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Class Notes - Class #23

The next series of mitzvot will fill in some of the details about sacrifices.


Mitzvah # 117 prohibits bringing honey or hametz on the altar.  Honey includes any type of sweet fruit juice. This was prohibited in the incense as well.  The author repeats what he told us earlier that there is debate about whether this should count as one mitzvah or two.  We noted last class that there were two m’nachot that were hametz, the shtei lalechem and part of the todah.  But these never made it to the altar; they were eaten elsewhere.  As for other m’nachot that were eaten, it was permitted to eat them with honey as long as the honey did not go on the mizbeah.

            The mitzvah applies to cohanim when the Temple was in existence.  The punishment for making m’nachot that were hametz applies to any act of working with the minchah while it was hametz, for example kneading or baking.  The punishment was malkos.  Bringing even the smallest amount of honey or hametz on the altar was prohibited, but only burning them on the mizbeah is punishable.  Burning hametz or honey for fuel does not violate this mitzvah.

            The most notable part of this essay is the shoresh hamitzvah section.  First the author reiterates that he does not expect to find rational explanations for the details of Temple ritual, a point he has made several times already.  The he addresses the reader in second person; this time the reader is not his son but the wider audience he anticipates will read his work.  This is a unique moment.  He explains that he wrote for the purpose of interesting young people and helping them see that there are reasons for mitzvot.  This will inculcate good habits and prevent those young people from feeling alienated from Torah because they feel the Torah is a “sealed book.”  This is consistent with what he has said before, but told from a different point of view. 

            Then he goes on to give shoreshim for this mitzvah.  He suggests that, just as we have to be quick to avoid something becoming hametz, so we should be energetic in the service of God.  Maybe honey is prohibited on the mizbeah to discourage appetite for sweets that could lead to gluttony, rather than eating only what one needs to stay healthy.  Honey puffs and expands when it cooks, and maybe that should remind us not to be overly proud.  The author cites Ramban for suggesting that sacrifices should be mixed, balanced substances to remind us that God joined justice and mercy in His plan for the world.  Honey is utterly sweet, not balanced or mixed, so perhaps that is why it is forbidden.

            Reading these shoreshim, it’s easy to see the author’s dilemma.  He does not want to keep saying, “I don’t know why the details are as they are.”  He does not want to go into the mystical explanations, assuming he knows them, because that is not appropriate for the young audience.  But the insights he has are not terribly satisfying.  So he shares his dilemma with his readers.  One of the lovely aspects of Sefer haHinnuch is how we get to see the author as a real person.


Mitzvot #119 is a positive mitzvah to salt all sacrifices, animal and grain, that are brought on the mizbeah.  Mitzvah #118 is a negative formulation forbidding bringing a korban without salting it.

            The author understands the shoresh of these mitzvot as a way to elevate the spirit of the person bringing the sacrifice.  Food without salt is not complete; it does not taste or smell as good as it might.  By salting the sacrifices, we made sure to bring good, tasty, valuable food items.  That will make the sacrifice seem more valuable and important to the person bringing the sacrifice.  Also, salt is a preservative.  That reminds us that the act of bringing sacrifices should help protect and preserve our spirits.

            The author fills in some of the ways this mitzvah was implemented.  The salt was provided from public funds to avoid people coming to the Temple feeling like they were being “nickeled and dimed.”  All korbanot were salted except for the wine, blood and wood.  The cohanim were instructed to salt the sacrifices generously.  Sections of an animal were salted at the base of the altar ramp.  M’nachot and bird olot were salted at the top of the ramp.  Salting is not m’akev for any sacrifices except m’nachot.  We have seen the concept of “m’akev” before; if something is m’akev, then the actions accompanying it do not accomplish the mitzvah at hand without it. So if a minchah was brought without salt, the minchah was not valid, but if other sacrifices were brought without salt the sacrifices were valid.


Mitzvah #121 mandates us to bring a korban hattat when circumstances require it.  (There are no voluntary versions of a hattat.)  The author has already taught us the basic rule, that someone brings a hattat when he or she does b’shogeg something which would be punishable by karet if it is done b’mazid, assuming the act violates a negative commandment and involves an overt action. 

There are several exceptions which the author mentions, most of which we have already seen.  Another exception is someone who is tamei who enters the Temple of eats something that should only be eaten by someone who is tahor.  Although that is subject to karet if done b’mazid, the atonement for doing it b’shogeg is an “oleh v’yored”, not a standard hattat.  (See mitzvah #123 in our next class.)

A hattat is always a specific animal, although which animal depends on the category of hattat, and the author does not go into that in detail.  Someone brings a hattat only if the act was b’shogeg for the entire course of the act.

The author gives us another instance of asking his son to research all the mitzvot to which the general hattat rule applies.  He says there are 43, most of them involving illicit sex.  This is, after all, a book written for teenage boys.


Mitzvah #120 requires that the Sanhedrin bring a special type of hattat when the Sanhedrin makes an erroneous ruling that is followed by the people. 

            The Sanhedrin was only required to bring this sacrifice under very specific circumstances.  The error had to be about sins punishable by karet.  Only the Sanhedrin’s error triggers this korban, not a ruling by a lower court.  All of the judges who participated in the decision had to be qualified and a majority of the judges must have voted for the erroneous ruling.  The ruling must be explicit and all or most of the community must rely on the ruling and act on it.  If the people know it is in error and act on it anyway, this sacrifice is not brought.  Further, the error must be about part of a mitzvah; if the error is to eliminate an entire mitzvah then the Sanhedrin does not bring the sacrifice since people would have known or should have known that the ruling was an error.  When the error is discovered the judges have to know for sure that it was a mistake.  They have to discover the error themselves, not have it pointed out by others.  If all the conditions were met, the Sanhedrin brought this sacrifice and the people who followed their ruling were off the hook.  If the Sanhedrin made an error that did not trigger this sacrifice, individuals who followed the erroneous ruling were obligated in a hattat of their own.

            Those requirements leave many questions our author does not deal with.  One important question is what the sources mean by saying that the Sanhedrin decided wrong. It would be hard to say that the Sanhedrin was wrong about something that was within their discretion to decide in whatever way seemed right to them.  In those cases, whatever they decide would by definition be right.  Does it mean they were wrong about what God wanted?  If so, how would they know they were wrong?  Does it mean they were wrong about something that was already known and decided which they had lost of forgotten?  Again, how would they know if it was really lost or forgotten? 

            Reading this list of requirements, it seems clear that this sacrifice was rarely if ever brought.  As a practical matter, this mitzvah is minor.  But as a theoretical matter this is very important.  The author says this mitzvah encourages the rabbinic leadership to be extremely careful about their rulings.  If they make an error, this sacrifice will dramatically remind them to be more careful.  Moreover, the assumption of this mitzvah is that rabbis, even in the Sanhedrin, even the most qualified of rabbis, might make errors and mislead the public about halachah.  And God, apparently, does not step in to intervene.  If rabbis can make errors about halachah, their area of expertise, it seems they can make errors about other things as well.  Rabbinic leadership is not infallible.  And if people rely on the rabbinic leadership to do things the people know are wrong, it is the people who are responsible, not the rabbis.


We already learned that a poor person could bring birds for a hattat rather than bringing a larger animal.  When birds are brought as sacrifices, they are not slaughtered by slitting their throats with a knife.  Rather, the cohen took the bird to the mizbeah and pinched through the back of its throat with his fingernail, cutting through most of the windpipe or gullet.  This procedure is called “melikah.”

 Mitzvah #124 prohibits the cohen from pinching all the way through so that the bird’s head is severed from the rest of its body; rather, the head must remain attached.  The author describes how the cohen should hold the bird; it was difficult for the cohen to hold the bird properly.  But if the cohen did not hold the bird properly the sacrifice is still valid. 

The most interesting aspect of this essay is the shoresh.  The author repeats what he has said several times before, that we should not expect to understand the details of the korbanot.  The author suggests that maybe severing the bird’s neck reminds us not to be stubborn and stiff-necked.  Then the author takes this mitzvah in an astonishing direction.  This sacrifice was brought by a poor person who cannot afford to take time away from his or her work.  So the Torah creates a simpler procedure that takes less time that a normal animal sacrifice, which allows the poor person to return to work and support himself or herself.  We are required to keep the head attached to the bird so as not to make the poor person’s sacrifice look meager, but to give it as much respectful status as possible lest the poor person be embarrassed.  The purpose of the Temple service is to inculcate character in us, and understanding the needs of the poor and accommodating those needs are among those character traits.  Even in the Temple ritual God commands us to take into consideration the needs of the poor among us.


We saw in our overview that that the blood of some hattat sacrifices was sprinkled on the mizbeah.  The blood of other hattat sacrifices was sprinkled somewhere in the heichal.  We also saw in mitzvah #102 that the cohanim have a mitzvah to eat their portion of those hattat sacrifices whose blood was sprinkled on the mizbeah.  Mitzvah #139 prohibits eating the hattat sacrifices whose blood was sprinkled in the heichal.  If the blood of a hattat was supposed to be sprinkled on the mizbeah and it was instead brought into the heichel through the main entrance, that hattat would be disqualified.  If the blood of a hattat was supposed to be sprinkled on the Incense Altar and it was instead brought into the kodesh k’doshim, that hattat would be disqualified.  Even though only cohanim were permitted to eat the hattat sacrifices whose blood was sprinkled on the mizbeah, this prohibition applies to everyone.


Mitzvah #122 is a positive mitzvah for someone with relevant knowledge to testify before a beit din.  If the witness knows about a violation of a Torah requirement that is potentially punishable, the witness must take the initiative to bring that information to the court.  In civil matters like disputes about money or property, the witness with relevant information is required to respond with testimony if called upon by one of the litigants.  The author finds the shoresh for this mitzvah to be self-evident; it helps to keep people away from wrongdoing. 

            This obligation to appear in court has several exceptions.  A torah scholar is exempt from the obligation if he is a greater scholar than the members of the court.  The author says that is a matter of “kavod hatorah,” honor of the Torah.  It may also be that the scholar/witness would have inappropriate influence on the members of the court.  The cohen gadol can only be compelled to testify against the king, but not against others.  And the king does not have to give testimony or have testimony given about him.  After all, the king is not an “equal player.”

            In this essay, the author reviews some of what we learned earlier about who is qualified to be a witness.  The author also mentions that a friend or enemy of a litigant is qualified to give testimony but not to serve as a judge.

            The author spends much of this essay distinguishing between oral testimony and testimony by way of witnessed documents.  Rambam holds that d’oraita only oral witness testimony matters.  But many commercial transactions depend on one’s ability to prove the underlying facts should a dispute arise, so the rabbis created testimony in the form of documents signed by witnesses to facilitate those transactions.  Ramban considered both oral and written witness testimony within the purview of Torah law.  The author goes on to expand on the force of witness testimony and on the rules for validating witnessed documents.

            Let’s review how these witnessed documents worked.  Two people make a commercial agreement. Each wants proof of the other party’s obligations under the agreement.  They write down the agreement and then recruit witnesses who sign the documents.  The witnesses are attesting that the parties agreed to what the document says they agreed to.  The party holding the signed document then has proof that the other party promised what the document says the other party promised.

            Once a witness has testified, the witness cannot change his testimony.  Even if he claims he made a mistake, or he unintentionally lied, or even that he later remembered the facts differently.  Once the witness has testified and been fully examined by the judges, he does not get to retract the testimony even if he has an explanation for the change of mind.  Overall, witnessed documents follow the same rules.  The witnessed document has the same status as if the witnesses had testified and been examined by the court.

            But for the witnessed document to have that status, the signatures have to be verified.  We need to eliminate the possibility that the signatures were forged.  The author gives us the guidelines for validating the signatures.  The signatures are validated by witnesses who can attest that the handwriting matches the name on the document.  But the rules for these witnesses are looser than the usual rules for witness testimony.  Two witnesses must validate the signatures, and each validating witness must be able to attest to the authenticity of both signatures.  Each signatory can validate his own signature.  If two of the judges recognize the two witness signatures, that validates them.  A close relative of the signatory can be one of the witnesses validating the signature.  Even if an adult recognizes a signature that he has not seen since he was a child, the adult counts as one validating witness.

            It is also possible to validate the signatures on one document based on signatures on another document.  For example, a court that validates the signatures on a document after the signatures have been in a dispute puts its seal on the document, and that document can later be used to validate signatures on other documents.  But the rules for validating signatures on one document from the signatures on another document take into account predictable types of fraud.  The party trying to claim under the current document cannot have produced the documents from the prior transaction that he claims will validate the document in the current case.  Otherwise, the party trying to make the claim might have produced the substantiating documents fraudulently in order to substantiate the document in the current case.  And the transaction involved in the earlier documents has to have been fairly long in the past so that if anyone had an objection to that transaction the objection would have already come to light.

            The author ends by explaining that if someone is called to give testimony in a civil case and he falsely swore that he had no relevant testimony to give, the person is obligated to bring a “korban oleh v’yored.”  We will learn more about those sacrifices in our next class.