Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“Well dressed, perfumed, and unwashed,” is how the judge described the sharply dressed, articulate litigant who lied through his teeth. It would have served his cause better if he had just confessed and cleaned up his act.

When a person who is living life the way the Torah prescribes it, and is enjoying the peace of mind such a life brings, wishes to bring a peace offering in the form of a korban Minchah, it is appropriate to embellish it with shemen, oil and levonah, incense.

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Shemen signifies light and levonah signifies a positive aura. The deeds of such a person are not embarrassed by the light of day and no bad odor clings to such a person’s past activities. The shemen and levonah complement, rather than belie, his conduct.

When a person who has given in to his or her animal instincts wishes to bring a sacrifice to atone for such conduct, the sacrifice should be as basic and unadorned as the instincts to which he or she gave in.

One of the categories of the korban Minchah a person must bring in certain circumstances is a korban Minchat Choteh, the sinner’s Minchah offering. Generally, when bringing a korban Chattat to atone for an unintentional sin that would incur the penalty of karet (premature death at the hand of God) if violated intentionally or when bringing a korban Asham to atone for an intentional sin, one must offer up an animal.

There are certain other sins, however, for which the Torah permits one to seek atonement by bringing an inexpensive meal offering known as a Minchat Choteh. A Minchat Choteh is a singular type of sin offering that belongs to a special category of sacrifice the Torah calls a korban Oleh Veyored, a sliding scale sin offering. It is called this because the value of the korban to be brought depends on the financial circumstances of the violator. If the violator can afford to bring an animal sacrifice he must do so. If he cannot afford that, he may bring a less expensive sacrifice of two young birds. And if he is so poor that he cannot even afford that, the Torah allows him to bring a Minchat Choteh offering in the form of a small measure of plain fine flour, unaccompanied by any oil or incense.

There is a list of three sins for which a korban Minchat Choteh is acceptable.

The first of these relates to a person who denies under oath that he has knowledge of evidence crucial to the success of a plaintiff in a monetary claim and subsequently confesses to having had such knowledge. This is the only situation in which a korban Chattat is brought for an intentional violation.

The second relates to a person who entered the Temple or ate the food of offerings while tameh, in an impure state, but did so in a state of forgetfulness either about the fact that he was tameh, that he was in the Temple, or that he was eating holy food. A person becomes tameh by touching the carcass of certain non-kosher animals or rodents or by touching the carcass of a kosher animal that dies otherwise than as a result of shechitah, ritual slaughter. In addition, one can become tameh as a result of certain bodily discharges or by contact with a human corpse. Such a person atones for his sin by bringing a korban Minchat Choteh.

The third relates to a person who takes a vow to perform or to refrain from performing a certain act in the future or who pronounces a vow that something occurred in the past that did not. In the case of the future vow, the circumstances are that the person unintentionally broke the vow because he forgot its terms. He swore he would refrain from eating bread but mistakenly thought he had sworn to eat it. In the case of the past vow, the person was unaware of the penalty for breaking a vow and as such, in the eyes of Jewish law, the person is not considered an intentional violator. Such a person may atone for his sin by bringing a korban Minchat Choteh.

Common to all of these three violations is a degree of culpability. It ranges from the deliberate, in the case of the oath regarding testimony, to a state of nonchalance or recklessness in the other two cases described above. Accordingly, it would be hypocritical to sweeten these sin offerings with either oil or incense. They must be brought as a plain flour offering without such enhancements.

Similar to the Korban Minchat Choteh is the Minchat Sotah. The sotah is a married woman who has been warned by her husband not to seclude herself in a room with another man and does so nevertheless. Although two witnesses testify to the warning and the seclusion, they cannot testify whether adultery actually occurred. Such a woman, if challenged by her husband, undergoes a trial by ordeal in which she is required to drink bitter waters into which the name of God has been dissolved. If she is indeed guilty of adultery, the waters will have a fatal effect on her, provided that her husband has led a life of marital integrity and remained consistently faithful to her.

As part of the ceremony in which the waters are administered, a korban Sotah, consisting of se’orim – plain barley – is brought by the husband. Barley, the staple food of animals, is used for this korban rather than chittim, wheat, to atone for having given in to one’s animal instincts.

It seems that God has the power and the mercy to forgive all human frailties. But one must be as vulnerable in confession as one is in transgression. What is needed is a plain apology with no frills attached.

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