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Parshat Vayikra

The obligation to know

Except for a small sector of jurists and legal scholars most people do not know most of  the laws of the country they live in. Most of the time they get by with a basic understanding of the law, and then from time to time, in certain notable situations, they seek the services of an attorney to put their affairs in order in accordance with those norms and laws that are beyond them. There is no law that obliges a person to study or know the laws that apply to him.


At the same time the courts assume that a person is aware of the law, and so a person may be punished for breaking the law even if he were to claim he did not know that he was doing anything wrong.


While this is the case in civilian courts, Jewish law commands us to study the Torah and teach it to our children. This is both an individual and a communal obligation; we must pass on the heritage of our people and teach our children the laws, statutes and halachot that bind us. Besides providing each member of Israel with the tools they need to keep the Torah, this knowledge also provides them with a very special gift- the opportunity to be included in the discourse of Torah and to play a part in setting the halachic agenda.


Or to put it in more modern terms, power and influence is not the sole property of a small intellectual elite; the opportunity is given to all who wish to take advantage of it. The Torah is not locked away in an ivory tower; the key is not passed down from one exclusive generation of aristocrats to another. Rather, the opposite is true, each and every person is not only given the opportunity, they are obligated to learn and contribute as much as they want. If we were to ever achieve the utopian society envisioned by halacha everyone would participate fully and no one would be marginalized.


The laws of unintentional sins, shgaga, that appear in Parshat Vayikra complement the obligation we have to study the laws of the Torah. These laws inform us what happens when someone is remiss and has not fulfilled their obligation to know the halacha. These laws are not lacking in nuance, for as Chazal explain in more detail there are different types of shgaga.

Chazal discuss the different types of mistakes and inattention that obligate a person to bring a sin-offering (korban chatat).


One level is someone who forgot the entire Torah and therefore transgressed many commandments. This case brings up a critical question: Can such a person bear any sort of responsibility for their “innocent” actions? The Torah clearly states they can, but at the same time this person is really only obligated for one shgaga transgression- the general inattention that led them to forget the entire Torah. They are not responsible for every individual sin they committed during their period of ignorance because they did not transgress these rules one by one, instead, all their transgressions can be traced back to the same general lack of knowledge. (Mishnah Shabbat 7, 1)


This Mishnaic law is a subject of dispute in the gemara: Does such a person have to bring a separate sin-offering for every Shabbat or can they bring one sin-offering for all the Shabbatot they unwittingly did not observe. (T.B. Shabbat 68) Interestingly enough, there is no complete halachic exemption for someone who never heard of Shabbat. The law is the same whether the person has absolutely no knowledge of Shabbat because they were taken captive by non-Jews when they were just a child (a concept referred to as tinok shenishba) or they knew the laws well and just temporarily forgot that there was a concept of Shabbat. (ibid) So while there may be a difference in the way we calculate how many shgagot these different people bring, both types are held responsible and must bring an offering to atone for their actions.


The Tosafot add another category of shgaga into the mix- a situation where a person knew the Torah prohibition and even remembered it, but could not recall the exact details. As a result they could not distinguish between what was permissible and what was prohibited. Such a person is obligated to bring a sin-offering for every individual prohibition they transressed that warrants such atonement.


Upon comparison it seems that the most severe of all these situations is the person who is negligent or inattentive with the details. Someone who has faint knowledge of the mitzvot is punished more severely than someone who forgot mitzvot exist at all, and both of these situations are dealt with more severely than the person who knows nothing at all about mitzvot in general or about the particulars of a specific mitzvah. (Tosefta Shabbat 8, 6)


We can identify three types of people who are in the category of shogeg.


  • The first is a tinok shenishba, the practically fictitious category of a child who was taken captive and therefore never had the opportunity to discover the world of Torah values, of faith and mitzvot.
  • The second is one who forgot the content of the mitzvot and is therefore unaware of their existence.
  • And lastly we have someone who forgot the details of the mitzvot. These three levels of forgetfulness and inattention can be represented by three different problems: distance, superficiality, and ignorance.


All these traits are intolerable in Jewish society. And so the Torah tells us we must atone for these, we must bring an offering.


Ideally we would never have to atone for these things. Ideally they should not exist in our society. Our duty is to eliminate these traits, to bring people in from the margins to the center. This is an important step on the way to an equitable society.


Knowledge is power. Awareness is strength. In Jewish law this responsibility is based on the clear obligation we have to study Torah. It is understandable that this obligation cannot be fulfilled by separate individuals working on their own, instead we need social institutions to facilitate its proper application.


This leads us to the conclusion that a public education system that teaches mitzvot and Torah values is a basic part of functional Jewish society. The existence of this easily accessible system is the reason we can hold the shogeg responsible for their actions and inattention. The utopian society that the Torah lays out to us through the halachot of shgaga and the obligation of Torah study is a society that is attentive, thoughtful, and actively inclusive.



Tue, March 20 2018 4 Nisan 5778