Parshat Tzav: Thoughts of Sin

This week’s Torah portion opens with a description of a sacrificial offering called olah, which is entirely consumed by fire. The Sages have a tradition which explains the purpose of this offering:

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught: The olah is brought for hirhur halev, “contemplation of the heart.” (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3)

This idea is further explained in the Jerusalem Talmud: The olah brings about kappara, “expiation/atonement,” for thoughts of the heart. (Yerushalmi Yoma 8:7, 45b)

Thus we learn that “sinful” thoughts of the heart necessitate forgiveness.

At first glance this idea seems strange, especially from a contemporary western perspective. After all, we live in a society which condones almost any type of behavior between adults as harmless so long as it is mutually consensual.

We live in a society which sees almost any type of consensual behavior between adults as harmless. Most certainly, ones thoughts are private, and no harm — and therefore “sin” — takes place if one has mere thoughts. In some circles, thoughts and fantasies are encouraged, and are seen as a part of a healthy, well-adjusted mind. Yet here we have the opposite teaching: mere thoughts can be sin, and therefore forgiveness is required.

Thought Control

The idea that thoughts must be controlled is a very basic one, found in the third section of the Sh’ma: “Do not turn after your hearts or your eyes which entice you” (Numbers 15:39).

What, then, is the connection between the olah and the thoughts for which it compensates? The Midrash explains: Thus taught our Sages: “The olah is completely holy, because it was not brought for sins, the asham was brought for theft, but the olah was not brought for sin or theft, rather for thoughts of the heart.” (Tanchuma Tzav, 13:13)

Here the olah is called “completely holy,” referring to the fact that the olah – which literally means “ascending” – is completely consumed by fire, and man derives no benefit from it.

And God said to Moshe saying: “Command Aaron and his children saying, These are the instructions of the olah. It is an olah which shall burn on the altar the entire night, until morning. And the fire of the altar shall be kept burning in it.” (Leviticus 6:1-2)

This is further explained by some commentaries to the verse: The olah is an offering which brings about forgiveness for thoughts. Just as a person’s passions burn at night, this sacrificed animal – which represents the physical side of the person – burns all night, until only spirit is left. (See Torah Shelemah Tzav note 9). There is nothing “physical” left of the offering.

This idea can be further elucidated by a passage in the Talmud: Thoughts of sin are kashe, “more difficult,” than sin (Yoma 29a).

Lust and Other EmotionsRashi understands this teaching to mean that thoughts of sin are more difficult to control than actually committing the sin itself. But this explanation does not indicate which is more serious, or for that matter if a thought of sin is actually a sin in and of itself:

Sexual passion is more difficult to contain than the act itself. (Rashi)

As we have already noted, many people do not consider thoughts a religious or moral issue.

Crimes of the heart are never known by others. It is more difficult to control something which is not considered to be a problem in the first place. And, furthermore, crimes of the heart are never known by others.

One conclusion of Rashi’s analysis might well be that the reward for controlling one’s thoughts would be greater than the reward for avoiding an “actual” sin, following the principle taught in the Ethics of the Fathers: In accordance with the difficulty is the reward. (Mishna Avos 5:26)

Even though a real sin in the world of action is worse, one would nonetheless receive a greater reward for avoiding thoughts of sin because of the sheer difficulty of thought control.

Sanctity of the Mind

Maimonides, in the Guide for the Perplexed, has a radically different understanding:

You already know the teaching “Thoughts of sin are kashe, more difficult, than sin.” (Yoma 29a) I have a wonderful explanation: If a person sins, it is generally due to circumstances which result from his being a physical creature – that is, a person will sin due to the animal side of himself. But thoughts are the treasure of a person which follow his “form” (his image of God) and if a person sins with his thoughts, then he has sinned with his greatest asset … [because] the purpose of the mind is to cling to God, not to slip below [to the animal level]” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:8).

Maimonides is explaining that thoughts of sin are worse than sin! He posits that a person is made up of two parts – the animal/physical and the intellectual/spiritual.

Therefore, if a person sins with his body, it is understandable because the body is physical, and therefore has all sorts of physical urges and animal instincts. The mind, on the other hand, is the manifestation of the image of God. To sin with one’s mind is therefore a greater desecration than sinning with one’s body.

To sin with one’s mind is a greater desecration than sinning with one’s body.

There is one caveat – man is punished, in general, for action, not thought. Nonetheless, sinful thoughts may be more spiritually debilitating.

The image of the olah now takes on new meaning. The person who has sinned with their mind has, in effect, turned his spiritual side into something animal. Therefore the animal offering brought to make amends for such a sin must be completely consumed by fire, indicating that the mind must be completely dedicated to the spiritual.

The Antidote is Torah

This idea may be illustrated by a second teaching – by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the authority who taught that the olah is brought for forbidden thoughts:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said in addition: “Whoever puts the words of Torah on his heart [mind] is saved from thoughts of sin, thoughts [fear] of the sword, fear of tyranny, idle thoughts, thoughts of the evil inclination, thoughts of sexual licentiousness, thoughts of evil women, thoughts of idolatry, fear of being controlled by others, and obsessive thoughts…” (Tana d’Bei Eliyahu Zuta, Ch. 16).

Here, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is teaching that there is an antidote to sinful thoughts – Torah. As we have seen, the mind represents the image of God and the spiritual side of man. This image was created in order to enable us to have a relationship with God; therefore, the person whose mind is involved in words of Torah is spared the types of thoughts which haunt man.

The person whose mind is involved in words of Torah is spared the types of thoughts which haunt man.

Yom Hitorerut 5775This teaching reminds us of the passage in the Talmud, taught in the name of Rabbi Yishmael, that if the “Evil Inclination” takes control of a person, the remedy is to pull him into the House of Study. (See Kedushin 30.)

Whenever there is a tension between the physical and spiritual aspects of man, Rabbi Yishmael’s advice is to bring the battle onto your own turf.

The Kotzker Rebbe once commented on Rabbi Yishmael’s advice: Don’t think for one second that the Evil Inclination isn’t waiting for you in the House of Study as well!

Rabbi Yishmael’s advice will only afford a “home court advantage.”

Elevating the Physical

Man’s role in this world is to elevate the physical. To facilitate this, man’s mind, which is the core of his spirituality (and, according to Maimonides, of the “image of God”) must remain pure, focused, and spiritual.

The insidiousness of thoughts or fantasies of sin is that the physical/animal has attained dominion over the spiritual, and the battle is thus lost before it is begun.

The Temple, as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, is a place where errant man is rehabilitated. The sin offering, with the powerful cathartic imagery we examined last week, helps man when he has actually performed a sin.

The olah, which is described at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion is brought for the “sin” of forbidden thoughts. As the entire animal is consumed by the fire, man’s thoughts are again turned towards the direction of all his mental energies — entirely to God.

This D’var Torah originally appeared in the author’s book, “Explorations” (Targum/Feldheim, 2001), and appears here with the author’s permission.

Rav Ari Kahn
Rav Ari Kahn, a member of Beit Hillel, is Director of Foreign Student Programs and a senior lecturer in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University, as well as a senior lecturer at MaTaN. He is a renowned speaker and popular author of articles on the weekly parasha and holidays, with a readership in the thousands, as well as an author of several books.
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