A Sin By Any Other Name
By Rabbi Leon Morris
Folks out there – colleagues and laypeople alike – feel quite strongly about the use of the word “sin” in the new machzor. Or so it seems from the feedback we’ve heard in the piloting process. But these strong feelings about the word “sin” fall into two opposite camps. There are those who object to the English word “sin” because of its Christian overtones, the sense it carries of permanence and of somehow being stained. Others suspect that our decision to largely use other words (though not exclusively) such as “wrong” reflects a kind of moral relativism where nothing can be categorically labeled as, well, a sin.
The three words that are predominately used in the Torah and in our liturgy are cheyt, avon, and pesha. According to a baraita (Amaraic word for a tradition not contained in the Mishnah) cited in Tractate Yoma 36b, each of these words refers to a distinct kind of sin.Cheyt refers to inadvertent sins. Avon references deliberate sins. Pesha, the most severe, refers to sins committed as a way of rebelling against God.
In our Kol Nidrei service, these terms are translated in one place as “wrongs,” “act of injustice,” and “moral failures.”
The word most often used throughout the liturgy is cheyt, and the translation utilized by the new machzor most often is “wrong.” This word seems to address both those who are looking to the machzor to provide clear moral standards, as well as those who fear that the word “sin” doesn’t carry with it the possibility for change.
Here is how the Vidui Rabbah is translated in the Kol Nidrei pilot draft, page 47a:
For the wrong we have done in Your presence by the spoken word,
And for the wrong we have done in Your presence through insincere promises….
In the draft for Yom Kippur Minchah, we introduced a very different translation of the wordcheyt. Drawing upon the oft-cited etymology of the word as derived from “missing the goal,” the pilot draft, pages 50a and b, offer this translation:
For missing the mark in Your presence through a selfish or petty spirit,
And for missing the mark in your presence through stubbornness.
Maybe it was the absence of a commentary or explanation below the line, but this creative way of translating cheyt was viewed as highly objectionable, and laypeople and rabbis alike told us that this translation simply will not work.
Even the best translation and the most insightful commentary below the line cannot fully unpack the notion of sin, or wrong, or failure. In the same Talmudic sugya (elaboration of the Mishnah) referenced above, the Rabbis are bothered by the fact that the order of the three primary words for sin in the High Priest’s confession doesn’t make sense in light of their own definitions. For the Rabbis, the order to sin, in increasing severity, should becheyt, avon, and pesha. This, therefore, should be the correct order of the High Priest’s confession. But Leviticus 16:21 prescribes that the sins transferred to the scapegoat by the confession are avon, pesha, and cheyt. Likewise, in Exodus 34:7 (the verse that forms the basis of our selichot prayers), God is described as nosei avon, va’pesha v’chata…
The Talmud solves the problem in an ingenious way. Rabbah bar Shmuel said in the name of Rav: The halakhah follows the view of the Sages. Moses was saying before the Holy One of Blessing, “Master of the Universe, at a time when Israel sins before you and then repents, transform for them their deliberate sins into inadvertent sins.”
In other words, the order of sins in the Torah comes not to teach us the order of the High Priest’s confession, but rather to teach that repentance has the power to change the order of what we’ve done, to transform even deliberate and rebellious sins into less severe inadvertent sins.
With regard to our translations then, might we say that t’shuvah can turn “sin” into “wrong,” or even into “missing the mark.”
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.
This article originally appeared on RAVBLOG.
Rabbi Leon Morris is on the editorial team of the new CCAR machzor, and is the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY.