Torah Portion: Vayikra
“וכפר עליו הכהן על שגגתו אשר שגג והוא לא ידע” (ויקרא ה יח)
It is a positive commandment upon a person who is in doubt as to whether he committed one of the grave sins — the kind of sin that had it been done willfully would carry the penalty of kareis-excision and when committed inadvertently requires a standard burnt-offering — to bring because of his doubt an asham talui (a “suspended guilt-offering”).
The way this doubt could come about is, for instance, as follows: Forbidden fat and permitted fat were in front of a person, and he ate one of them while the other became lost. The person is now worried for his soul because he does not know which one he ate, the kosher fat or the non-kosher fat. In this case, the sacrifice he brings is the “suspended guilt-offering.” The term “suspended” used here refers to the possibility that he may later discover something that was originally unknown to him [and so the offering is brought “in suspense” — perhaps he will have to bring a different offering later on]. This is the situation here: If somehow it later became clear that he in fact ate the non-kosher fat, then it will become obvious that his original offering was insufficient and he will be required to an additional offering known as the “standard burnt-offering” in order to complete his atonement. On the other hand, if it should become clear that he definitely ate the kosher fat, then it turns out that he does not require any addition offering.
The commandment about this offering is written in these verses: If a person will sin… he shall bring an unblemished ram from the flock… and the Kohen shall provide him atonement for the inadvertence that he committed unintentionally and he did not know (Vayikra 5:17-18). That is, the offering he brings in this case is because he “did not know” with certainty whether or not he sinned inadvertently.
Among the roots of the mitzvah is the idea that one must beware and be fearful of sin, and therefore he must carefully examine all of his deeds to make sure that he does not stumble on any sin. Therefore, when a person was not properly vigilant about his deeds —to the extent that he fell into this doubt — the Torah requires of him to bring an offering. The proof that this offering is linked to this idea of his lack of care and not for the sin itself, is the fact that if at some later date it becomes absolutely clear to him that he did sin, then he must bring an additional offering, and the previous offering did not atone for his sin. This shows that the suspended guilt-offering is brought for the lack of care which led to his doubt.
This commandment applies when the Holy Temple stands, to both men and women. One who transgressed this and did not bring this offering when he became obligated to bring it for this type of doubt, violated a positive commandment.