Is Unknowingly Committing A Transgression A Transgression?

As some of you may know, I’ve slowed down the frequency of blog posts here pretty dramatically compared to past years. Although I haven’t particularly avoided Jewish-based themes, I’ve tried to target my content more for non-Jews and avoid some of the controversy that continues to surround a non-Jew intersecting the domain of Messianic Judaism or any other kind of Judaism.

Image: Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

But I just read Rabbi Kalman Packouz’s latest Shabbat Shalom Weekly column and he wrote about a personal experience of his that I have never considered before:

For several years I have been studying Inside Stam, (Stam — acronym: Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzuos) a fascinating book on the laws pertaining to Tefillin, Mezuzos, Sifrei Torah by Reuvain Mendlowitz. I was very excited to have my tefillin checked by him on a recent trip to Israel. Much to my surprise, Rabbi Mendlowitz told me that I needed to replace the “fake straps.” Fake straps?

Straps on tefillin must be made from kosher animals and painted black. It seems that an unscrupulous individual had sold counterfeit straps made in the Far East from horse hide bonded with black plastic and passed them off as kosher! What this meant to me is that I, and hundreds if not thousands of others, unknowingly were not fulfilling the mitzvah of wearing tefillin!

Now obviously, Rabbi Packouz never thought for one second that his tefillin straps were counterfeit, and with proper intent, believed he was fulfilling the mitzvah involved. It would be like eating a bowl of chicken soup that someone had sprinkled undetectable amounts of some non-kosher food into. It’s not the eater’s fault and they wouldn’t even know they were consuming treif.

So can we say that R. Packouz really failed to fulfill the mitzvah of donning tefillin? He obviously thinks so:

There are those who might say, “It’s OK. God understands. It’s what’s you wanted to accomplish and whether the tefillin were kosher or not doesn’t really matter.” It is presumptuous to assume that we know what God “understands.” If the Almighty “went to all of the trouble” to convey so many specific details on how tefillin are made and how they should be worn, then perhaps there is much more to the mitzvah than one’s intentions.

When the Hubble telescope was launched into space in 1990, the photographs were not as clear as expected. Upon investigation it was found that the mirror was ground with an error from the prescribed curve of only 10 nanometers — but resulted in creating a “catastrophic spherical aberration” in the images.

Some things have to be perfect to work.

But R. Packouz is making an assumption that, in not knowing exactly what and how God “understands,” He literally requires all mitzvot to be observed strictly, even, in this case, if it is impossible for the Jewish person involved to know the tefillin straps were fake.

R. Packouz suggests having your (if you are a Jew) tefillin straps checked by a competent, God-fearing sofer (scribe). That makes sense, but the Rabbi trusted the sofer he originally bought his tefillin from, and apparently, the sofer trusted whoever he purchased them from.

Part of me wants to say that God will pardon such transgressions because they were made without intent, but then I remember that in the days of the Tabernacle and later, the Temple, there were sacrifices made for unintentional sin (once the person realized he or she had committed unintentional sin).

Christianity seems a lot more flexible when it comes to transgressions, unintentional and otherwise. I can see why some Christians consider Jewish mitzvot to be a straitjacket. On the other hand, maybe Christianity in general treats the requirements of God like the Emperor’s New Clothes.

11 thoughts on “Is Unknowingly Committing A Transgression A Transgression?”

  1. I just so happen to have read this yesterday because of a conversation at another site (where this was referenced). All “red letters” (besides the And he said also to the people part); from Luke twelve:

    45 … if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken;
    46 The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.
    47 And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.
    48 But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
    49 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?
    50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!
    51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
    52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
    53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    54 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is.
    55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass.
    56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?
    57 Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?
    58 When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison.
    59 I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.

    [In context, the punishment would be from God with little excuse.]

    1. Aside from the fact that I’m not a big fan of the King James Version, I believe this passage is describing the consequences of intentional sin, not a transgression in improperly observing a mitzvah. I’m not even sure if you can call unknowingly davening wearing tefillin with fake straps a “sin”.

  2. I don’t usually read the KJV either. And I apologize that I didn’t remember to transfer the italics for words that aren’t literally there (translated). But I hoped it would be noticed that what was important enough to be so worked up about was how others are treated.

  3. James, I’m familiar with the Emperor’s New Clothes (former first-grade teacher here), but I’m having trouble making sense of your final sentence. Could you elucidate?

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your blog, btw.

    1. Sorry, Lora. I thought the metaphor might be forced. I meant that sometimes Christian interpretation and enactment of God’s commands was transparent and easily ignored.

  4. I see the passage as describing both intentional and unintentional (error or sin or whatever), or at the least fully informed and through less informed. It seems that there is a move from clear neglect and hatefulness to an allowance for the possibility of not knowing something, but with then also a warning not to play games with “not knowing” (like you’ll be able to fool God when you do know).

    With the example of the straps, the person responsible for the making or original selling of the straps, if Chinese, might not know what they were supposed to be like or may have misunderstood such as that there is supposed to be animal hide involved (and that’s about it). Or they might have thought there was an issue about style or status and not deep-felt tradition or even command of God. (Have we all seen this?)

    Even if all they knew clearly was what was ordered, there’s responsibility for fraud. Humans know that cheating or lying for a thieving profit is wrong. Then again, in China, people are often working as or nearly as slaves. So, all the circumstances matter. And you, James, did point out that there was checking counted on all along the supply chain. There will be varying levels of accountability; yes, accountability.

    As for how much it matters that things be right, it matters. And so there is sadness and regret over the straps being wrong (because getting it right is desired and good). There is then diligence to try and make sure next time (on the part of those who care, which we cannot tell who that will be). But there is more blame in the sense of what there is to pardon for transgression on the part of those who were trusted.

  5. It seems to me that you touched on the three most significant considerations here: one being the responsibility to be scrupulous about performing mitzvot properly, another being the fact that even unintentional errors were to be covered by repentance and sacrifices, and even more Rav Yeshua’s emphasis on the kavanah that is critical to the proper performance of a mitzvah. Consequently, while a mitzvah without kavanah is incomplete, we can see that kavanah must include more than concentration on the meaning and purpose of the mitzvah but also the intention to perform it in accordance with all its details and specifications. The example above offers a cautionary tale about the effort that may be required to verify that one has done one’s best to conform with those requirements. It also illustrates why Yom Kippur prayers include the reminder about unknown or unintentional sins by which we may still fall short of HaShem’s best hopes for us. We must remember the prophetic lament that all our righteousness is little more than “filthy rags” (cif: Is.64:5 [v.6 in KJV]) — that even our best efforts may fall short of HaShem’s standards. Nonetheless we must not be discouraged from trying our very best to reach toward the highest degree of uprightness available to us. In this also we show our intent, our kavanah — and it is in this that we receive the spiritual reward of a mitzvah, as we exercise a cautious optimism that it will be acceptable also to HaShem. “Yihiyu l’ratzon ‘imrei fi, v’hegyon libi lifaneicha, Adonai Tzuri v’Go-ali” (May the words of my mouth, and the meditations [intentions] of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O LORD my Rock and my Redeemer).

  6. As you mentioned, James, there is a sacrifice for unintentional sin. My rabbi once pointed out that there is no sacrifice for intentional sin because it’s all about the heart and the desire for relationship with God. Once we agree with God that what we did was wrong, then the relationship can be restored.

    He also pointed out that sin gets on stuff. Sin can’t stand in God’s presence. Anything that does not line up with the Word is ‘missing the mark’ and therefore is the definition of sin. That’s where Christianity falls short – assuming on the truth that God is love. He is. He is also holy and calls us to be holy.

    In a conversation with my teenage grandson yesterday (who has a real challenge with all the ‘Jewish’ stuff), we talked about eating clean and unclean. Typical answer of ‘God understands’, until Nona pointed out that He does understand when you aren’t aware. However, I asked him what he will say when God asks about this conversation, where his grandmother showed him in the Word that some things just aren’t considered food?

  7. So what it all seems to come down to is that even with the best of intentions, there’s always the possibility of our behavior not always conforming to God’s will, which stands to reason since we are all imperfect people.

    It occurred to me, especially after reading PL’s comments, to wonder, since we non-Jews don’t have nearly as many requirements to adhere to, if it’s inherently “easier” (that’s probably not the right word, but I can’t think of any other at the moment) for us to observe the commandments incumbent upon us than it is for a Jew who has so many more and seemingly involving so many more details?

    1. Perhaps this merely provides sufficient cause for all of us to be perennially humble and continually repentant. And where there are fewer commandments, perhaps the ancient proverb offers insight in saying: “Better is a little, with the fear of the Lord, Than great treasure, and turmoil with it. ” (Prov.15:16).

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