, the two cases the rabbis describe here look identical: in each one, a person performs several different kinds of prohibited labor several times. But, internally, two very different processes are taking place: in the first case, a person generally has a solid understanding of Shabbat practices, but forgets what day it is: perhaps this person has other reasons to have trouble keeping track of the passage of time, so much so that the days blend together and they forget that it is Shabbat. In the second case, the person loses track of the specific actions that are prohibited on this special day: they understand that Shabbat is different, but they find it difficult to fully conceptualize how that difference plays out on the ground as they go about the basic tasks of their life. The rabbis recognize that, behind these identical fact patterns are two very different sets of spiritual challenges, and that only someone who has full access to them can understand how things can be set right.
Often, when we see someone else act in way that we perceive to be wrong, we may (whether just to ourselves, or directly to the person in question) prescribe some kind of “sin offering” in order to rebalance the scales, but to do this from the outside is to make a decision without the most important information: what forces are leading that person to act in the way that they do? What kinds of things have they “forgotten” or failed to understand, and why? What would it take to get things back into balance? Today’s page gives us some resources for thinking through how different lapses in judgement and action might be produced, so that we can be better partners in helping those around us transform their behavior for the better.