Scholarship

Korban Asham: The Sacrifice for Sacrilege (and other Sins)

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Matt Lubin

The opening chapters of Vayikra detail the specificities and circumstances of the various sacrifices—primarily, which animals are to be sacrificed under what conditions. These different animals and circumstances are even given different titles, so that categories of sacrifices emerge as different types: “thus are the procedures for the olah, the minha, the hatat, the asham…” (Vayikra 7:37).

Among these types, the asham ram sacrifice appears to be particularly mysterious in that the circumstances necessitating its offering appear to be uniquely eclectic.[1] For those of us who recite the fifth chapter of Mishnah Zevahim as part of the daily morning prayers, which delineates the six instances which obligate a korban asham, this seemingly haphazard list is particularly striking. The six “ashamot,” as described by the Mishnah, are offered:

  1. Asham Meilah: by one who unintentionally commits sacrilege, i.e., misuse of the sanctuary’s or sanctified property (Vayikra 5:14-16, 22:14-16)
  2. Asham Taluy: by one who ‘sins without knowing,’ which is interpreted by rabbinic tradition as referring to someone who is unsure whether or not he or she is obligated to bring a korban hatat (Vayikra 5:17-19)
  3. Asham Gezeilah: by one who stole his fellow’s property by denying having it in his possession (Vayikra 5:20-26, Bamidbar 5:5-8)
  4. Asham Metzora: as part of the purification process of the metzora (Vayikra 14:10-32)
  5. Asham Shifha Harufah: by one who has slept with a betrothed bondswoman (Vayikra 19:20-22)
  6. Asham Nazir: by a nazir who has been defiled and must restart his term of nezirut (Bamidbar 6:9-12)

The precise conditions for almost all of these cases are subject to significant disputes. Relevant details will be discussed later but, suffice it to say, nothing on this list of sins and circumstances appears common to all six. Of course, there need not be one distinct factor underlying each of these cases, but one imagines that there must be some explanation for why they warrant a category of sacrifice separate from the general sin-offering, the hatat.

At first glance, there seems to be no conceptual distinction between the cases necessitating an asham from those obligating a hatat sacrifice, such as inadvertently eating forbidden fats or violating the Shabbat. Although the asham must be a male ram and the hatat is a ewe (or, in certain instances, a male goat or bull), the circumstances requiring either sacrifice appear nearly identical, to the point where both the metzora purification process a the nazir’s rededication ceremony require both a hatat and an asham. The Torah itself testifies to the procedural similarities between these two forms of sacrifice (Vayikra 7:7). What, then, does the asham accomplish that the hatat does not?

Although this is not meant to be a lexicographical essay, the meaning of the word asham as used in the sacrificial context is obviously highly relevant to understanding this sacrifice. Most traditional English translations, following the precedent of the Aramaic targumim,[2] translate the word asham as “guilt.” Perhaps most illustrative is this word’s first appearance in the Bible, where Avimelekh complains that by not revealing Rivkah’s identity as a married woman, Isaac was bringing about Avimelekh’s “asham,” his guilt (Bereishit 26:10). Although such a translation does appear to be most consistently appropriate for the several dozen biblical instances of the word “asham” or its variants, it does little in helping to understand the nature of the sacrifice in question. Presumably, guilt is incurred by sin, so the difference between sin offerings and guilt offerings remains obscure.

Ramban (to Vayikra 5:15) insists that the asham is categorically different from the hatat, and it would be a mistake to think that one is merely associated with more serious sins than the other. He believes that the word asham does not mean guilt (which would be closely related to the concept sin), but is related to the word “shamem,” desolate, and thus means something relating to annihilation. In the context of the korban asham, the word refers not to the sins themselves but rather the punishment that those sins warrant. It is merely by association that the word can also refer to the punishment itself, such as when Joseph’s brothers presume that “we are being punished [asheimim] for[3] [what we did to] our brother” (Bereishit 42:21), when they are treated harshly by the Egyptian viceroy.

Armed with this insight, Ramban is able to better explain the difference between asham and hatat: while both are indirectly responses to sinfulness, the hatat, which Ramban here explains as referring to “straying,” is brought for an infinitely milder offense than one for which the sinner forfeits his very right to exist. Ramban therefore concludes that the sins incurring the asham must be especially serious. To support this thesis he notes that, unlike the hatat, the asham sacrifice is to be offered by one who commits these sins intentionally, not only inadvertently. Ramban acknowledges that this is not true regarding the asham for sacrilege, which is only brought for an inadvertent misuse of sanctified property, but the severity of even unintentional sacrilege—which bespeaks a cavalier attitude towards God’s sanctuary—is readily understandable.

As for the asham taluy, the sacrifice for someone unsure if he or she has committed a violation requiring a hatat, Ramban proposes that the severity of the sacrifice is meant to be a countermeasure to the flippancy with which the offender is likely to treat a sin he or she only possibly committed. (This idea will be analyzed more closely below, as it may be particularly instructive in understanding the concept of asham in general.) Ramban grants that the asham brought as part of the metzora’s purification is indeed anomalous, and is not a sacrifice for any sin, but rather relates more directly to the meaning of the word asham: the afflicted metzora is himself emerging from an existence of desolation.

While Ramban does not want to see the asham as a more severe form of the hatat, there are some commentators who do appear to propose such a view. Thus, R. Joseph Bekhor Shor and other Tosafists (such as the Hadar Zekeinim, Moshav Zekeinim, and Hizkuni) stress the severity of the sin necessitating an asham gezeilah by noting that Halakhah requires a korban asham only for someone who not only denied a debt owed to a fellow man, but also swore falsely, compounding the egregiousness of his thievery. This position, too, will have to account for the counterintuitive fact that a doubtful sin is dealt with more seriously than a known, definitive one.

Whether we assume that the asham is a “guilt-offering,” or that it is in recognition of the punishment due to the sinner, or that it is on a continuum with the hatat but of greater severity, several questions remain. Ramban saw the fact that the asham is offered for an intentional as well as unintentional transgression as a sign of the gravity of those sins, but why couldn’t the Torah have simply required a different sacrifice for sinning unintentionally, instead of lumping those circumstances together? More crucially, all of these interpretations further beg the question: why do these specific sins elicit this particular sacrifice? Is the nazir who inadvertently defiles himself more ‘deserving of annihilation’ (to use Ramban’s explanation) that one who accidentally ate on Yom Kippur?

An entirely different approach, which has gained wide acceptance in academic scholarship, is offered by Jacob Milgrom.[4] Although Milgrom’s assumptions and theological framework are surely anathema to the religious reader of Tanakh, his extensive scholarship on the book of Vayikra especially can often help one better appreciate the logic and integrity underlying the sacrificial system and its myriad details. In an analysis that spans almost a hundred pages, Milgrom argues that the korban asham should not be thought of as primarily relating to guilt, sin, or the latter’s associated consequences, but rather as compensation or reparations. His view is based primarily on his translation of Bamidbar 5:7-8.[5] There, a person guilty of having withheld his fellow’s property is obligated to return it along with a fifth of its value and, in those two verses, the principle stolen property is referred to four times as the asham. Milgrom recognizes that many, if not most, of the other biblical instances of this term do connote some form of guilt, but this guilt is meant to refer to the feeling that one owes recompense to God; the word can mean “guilt,” but only by association.

For Milgrom, the paradigmatic instance of the asham sacrifice is the Torah’s first case, that of sacrilege. A person who has misused or misappropriated God’s property must make amends by offering a ram as reparation. Similarly, one who has misappropriated his fellow’s property can make good by returning it and the additional fifth as penalty, but the offense towards God requires an accompanying asham sacrifice.

Milgrom’s connections between the concept of reparations and the remaining instances necessitating an asham are unfortunately much looser, and depend upon returning to the concept of guilt: a person plagued by the religious guilt of having potentially, but unknowingly, violated the law is offered a way to repair this wrong. A man who lays with a bondswoman has not committed adultery; he has offended God alone, and so must bring an offering of restitution. Although Milgrom’s arguments regarding the asham for sacrilege and stealing are somewhat convincing, his approach seems to suffer from the same question-begging as the earlier approaches. Even if we are to grant the asham as being a reparation-offering, why should these six instances be singled out from the many other sins that would be “offensive to God,” so to speak?

Building off a comment of R. Pinhas Horowitz,[6] I would like to offer a possible explanation for the different types of asham sacrifices based on a combination of the above views.[7] Milgrom’s observation that the asham is related to reparations appears to me to be fundamentally correct, although the asham is surely not a “reparation-offering” in that it is meant to be a compensation itself, but rather is the offering that accompanies an act of reparation or its equivalent.[8] Again, the archetypal asham is its introductory example: the asham meilah, which (according to Halakhah)[9] is offered as accompanying the fine that the sinner must pay to the sanctuary equal to the value of the property misused plus one fifth. The same is true for the asham gezeilah, which is always offered in combination with a restitution of the stolen object (even if the object’s owner dies without heirs, as in Bamidbar 5:8). A similar principle, though perhaps more metaphorical, may be at work regarding the asham offered by the nazir. Like the sinner who will be making financial amends for his thievery or sacrilege, the nazir too will be repaying his debt of nezirut by restarting the time period that he had originally pledged.

Looking at these three cases, the asham sacrifice appears to be required precisely in circumstances in which a sinner might feel that there should be no animal sacrifice at all, because the wrong has been (or will be) corrected, and the damage repaired. From there,  it is only a small jump to see the asham metzora in the same light. The physical mark afflicating the metzora in question is long gone. He has even already brought his birds, shaved and washed, and is presumably nothing more than a “mehusar kapparah” (lacking atonement) awaiting his purification offerings (like a woman after childbirth or a person who experiences an impure emission).[10]

Yet, in addition to the hatat for purification, the metzora is required to bring an asham as well. Several commentators apply a similar reasoning to the other two instances obligating an asham: one is likely to think that a case of doubtful sin requires no repentance (see below), or that there is nothing wrong with lying with a bondswoman, who is naturally promiscuous (or at least treated as such).[11] Each of these cases, to varying degrees, seem to be instances which would justify one in thinking that no sacrifice (or any additional action) would be required.

Indeed, if restitution is being made, why should there be a need for an additional sacrifice? In explaining the theory behind the asham for stolen property, the Sefer ha-Hinnukh writes that the asham exists as a conceptual deterrent. Lest one think that he can freely steal by denying his neighbor’s money and be forgiven upon its return, the Torah educates us that stealing itself is sinful by requiring a sacrifice for such a case. However, if we incorporate the traditional understanding of asham as “guilt,” a different explanation emerges: the asham is brought in recognition that repentance demands more than restitution. Instead, it demands that the sinner address something deeper within himself, a personal guilt beyond the damage done to another party. Repayment or reparations is not sufficient for repentance.

The message of the asham appears to be that there are instances in which a person retains some “guilt,” but not all who must offer an asham are “guilty” of conventional wrongdoing. A nazir defiled through no fault of his own is nevertheless required to bring an asham. This can be explained as an acknowledgement that even though the nazir himself may be morally guiltless, he cannot simply restart his term as if nothing had gone wrong. Perhaps a more encompassing translation of asham is not “guilt,” but “stain,” as if to say that a certain defilement remains to be cleansed for a person to start anew. Similarly, a metzora has spent his days of impurity banished from the city (unlike any other impure person), and he cannot so easily be reintroduced to his previous life without an additional sacrificial reckoning.[12]

Out of the six instances of korban asham, the most difficult to incorporate into this framework, is that of the man who sleeps with the betrothed bondswoman, though it may be noted that the case in and of itself (according to its rabbinic interpretation) is vexing and somewhat paradoxical.[13] Some of the unique laws governing this case imply that the asham is not brought as an atonement for any sin, but for the man having defiled himself in this particular manner.

For example, a man is only obligated to bring this sacrifice in an instance in which the woman sinned intentionally and is punished with lashes—but he himself brings the sacrifice whether he sinned knowingly or not (Keritut 11a). A person who has intercourse with a single bondswoman multiple times in multiple lapses of knowledge is obligated in only a single sacrifice, a law unique to this case (ibid. 9a). Additionally, this is the only instance of illicit relations whose punishment is incurred only if intercourse is completed (ibid. 10b). Taken together, it is possible that the asham sacrifice obligated here is not due to the violation of  a transgression,[14] but rather to impress upon the man that, although he may have no damage to repay,[15] he has still defiled himself in a manner requiring repentance.

Among the asham sacrifices, it is the logic behind the asham taluy that has probably received the most attention in Jewish literature. Many[16] have interpreted the seriousness with which the Torah treats the situation of possible sin as a deterrent, intended to ensure that we not permit ourselves to potentially sin, similar to how the Sefer ha-Hinnukh understands the asham gezeilah as referenced above. Rabbeinu Yonah of Geroni[17] is quoted as saying that a doubtful sin is even more severe than a sin of which one is certain, because when certain that he has sinned, one will feel the resulting guilt and worry, which is integral to repentance. Neither explanation fits very well with the theory proposed here that the asham exists to cleanse a person who is otherwise making amends, and we may be forced to admit that a different concept underlies this particular asham than the others.[18]

Ramban, however, sees the severity of the asham taluy as being specifically related to the punishment one would incur for having transgressed God’s laws—if a transgression did occur. Because one who is unsure whether or not he has sinned is likely to be lax in bringing a sacrifice for that sin, the Torah obligates such a person to offer an asham, the “deserving-of-annihilation offering” (in Ramban’s translation), a brutal reminder of precisely what is at stake. Such an interpretation  more closely adheres with how we have been understanding the concept of asham: the sacrifice is not brought as an atonement for a particularly grievous sin, but rather is meant to inculcate the message that sin corrupts and stains, leaving it marked for destruction.

A discussion in the Talmud (Keritut 25a-26a) regarding the atonement effected by the korban asham may also shed some light on its function. The Mishnah records a dispute concerning the voluntary offering of an asham taluy—although R. Eliezer allows anyone who wishes to offer such a sacrifice, the “rabbis”[19] holds that one may only offer the asham talui if he genuinely knows himself to be in a state of doubt regarding his guilt. Several commentators appear to emphasizethe personal worry and guilty feeling that is associated with the “guilt offering,” but if we adopt the Tannaic consensus[20] that the korban asham is only obligated in objective cases, it seems more likely that the asham has nothing to do with the potential sinner’s psychological state, but rather the actual state of being guilty of sin.

The Talmud’s ensuing discussion is perhaps more closely aligned with Ramban’s thesis than that of R. Yonah: the continuation of the Mishnah states that, although anyone obligated in bringing a sacrifice is still obligated to do so after Yom Kippur has passed, an asham talui does not need to be brought for a ‘possible sin’ which was committed before (or even on the day of) Yom Kippur. This law is somewhat perplexing: if a person was unsure if he had accidentally eaten heilev, forbidden animal fat, and sacrificed a korban asham, but later discovered that he indeed ate what was forbidden, he must then sacrifice a hatat, even if Yom Kippur had passed. How, then, could Yom Kippur help someone who is still unsure if he is obligated in a hatat? If Rabbeinu Yonah is correct in thinking that the sinner-in-doubt is especially in need of repentance because he will not experience the worry and anguish appropriate for repentance, affording such a person this leniency seems preposterous; he is precisely the kind of sinner who is least likely to be inspired by Yom Kippur, and yet Halakhah acknowledges him as the only one who is no longer obligated in his sacrificial atonement.

This Yom Kippur dispensation that is unique to the korban asham appears to be best explained by recognizing that, although it is related to sin, the asham sacrifice in general is related more closely to the metaphysical effect that sin has on a person. Commenting on that Mishnah, the ensuing talmudic dialogue suggests that the asham exists to protect the Israelite from potential punishment he might suffer, because “the Torah takes pity on the bodies of Israel.”[21]

This coheres nicely with Ramban’s view, that the asham is so named as a reminder that sins—even inadvertent, unknown ones—have drastic consequences if not treated by the appropriate sacrifice. The asham taluy, then, like the asham brought by one who is returning his fellow’s unlawfully withheld object or making reparations for sacrilege, is focused primarily not on the act of repentance itself or its psychology, but on protecting the sinner from the “stain” on his person.

In contemporary politics, “reparations” has taken on a very specific connotation wherein certain national bodies give payments to historically victimized communities.[22] There are several instances of governments paying out reparations in recent history: Germany has paid millions of dollars to the State of Israel and victims of Nazi atrocities,[23] and Ronald Reagan signed a law providing a sum of money to citizens who were forced into Japanese internment camps during World War II. In the United States, political candidates are increasingly speaking of “reparations” for one of the country’s most serious historic wrongs: the multi-generational enslavement of Africans and their American descendants. This specific example has a long history, even if it enters the news only by mention of recent presidential candidates.

Regardless of how this debate plays out (and I personally have no opinion on the matter), it is worth noting that the concept hinges on a certain innovation regarding the term “reparation:” the monies paid are not meant to be compensation for monies owed, but a symbolic act of apology. Like the concept of a korban asham, the offer in question is separate from any legal restitution or monetary loss incurred by the victim; it is instead an attempt to sacrifice something in acknowledgement that a wrong has been done which continues to stain the national spirit.

A recent convert to the cause of American slavery reparations, New York Times columnist David Brooks, has written that he was convinced by Ta Nehisi-Coates’ argument in favor of reparations because of the need to reckon with the guilt-stain which remains in the national soil (an assuredly biblical idea, inspired by a sentence in Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address). As Nahisi-Coates describes:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

Although I am not necessarily advocating such a proposal in the United States, the conceptual transition from monetary reimbursement to using such monies as a physical expression of the “reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal” is deeply tied to korban asham: even where no living person can be held personally liable for this and related historic crimes,[24] the nation is still burdened by its stain.

In a sense, the korban asham accomplishes what many commentators see as the reasoning behind the entire sacrificial system: sometimes, words do not suffice.[25] Returning to God after sin, or even a metzora’s return to purity after having been shunned, cannot be accomplished merely with a thought and word. Israel today has no temple and has not offered sacrifices in millenia, and so these rituals seem foreign to us. Especially as we read and study the book of Vayikra, we might remember that the sacrifices truly do fill an aching religious need. In a time when it can seem so difficult to recognize God as a real, material presence in our lives, and mere words fail to move us, the visceral, even carnal rituals of slaughtering and burning an animal sometimes seem deeply needed.


[1] A methodological note: this essay will attempt to adhere as closely as possible to understanding the laws of the asham sacrifices according to rabbinic tradition and Halakhah, even though biblical commentators often interpret the verses’ details differently (such as Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 5:22).

[2] Although there are significant variations of the correct text and reading of Targum Onkelos to Vayikra 5:19 specifically, the implication is clear (there and in many other instances) that the word asham is understood as guilt. See R. Posen, Parshegen Vayikra  p. 94-95.

[3] Ramban’s reading of this verse differs from the traditional Targum, which renders asheimim as “guilty,” but perhaps has the advantage that it allows for a more conventional use of the preposition al.

[4] Jacob Milgrom, Anchor Bible Series: Leviticus 1-16 With New Translation and Commentary, New York, Doubleday: 1991, p. 292-378 (also see p. 466ff among other instances).

[5] Vayikra 5:6 may also be referring to repayment as “asham,” but it is more ambiguous.

[6] Panim Yafot to Vayikra 5:2.

[7] The view presented here is somewhat similar to analysis of R. David Zvi Hoffman, Sefer Vayikra vol. 1 (Mosad ha-Rav Kook: Jerusalem, 1976) pp. 150-152. R. Hoffman more closely associates the asham with repairing the relationship with God, and believes that its purification aspect is secondary to its use as a reparative sacrifice, while the hatat comes primarily for a purification, and the atonement is secondary.

[8] This modification of Milgrom’s view was recently offered by John Nolland, “Does the Cultic Asham Make Reparation to God?” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 92 (2015) , 87-110. However, Nolland is almost exclusively interested in the ashamot brought for sacrilege and thievery.

[9] As opposed to the position (quoted but disputed by Milgrom and R. David Zvi Hoffman) that interprets the laws of the asham meilah as necessitating a ram that is equal in value to the sanctified property which the sinner has misappropriated.

[10] See Vayikra 12:6-8, 15:14-15, and 15:29-30.

[11] See Ramban to Vayikra 19:20 and Sefer ha-Hinnukh no. 129.

[12] Additional commentators who attempt to uncover a theme unifying all the instance of the korban asham include R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Olat Reayah pp. 173-174, who sees the asham as a response to specific forms of deviance, and Prof. Yonatan Grossman’s series on korban asham, who connects all the instances of asham to forms of stealing from God. A similar, but not identical approach is taken by Rabbi Eitan Meir.

[13] See She’eilot u-Teshuvot R. Akiva Eiger, no. 141, 171.

[14] It is not entirely clear what sin the man would have violated in the first place. Rambam (Hil. Issurei Biah 12:11) implies that it is a violation of a positive command, and the rabbis would have him lashed.

[15] Biblically, intercourse would only be considered as “damaging” to a virgin, and the asham is only brought in the case of lying with non-virgin bondswoman (Keritut 11a).

[16] Sheiltot of Rav Ahai Gaon, no. 68, and R. Yosef Bechor Shor to Vayikra 5:17, among others.

[17] Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah to Rif, Berakhot 1b. A similar comment is made by Rabbeinu Bahayei to Vayikra 5:17. This sentiment has made it into the laws of Rosh Hashanah; see Rama, Orah Hayyim 603:1.

[18] It is worth noting that Rambam, in his listing of the commandments, counts the asham taluy as a separate mitzvah from the other cases which necessitate an asham (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh 70-71).

[19] While this generally connotes the majority or accepted opinion in the Mishnah, this instance is not so clear. See R. Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parashat ha-Shavua, “Parashat Vayikra: Bein Korbanot Nedava le-Korbenot Hovah,” available online at daat.ac.il.

[20] As does Rambam, Hil. Shegagot 8:1 and Hil. Maaseh ha-Korbanot 14:8. However, R. David Zvi Hoffman (ibid. p. 149) notes that the author of the Arba’ah Turim disagrees, and the Halakhah should be considered as having been decided in favor of R. Eliezer, who allows for voluntary asham sacrifices.

[21] While one might argue that this suggestion is offered by the Talmud only to explain Rabbi Eliezer’s view, this view of the asham’s sacrificial function appears to be shared by the Talmud in Yoma 85b. See also Zevahim 10b and the comment of Tosafot there, s.v. Mah le-haTzad.

[22] For a nice set of examples and a clear, concise presentation of the issues of national reparations, see Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), p. 288ff.

[23] See Ronald Zweig, German Reparations and the Jewish World: A History of the Claims Conference (Psychology Press: London, 2004).

[24] Obviously, the sins of the majority American people against their Black American neighbors are not limited to slavery, and several civil rights leaders (such as Bryan Stevenson) emphasize more recent “sins,” not slavery, that should be forefront in considerations for reparations.

[25] See especially Sefer ha-Hinnukh, no. 95.