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SBL e-journal

David Frankel





Mitzvah Piety and the Need for Individual Atonement





APA e-journal

David Frankel





Mitzvah Piety and the Need for Individual Atonement








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Mitzvah Piety and the Need for Individual Atonement

In the Priestly texts, observing the divine commandments became an end in itself while the unique meaning or purpose of the particular mitzvah took on less significance. Concomitantly, Priestly authors asserted the need for personal atonement through a chatat (sin offering) for even unintentionally violating God’s commandments.


Mitzvah Piety and the Need for Individual Atonement

To the Lord be glory, (detail) Stanisław Grocholski circa 1895

Two Forms of Individual Piety

Individuals express their personal devotion to God in the Bible through two methods: cultic worship and obedience to commandments.[1]

Cultic Worship

Already in Genesis, Cain and Abel bring their sacrifices to God from the produce of their labor (Gen 4:3-4), Noah offers a sacrifice of all the pure animals that were preserved in the ark after the end of the flood (Gen 8:20), and Abraham sets up altars in the land of Canaan and calls upon the name of the Lord (Gen 12:7-8, 13:18, 22:13). Jacob promises to honor God by building him a temple in Beth-el (Gen 28).

The establishment of the tabernacle is surrounded by chapters full of rules about sacrifices (Lev 1-7), including an elaborate ritual for consecrating the tabernacle and the priests consisting of multiple sacrifices (Exod 29-30, Lev 8-9). The joyous worship of God at the altar is expressed in many of the Psalms, such as Psalm 43:3-4:

תהלים מג:ג שְׁלַח אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ הֵמָּה יַנְחוּנִי יְבִיאוּנִי אֶל הַר קָדְשְׁךָ וְאֶל מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ. מג:ד וְאָבוֹאָה אֶל מִזְבַּח אֱלֹהִים אֶל אֵל שִׂמְחַת גִּילִי וְאוֹדְךָ בְכִנּוֹר אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהָי.
Ps 43:3 Send forth Your light and Your truth; they will lead me; they will bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling-place, 43:4 that I may come to the altar of God, God, my delight, my joy; that I may praise You with the lyre, O God, my God.

Obedience to Commandments

Individuals also express their devotion to God through obedience to the commandments (mitzvot).[2] Some of these mitzvot have a clear social-moral component to them (cf. e.g., the command to release loan debts every seventh year; Deut 15:1-3), others, such as circumcision (Gen 17), tzitzit (fringes; Numbers 15:37-41) or the eating of matzot for seven days (Exodus 12:15, 18; 23:15; etc.), do not. Some prohibitions or “negative” commandments have a clear moral component, such as the prohibition against killing and stealing, while others, such as the various food prohibitions, do not.

When the individual Israelite lives in accordance with these commandments, he or she actively exhibits loyalty and devotion to God within a non-cultic framework. Psalm 119 provides us with a striking illustration of this type of “mitzvah piety.”

תהלים קיט:לג הוֹרֵנִי יְ־הוָה דֶּרֶךְ חֻקֶּיךָ וְאֶצְּרֶנָּה עֵקֶב. קיט:לד הֲבִינֵנִי וְאֶצְּרָה תוֹרָתֶךָ וְאֶשְׁמְרֶנָּה בְכָל לֵב. קיט:לה הַדְרִיכֵנִי בִּנְתִיב מִצְו‍ֹתֶיךָ כִּי בוֹ חָפָצְתִּי.
Ps 119:33 Teach me, YHWH, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. 119:34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 119:35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.

As in Psalm 43 cited above, the Psalmist of Psalm 119 asks God to guide him on a divine path that leads to spiritual bliss. The difference is that while in Psalm 43 the Psalmist asks God to guide him to the altar of sacrifice, in Psalm 119 he asks that God show him the path of the commandments.

From Sacrificial Piety to Mitzvah Piety

What is the relationship between these two forms of biblical piety? There should be little doubt that they can exist side by side, and, at least to a certain extent, did. In Psalm 26, for example, the Psalmist confidently calls upon God to examine his behavior and inner intentions. After affirming that he has had no dealings with the wicked, he concludes,

תהלים כו:ו אֶרְחַץ בְּנִקָּיוֹן כַּפָּי וַאֲסֹבְבָה אֶת מִזְבַּחֲךָ יְ־הוָה.
Ps 26:6 I wash my hands in guiltlessness and go about your altar, YHWH.

Thus, this psalm includes both the image of piety as good behavior (however inchoate) as well as the importance of a ritual at the altar.[3]

Nonetheless, I believe that it is possible to discern that non-Temple related mitzvot of the individual, especially those detached from morality, played, at first, a relatively marginal role. Slowly, these kinds of mitzvot multiplied, and came to take on an increasingly prominent position. Indeed, with time, they took on an intense, absolute and all-encompassing quality.

The Need for Individual Atonement

In accordance with this development, and concomitant with it, the Temple cult increasingly came to take on a role for the individual Israelite that was probably, originally, far less central – that of providing for individual atonement. We can see the development of this concept by looking at the passages about sin offerings (חטאת) in different sections of what scholars refer to as the “Priestly” source of the Torah (=P).

Sin Offering for Unintentionally Violating a Prohibition: Leviticus 4

Leviticus 4 lists the sacrifices that must be offered when someone inadvertently transgresses any one of the negative commandments (=divine prohibitions). The exact type of sacrifice depends on whether the sinner(s) in question is the high priest, the entire community of Israel, the chieftain of a tribe, or—most significant for our purposes—just an individual person.

ויקרא ד:כז וְאִם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת תֶּחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה מֵעַם הָאָרֶץ בַּעֲשֹׂתָהּ אַחַת מִמִּצְו‍ֹת יְ-הוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה וְאָשֵׁם. ד:כח אוֹ הוֹדַע אֵלָיו חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא וְהֵבִיא קָרְבָּנוֹ שְׂעִירַת עִזִּים תְּמִימָה נְקֵבָה עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא.ד:כט וְסָמַךְ אֶת יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הַחַטָּאת… ד:לא…וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן הַמִּזְבֵּחָה לְרֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַי־הוָה וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן וְנִסְלַח לוֹ.
Lev 4:27 If any person from among the populace unwittingly incurs guilt by doing any of the things which by YHWH’s commandments ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt —4:28 or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge — he shall bring a female goat without blemish as his offering for the sin of which he is guilty. 4:29 He shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering…4:31…and the priest shall turn it into smoke on the altar, for a pleasing odor to YHWH. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him, and he shall be forgiven.

The text deals with cases that might include inadvertently eating chametz on one of the seven days of the holiday of Matzot, violating the law in Exodus 12:15; the sinner must bring a female goat to the altar for slaughter. The priest must apply the blood of the slaughtered goat on the horns of the outer altar, pour the rest of the blood at its base, and place the fatty parts of the goat on the altar’s fire, and with that the priest will have effected “expiation (or atonement) for him and he shall be forgiven.”

The Sin Offering in Numbers 15

Numbers 15:22-31 (also P) fills out Leviticus 4 with two new elements.[4]

Violation of Positive Commandments

The section applies the same cultic procedure referred to in Lev. 4 even when one inadvertently fails to fulfill a positive commandment.[5]

במדבר טו:כב וְכִי תִשְׁגּוּ וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְו‍ֹת הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה. טו:כג אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֲלֵיכֶם בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה מִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה וָהָלְאָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם.
Num 15:22 If you unwittingly fail to observe any one of the commandments that YHWH has declared to Moses 15:23— anything that YHWH has enjoined upon you through Moses — from the day that YHWH gave the commandment and on through the ages.

This text expresses the case in terms of “failing to do” things that ought to be done whereas Lev 4 refers to “doing things that ought not be done.” Moreover, the context of Numbers implies that positive commands are included since these verses follow the (positive) command to set aside a gift to the temple from one’s dough (challah). Thus, if an individual Israelite, let us say, forgot to eat matzot during the festival (Exod 12:15), the same cultic procedure as described in Lev. 4 must carried out.

Death from Heaven

The text further adds that an intentional transgression of any single commandment cannot be atoned for.[6] That sinner, the text emphatically affirms, will suffer death from heaven:

במדבר טו:ל וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה בְּיָד רָמָה מִן הָאֶזְרָח וּמִן הַגֵּר אֶת יְ־הוָה הוּא מְגַדֵּף וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ. טו:לאכִּי דְבַר יְ־הוָה בָּזָה וְאֶת מִצְוָתוֹ הֵפַר הִכָּרֵת תִּכָּרֵת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא עֲו‍ֹנָה בָהּ.
Num 15:30 But the person, be he citizen or stranger, who acts defiantly, he reviles YHWH; that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15:31 Because he has spurned the word of YHWH and violated His commandment, that person shall be cut off — he bears his guilt.

Thus, continuing the example used above, if an individual knowingly refrained from eating matzot on the festival, that person cannot atone for that omission with a sacrifice, and that individual’s life is cut off by God.[7]

Death Penalty for All Mitzvah Violations?

The text immediately following this law describes the execution of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Num 15:32-36). This juxtaposition seems to imply that the divine execution of an intentional sinner is only when his crime went unnoticed, otherwise the guilty party should be executed by the people. (Shabbat, in context, appears to be an example of breaking one of God’s laws, and is broadly applicable to all other laws.)

The Significance and Need of Atonement

In these Priestly passages, mitzvot carry severe weight and violators take their lives in their hands. Absolute obedience is of paramount importance. In addition, the different mitzvot are treated as an undifferentiated totality: All mitzvot were given by God so they must all be treated with the same stark severity.

This should not be confused with the conception of the Mishnah Avot 2:1, quoted in the name of R. Judah HaNasi:

והוי זהיר במצוה קלה כבחמורה שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצות.
Be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a severe one, since you do not really know the reward for each.

The assumption of the Mishnah is that the mitzvot are not of equal weight, but we don’t know God’s accounting. The P texts, on the other hand, imply that God treats them all with equal severity. At least theoretically, no difference exists in God’s eyes between the prohibition of murder and that of spreading gossip (Lev 19:16) or wearing shaatnez (wool and flax mixed together; Lev 19:19).

This is why rituals that effect divine forgiveness are so important for the Priestly authors. If it were not for the continuous availability of forgiveness/atonement, at least for transgressions committed inadvertently, few, it would seem, would live very long. This also explains the need for a day of atonement (Yom Hakippurim) to cover all the inadvertent sins for which an individual (or community) did not bring a sin-offering.[8] In contrast, no non-Priestly legal text discusses the need for atonement through sin-offerings or even mentions a day of atonement.

Mitzvah Hierarchy in Non-Priestly Law Codes

The non-Priestly sources, in contrast to the above mentioned Priestly ones, offer an implicit hierarchy as regards the relative importance of the mitzvot. Thus, the laws of the Covenant Collection in Parashat Mishpatim (Exod 21:1-23:19) fail to mention punishment of any sort for failure to bring your first born animal to God on time (Exod 22:28-29), or for eating meat torn from a living animal (22:30), or for not allowing your workers to cease work on the day of rest (23:12). On the other hand, it does insist that witches, zooerasts, and idolaters be executed (Exodus 22:17-19), and guarantees that God will personally execute individuals that oppress widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21-23):[9]

שמות כב:כא כָּל אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם לֹא תְעַנּוּן.כב:כב אִם עַנֵּה תְעַנֶּה אֹתוֹ כִּי אִם צָעֹק יִצְעַק אֵלַי שָׁמֹעַ אֶשְׁמַע צַעֲקָתוֹ. כב:כג וְחָרָה אַפִּי וְהָרַגְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בֶּחָרֶב וְהָיוּ נְשֵׁיכֶם אַלְמָנוֹת וּבְנֵיכֶם יְתֹמִים.
Exod 22:21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22:22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 22:23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

Similar punishments or expressions of divine displeasure are not listed for other violations, implying that not all laws are equal in this law collection.[10]

Deuteronomy and Keeping Mitzvot

In Deuteronomy as well, not all mitzvot are equal. Though this book generally calls upon Israel to keep the commandments as a whole, the negative alternative to this is almost always idolatry/the worship of others gods (Deut 8:19-20; 11:13-16, 26-28; 29:23-25; 30:15-20. Contra, however, Deut 28). Idolatry is thus presented as the great sin that threatens national life on the land. No other commandment, not even the oft repeated demand to worship exclusively at the site of God’s choosing (Deut 12 and elsewhere), is of comparable status.

Further, while Deuteronomy strains to encourage the individual Israelite to observe certain select “moral” commandments with the promise of individual divine reward (e.g., the sending off of the mother bird when taking her eggs – Deut 22:6-7; allowing a poor debtor to sleep with his pledge – Deut 24:12-13), it neither promises divine reward nor threatens divine punishment to the individual with regard to any non-moral, “ritual” mitzvah.[11] Clearly, then, for Deuteronomy as well, some mitzvot are more important than others.

Prevalence of Ritual Law Independent of the Cult

Moreover, aside from idolatry, the offences narrated in Mishpatim chiefly concern relations between people. Only a few strictly ritual prohibitions are mentioned.[12] The ritual element is more prominent in Deuteronomy. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, the non-Priestly law codes as a whole are heavily weighted toward civil law, contrasting with Priestly legislation that is filled with ritual laws.

Most important, it is in the Priestly sources that we find ritual commandments, such as circumcision (Gen 17), wearing tzitzit (Num 15:37-41), or dwelling in a sukkah (Lev 23:42), that are not observed at a cultic site.[13] Finally, the Priestly sources exhibit many non-cult-related, ritual prohibitions and attach an intensified to severity to them.[14] In short, the late Priestly sources facilitated a situation in which more and more aspects of the individual’s life came into contact with what we may characterize as a non-cultic realm of holiness.[15]

The Centrality of Individuals and of their Mitzvot in Late P Texts

“Mitzvah piety” of the individual outside of the cult thus comes to the fore most distinctly in the Priestly texts. At this stage, each mitzvah became an end in itself as a divine command that was meant to be obeyed by each individual, and the unique meaning or purpose of the particular mitzvah took on less significance.

This development required a heightened emphasis on personal atonement and the role of the individual in attaining it, so that the dangers of contact with this new realm of holiness—any violation of which was a death penalty offense—could readily be averted. Thus developed a religiosity of heightened scrupulousness concerning the law, as well reflected in the words of Psalm 19:12-14:

תהלים יט:יב גַּם עַבְדְּךָ נִזְהָר בָּהֶם בְּשָׁמְרָם עֵקֶב רָב. יט:יג שְׁגִיאוֹת מִי יָבִין מִנִּסְתָּרוֹת נַקֵּנִי. יט:יד גַּם מִזֵּדִים חֲשֹׂךְ עַבְדֶּךָ אַל יִמְשְׁלוּ בִי אָז אֵיתָם וְנִקֵּיתִי מִפֶּשַׁע רָב.
Ps 19:12 Your servant pays them heed; in obeying them there is much reward. 19:13 Who can be aware of errors? Clear me of unperceived guilt. And from willful sins keep Your servant; let them not dominate me; then shall I be blameless and clear of grave offense.

It was surely thanks to the development and intensification of this non-cultic piety, and to the new emphasis on the individual Israelite, that Israel was able to survive the eventual destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.


March 29, 2017


Last Updated

June 5, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).