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Several years ago, Dr. Timothy Levine developed a concept in psychology known as the Truth-Default theory, which suggests that we tend to operate on a default presumption that other people are basically honest. The presumption of honesty is what enables efficient communication, and it enables us to function as humans are intended – although, it’s also that which makes us vulnerable to deception. Levine adds that there are “times and situations when people abandon this presumption of honesty, and the theory describes when people are expected to suspect a lie.” In other words, certain circumstances can lead us to act in a way that belies our intrinsic trusting tendency.

There are moments, either personal or societal, in which we move away from the natural default mode of trust and conviction.


Long before Levine developed his theory, Chazal established a number of cultural and psychological assumptions about the way in which human beings think. For instance, that a person is unable to testify about himself and that a woman won’t be brazenly lie in front of her husband – assumptions which presume a truth default, that husbands and wives are naturally honest with one another, that there is a basic goodness and decency.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z”l, in a lecture to a group of rabbonim in the 1970’s, addressed these assumptions, and claimed with no uncertainty that these assumptions remain valid to this day.

And yet, if we look around us, we sense that something is beginning to erode our presumption of truth and trustworthiness; consider how we feel about strangers when we meet them, how we never can be too trusting, or that no amount of research and background checks will prove sufficient. When it comes to our safety, there can never be enough by way of security measures, that no politician is honest, no potential business partner can be trusted on a handshake alone. What happened to the truth default? What happened to natural laws which govern human nature?

Then we arrive at Yom Kippur.

The davening throughout the day, with the exception of the end of Neila, features a component which can seem onerous and tedious – the Al Cheit section appended to the Shemoneh Esrei.

At the end of a long list of sins and their multitude of variants, we encounter a final section dealing with the sins committed which would have required that we bring a korban. One line for an Olah offering, one for Chatas, one for an Oleh v’Yored.

Each of these deals with a specific category of aveirot – some willing violations, while others inadvertent. But there is one subset of korbanot that is not connected to a specific sin or rebellious act: an Asham taloi.

When is an Asham taloi offered? One who accidentally violates a precept in the Torah brings a Chatas, but one who is in doubt as to whether they have violated one such precept must offer an Asham taloi. Taloi means “hanging” or “conditional” – something which is unclear and ambiguous, as if to say, “If I sinned, I am sorry.” For instance, one who knows that they performed one of the 39 melachot (forbidden modes of work), but they are uncertain whether it happened on Shabbat or on a Sunday, must bring an Asham taloi.

In short, an Asham taloi is brought for the crimes of inattention and carelessness.

Think about those moments in which we were unaware of our surroundings, when we lacked the presence of mind while performing everyday tasks. This happens to us all of the time – if you’ve ever started the Amidah and suddenly find yourself at Modim without a sense of how you arrived or whether you said anything over the past three minutes, you have been guilty of mindlessness. We declare with this Al Cheit that the next time we pop food into our mouths, we will take the time to ensure that its kosher, to know if it contains dairy and to recite the appropriate beracha. And the next time we speak in a social setting, we are going to be more thoughtful about what comes out of our mouths – is it useful, is it lashon hara?

But the Asham taloi atones for more than the moments in which we weren’t mindful. It suggests that there is a new sort of sin – not one of commission or omission, but rather the sin of doubt: doubting others, doubting ourselves – and above all, doubting the Ribono Shel Olam.

The Hebrew word for doubt is safek. The chassidic masters note that safek shares a numeric equivalent to Amalek (240), the most pernicious and dangerous foe our people face throughout history.

What do we proclaim when we klap “al chataim she’chayavim aleihem asham talui”? We beg forgiveness for not trusting, for not believing.

A few weeks ago, we read the verse: “Lest there be among you a root which is rotten, one which can poison everything else surrounding it.” The Yid Hakodesh, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz, founder of Peshicha chassidut, has an incredible interpretation upon this pasuk: The verse begins “Pen yesh bachem” – maybe you have among you. But bachem can also be understood as “inside you.” That “maybe” you have inside of you is the root which is rotten! The

doubt is the root of all evil and corruption, of sadness and loneliness in this world.

We have tragically begun to look at everyone askance, everything and everybody is “pen” – maybe they are genuine, but maybe…one never can be too sure. We think, “They can’t be for real, are they really that happy!” or “Look at her smile…what a phony!” – “That person can’t be trusted in business” – “What a faker…look at the way he shukles in his Shemoneh Esrei or how long he takes to finish his Shema” – “Look at the way they parent, I bet they yell and scream when they are at home and no one is watching.”

Or we doubt our own abilities.

Maybe – I can do it, but maybe I can’t! That “maybe” will eat you up on the inside until there is nothing left of you.

And we doubt G-d.

Maybe G-d cares about me…but maybe He forgot. Maybe, chas v’shalom, it’s all a mistake when it comes to me. Perhaps He isn’t watching after all.

How do we get back to the truth default? How do we cut that horrible and lethal word pen out of our lexicon?

The Gemara in Kerisos tells us: R’ Eliezer suggested that if a person desires, one may offer an Asham taloi every single day, whenever one saw fit. And that such a sacrifice, offered “just in case” there was an inadvertent sin, is called an Asham chasidim, the sin offering of the righteous.

One who offers such a korban each day is G-d fearing and mindful. Because mindlessness and doubt are perennial threats.

Then the Talmud tells us about an individual named Bava ben Buta who indeed went so far as to offer such a korban every day – every day, that is, except for one day, the day after Yom Kippur.

Why would he not bring an Asham taloi on the day after Yom Kippur? Once you are spending thousands of dollars, what difference does it make – just bring it on Motzaei Yom Kippur as well! But Bava ben Buta felt that it would be inappropriate, because the one day of year in which you don’t need to atone for doubt is the day after Yom Kippur. Because on the preceding day, Yom Kippur, nobody was guilty of doubt!

Yom Kippur arrives at our doorstep, reminding us to recalibrate, to reset to the default mode back to factory settings: a return to honesty, trustworthiness, self-confidence, integrity, and above all trust in Hashem and in what He has in store for us.

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Rabbi Shaanan Gelman has served as the rabbi of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie, Il., for the past 16 years, is the president of The Chicago Rabbinical Council, and serves on the executive committee of the RCA. He is a musmach of RIETS and holds a BA in Computer Science from Yeshiva University.