Vayikra: Language and Translation

What does it mean that “a soul unintentionally fails [Nefesh ki-techeta bi-sh’gagah]…”? — Leviticus/Vayikra 4:1-2

Is this an ethical or ritual error? Was the “soul,” in contemporary understanding, alone involved? Here are five translations with associated notes, suggesting (no surprise) no agreement:

YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying:
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying:
(Any) person [nefesh]– when one sins [ki-techeta] in error [bi-sh’gagah]
regarding any of YHWH’s commandments that should not be done,
by doing any one of them:

sins: Heb. teheta‘; more properly, it means “fails” (B-R*) or “misses” (as with an arrow). The word connotes giving offense to or wrongdoing God (or another person).
— Fox**

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘Should a person offend errantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done and he do one of these,…

offend errantly. The Hebrew adverb bishegagah has the sense of “unintentionally,” “by mistake.” The concern throughout this section is to preserve the purity of the place of the cult. The inadvertent “offense” does not at all imply an ethical transgression but rather the unwitting violation of a prohibition…generating physical pollution that must be cleansed.
— Alter**

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

Person. Hebrew nefesh, often rendered “soul.” Some commentators remark that the soul is involved in every transgression, but Bachya notes that nefesh sometimes means the combination of soul and body, sometimes body alone (e.g., Lev. 21:1).

Incurs guilt. These words render a form of the verb chata, “to sin.”
— JPS/Plaut**

[YHVH] spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in the regard to any of [YHVH’s] commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

person. Heb. nefesh, which indicates that the law applies equally to women and men.

unwittingly incurs guilt. The concern is with inadvertent moral or physical violations.

HASHEM spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of HASHEM that may not be done, and he commits one of them.

[nefesh]A person [lit., soul]. Because thoughts originate in the soul, the sins that necessitate this offering — sins born of careless inadvertence — are attributed to the soul, and it is the soul that is cleansed by means of the offering (Rambam [Maimonides])
— Stone**

The Stone chumash elaborates on this verse:

1) “No offering is sufficient to remove the stain of [intentional] sinfulness; that can be done only through repentance and a change of attitudes…”

2) “…if the sin was committed accidentally and without intent, no offering is needed.”

This leaves “deeds that were committed [bi-shegagah], inadvertently, as the result of carelessness.” Ramban [Nachmanides] teaches, the text continues, that “such deeds blemish the soul…for if the sinner had sincerely regarded them with the proper gravity, the violations would not have occurred.” One who cares about honoring the Sabbath, “would not have ‘forgotten’ what day of the week it was,” for example.

Another view:

The person who brings forth a sacrifice in the Torah is called a nefesh — in Rabbinic Hebrew, literally, a “soul.” When we give our sacrifices, we should give from the heart, or even more deeply, from the soul….We reach out from our soul to connect with the souls of others.
— Joseph B. Meszler, “Sacrifice Play”
IN The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary (Jewish Lights; full citation in Source Materials**)

*“B-R” is the Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig translation of the Bible into German, on which Fox based his translation. (I just figured out, finally, how to do text jumps in these posts! [return to text])

** Full citations and more details about each translation available at Source Materials. (return to text)

See also, Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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