Yoma 36

Ordering sins.

The mishnah on the bottom of yesterday’s daf details the way the confession of the high priest is to occur on Yom Kippur. According to the mishnah, the confession begins this way: “Please God! I have sinned (aniti), I have done wrong (pashati), I have erred (chatati) before you.”  Today the Talmud brings a teaching from the Tosefta, a collection of additional teachings from the mishnaic period, which makes clear that the issue is a bit more complicated. 

The Tosefta tells us that the three words for sin that the mishnah prescribes are the right ones and in the right order. But it also tells us two additional details. First, the Tosefta informs us that the source for the ordering of the words is biblical; it follows the appearance of words with those same roots in two different texts — the confession over the scapegoat as described in Leviticus 16:21, and the revelation of God to Moses in Exodus 34:7. Second, we learn that this order is not a universally accepted position. In fact, it is a minority position attributed to Rabbi Meir. The sages disagree. 

The disagreement is predicated on the differences between the types of sin those three words describe. “Aniti”refers to intentional wrongdoings, “pashati” to rebellious acts against God (that is, sins one commits to show a willingness to contravene God’s law), and “chatati” to sins committed unwittingly. According to the sages, these words indicate different levels of sin and the order they should be recited should reflect an ascending order of seriousness, beginning with unwitting sins, moving to intentional ones and concluding with rebellious ones. Rabbi Meir believes the order should follow the way those words appear in the Torah. The sages have biblical texts to lean on as well, although none of them are from the first five books of the Torah, a fact which is the subject of some consternation. 

Rabba bar Shmuel quotes Rav as saying that the law follows the sages, prompting the Talmud to ask why Rav would have to say such a thing. After all, we know that we follow the majority in legal disputes. The answer is revealing: Rav felt the need to make the pronouncement  lest we think that Rabbi Meir’s position, founded as it is on verses in the Torah, would in this case overturn the general principle given that the sages have only later biblical verses to lean on. Maybe we only follow the majority in cases where both positions rest on verses of equal authority.

It seems Rav had good reason to be concerned, because the Talmud immediately tells a tale of a person who led services before Rabba and performed the confession according to Rabbi Meir’s position. 

Rabba said to him: Have you forsaken the opinion of the Rabbis, who are the many, and performed the confession sequence in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Meir? That person said to Rabba: I hold in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Meir, as it is written explicitly in the Torah of Moses.

Interestingly, the mishnah gives no hint of this dispute, simply reporting Rabbi Meir’s position without reference either to the verses that support him or to the contrary position of the sages. The Talmud, not content with this simplicity, reminds us, as it so often does, that there is debate beneath the placid surface of the mishnah. Rabbi Meir’s position is the minority, but it is based on verses from the Torah, unlike the sages, who lean on later (and therefore lesser) prooftexts. Rav nevertheless says the law follows the sages, yet Rabba’s unnamed interlocutor is not refuted when he asserts the power of Rabbi Meir over the sages, the very claim that Rav wants to forestall with his pronouncement. 

What should carry more weight in deciding the law — a majority opinion with biblical verses from the later parts of the Torah, or a minority position that is supported by verses from the Five Books of Moses? Rav seems certain it’s the former, but the Talmud is decidedly less so. As is often the case, the debate is unresolved. But the still waters of the Mishnah have been troubled, and as students, we are left grateful for it.       

Read all of Yoma 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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Gittin 36

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