Shabbat 71

Assigning blame.

Our daf today discusses a famous dispute between two Amoraim, rabbis among the later, post-Mishnaic generations of the Talmud. It involves a case when a person unwittingly eats two olive-sized portions of forbidden fat at one time or in one single lapse of awareness (helem). (An olive-size is considered the minimal amount that needs to be eaten for a transgression to occur — trace amounts don’t count.) In this hypothetical, the person eating finds out about the first olive-sized portion they ate and understands that they now have to bring a sin-offering. Later, they discover that the second olive-sized portion they ate was also forbidden food. The question is this: if a person committed two sins during the same helem but discovered them at two different times, does the person bring one sin-offering or two?

The famous Amoraic pair Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish each have a different view. Rabbi Yochanan believes the person should bring two sin-offerings while Resh Lakish affirms the person brings one. Their disagreement centers around the understanding of two nearly adjacent verses found in Leviticus chapter four.

Rabbi Yochanan derives his understanding from Leviticus 4:26:

When a person becomes aware of a sin of which he is guilty — he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin of which he is guilty.

Because the verse says “for his sin, he shall bring,” Rabbi Yochanan understands that a sin-offering must be brought for each time a sin is committed — even if they were committed at the same helem.

Resh Lakish bases his opinion on Leviticus 4:28:

All its fat he shall turn into smoke on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of well-being. Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

Because this verse states “for his sin, and he shall be forgiven,” Resh Lakish understands that even if a sin-offering was brought for only one of a person’s multiple sins, he is still forgiven for all of them.

The debate comes down to a question of how timing plays into liability. Do mistakes multiply if they happen simultaneously? Do they diminish if remembered all at once? For Rabbi Yochanan, mistakes discovered separately are distinct, even if they occurred in the same helem. For Resh Lakish, as long as the two actions are connected by being in the same helem, then they count as one even if they are not remembered all at once.

This short sugya on today’s daf raises questions about memory and guilt. It’s not always clear — then as now — whether it is a better practice to lay separate charges of guilt for each separate transgression, or lump transgressions together for the purposes of atonement and repair.

Read all of Shabbat 71 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 16, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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