Is breaking Shabbat worse than stealing?


I thought it was a simple enough question: which are the worst sins in Judaism? In many synagogues the rabbi's High Holy Day sermons encourage their community to "do a little more", or "take on just one more mitzvah". This is because they are realists and understand that change happens slowly. So I thought, if I could identify which were the gravest sins, then people could prioritise what to work on. Is it worse to eat non-kosher or not go to shul? To not give charity or to lie? To get angry or to drive on Shabbat?

Though some of these sound more "religious" (Shabbat, keeping kosher, shul) and others more "moral" (charity, lying, anger), the truth is that they are all part and parcel of our Torah. Sin has an awkward feel in modern parlance. We prefer to talk about acts being inappropriate, immoral or illegal, rather than being sinful.

For instance, driving over the speed limit, tax fraud and copyright infringement are all criminal acts in this country, but would you call them sins? The difference in terminology matters because it reveals a difference in perspective.

People generally don't commit a crime because they fear being caught, not because they think it is unethical. Breaking the law has consequences, but do you see it as immoral?

The language of sin reintroduces the moral dimension into actions. It reminds us that contravening the law does not just lead to punishment, but to the gradual demise of society and a stain on our character. Our Torah is a guidebook for all aspects of life, and sinning is the negation of any aspect of this guide.

Ethics shortlist

David's eleven:
1. Walk pure 2. Work righteously
3. Speak truth from the heart
4. Don't slander
5. Do no evil to others
6. Don't shame a friend
7. Despise the contemptible 8. Honour those who fear God
9. Promise even if it costs and don't retract
10. Don't lend on interest
11. Don't accept a bribe against the innocent.
Isaiah's six:
1. Walk righteously
2. Straight talk
3. Spurn extortionate profit
4. Reject bribes
5. Don't allow derogatory remarks to remain unchallenged
6. Don't stare inappropriately
Micah's three:
1. Act justly
2. Love mercy
3. Walk humbly before God
Isaiah's two:
1. Protect justice
2. Act righteously
Habakkuk's one:
1. Live a life of integrity

As so often happens in Judaism, the answer to which sins matter the most is anything but simple. For when it comes to sin, it's not just what you did, it also matters how you did it, why you did it, and if anyone got hurt in the process.

To begin with, it is worth thinking for yourself which sins carry most weight. Below I have listed what I regard as 10 kinds of really big sins. How would you put them in descending order of importance?

A.Being dishonest and telling lies

B.Violence to others; physical or sexual abuse

C.Eating without regard to kashrut

D.Ignoring God through lack of belief and prayer

E.Stealing from others

F.Being selfish, greedy, and not giving charity

G.Making no effort to study Judaism and its traditions

H.Not being part of a Jewish community

I.Being unkind, hateful or angry to family, friends and others

J.Not observing the Shabbat

Traditionally there are 613 commandments but in the very place where the Talmud first presents this, it immediately employs verses from King David's psalms and subsequent prophets to try and find a much smaller number of ethical principles on which the 613 are based: "Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 commands were communicated to Moses; 365 negative and 248 positive ones… David then came and based them on 11… Isaiah came and based them on six… Micah came and based them on three… Again came Isaiah and based them on two… Habakkuk came and based them on one…" (Talmud, Makkot 23b/24a).

It is as if the Talmud is honing in on the core essence of Judaism. Might they have been discussing this because then, as now, Jews needed reminding of what really matters?

Looking at these lists (see right), it appears that ethical behaviour is more essential than ritual or belief. This would imply that the worst sins are in our mistreatment of others. Or maybe these principles are expressed through the rituals we do and the beliefs we profess. But, inspiring as they are, these lists do not directly answer my question about classifying sin. Traditionally, the weight of a sin is determined by the punishment associated with it. Though introduced in the Mishnah about Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:8-9), it is best described in the Talmud as a four-tiered classification:

● "If one transgressed a positive command, and repented, then they are forgiven on the spot…

● "If one transgressed a negative command and repented, then repentance suspends until Yom Kippur comes and attains atonement…

● "If one committed a transgression punishable by corporal or capital punishment by the Beth Din [in a bygone age when they had this power], and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend until suffering finishes the atonement…

● "But if one is guilty of Chillul Hashem, the desecration of God's name, then repentance, Yom Kippur and suffering to not achieve atonement, only death finishes it" (Talmud, Yoma 86a).

The first category includes all positive commands such as honouring parents, shaking a lulav and reciting the Shema. If you regret not doing any of these then there is immediate forgiveness from God. The only exception is the positive command of circumcision, which has a special status.

The second category refers to negative commands that do not involve a physical action, such as not giving false testimony, coveting or bearing a grudge. If you regret transgressing by doing any of these, then the day of Yom Kippur enables atonement, "for on this day shall atonement be made for you" (Leviticus 16:30).

The third category is very large and includes all the negative commands that involve a physical action such as murder, working on Shabbat, stealing, eating meat and milk together and idolatry. The Torah mandated corporal or capital punishment for such sins but this was only enacted in Temple times. Since then, repentance helps to achieve atonement for every sin (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:3).

Nevertheless, the Sages believed that even if a person regrets these sins, then atonement is not achieved on Yom Kippur unless the penitent also suffers. They should not make themselves suffer (through fasting and the like), rather they should understand any suffering they experience as part of their repentance.

The fourth category is fatal. Repentance, Yom Kippur and suffering will not expiate the sin, only the end of life. This applies to one particular sin: desecrating God's Name. This entails very publicly giving Judaism a bad reputation. "If someone studies Bible and Mishnah and honours the rabbis but is dishonest in business, and offensive in their relations with others, then what do people say about them? 'Woe to the one who studies Torah, woe to their parent who taught them Torah; woe to their teacher who taught them Torah!'" (Talmud, Yoma 86a).

There are two further factors to this fourfold categorisation. If any of these sins involve mistreating, harming or taking from another person, then that needs to be put right before repentance is effective. Apologising, compensating and returning items are an essential prerequisite to repentance (Maimonides ibid, 1:1).

The second complicating factor is whether you sinned intentionally or unintentionally. Particularly, if you unintentionally transgress any negative command that involves a physical action, then even Yom Kippur does have the power to atone, ie, a category- three sin is reduced to a category-two sin. Similarly, an unintentional category-four sin is reduced to a category-three sin.

This elaborate hierarchy makes immense psychological sense. Honest regret has the power to make good on positive opportunities we missed (category one). However, if we transgress a prohibition of thought or speech (category two), then this has a much deeper effect on us and we need the atmospheric power of the heightened occasion that is Yom Kippur in order to make amends.

Worse still is when we transgress a prohibition involving specific physical acts (category three). These have a lasting impact on our consciousness that can only be rerouted through facing up to what we have become. This is inevitably painful, as any deep therapeutic process must be.

Finally, there is the public disgracing of Judaism. A person who pretends to religiosity but acts immorally is such a contradiction that the rabbis could not see the possibility of rehabilitation. In this reading death is not a punishment, but the only resolution of this irrevocably shattered soul.

All this finally enables me to put my list of 10 sin types into a useful hierarchical order. Worst are: B - violence, C - kashrut, E - stealing and J - Shabbat, as they are all category-three sins. Less bad are: A - dishonesty and I - hate and anger, as they fall into category two. Then come: D - prayer and belief, F - charity and G - study, which are category one.

That leaves H - separating from community, which Maimonides does not consider a sin, though such a person "has split from the congregation of Israel… and does not share in their hardships, nor join in communal support… thus losing their portion in the World to Come" (Laws of Repentance 3:11).

Does this hierarchy tally with your opinion? So much of this is contingent on our self-perception and our appreciation of Jewish practice.

In the end I'm drawn back to those ethical shortlists of the prophets. They provide a moral compass which gives meaning to our rituals and our prayers. How much would we really sin if, as Habakkuk recommends, we lived a life of integrity?

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