Nature of the Chatat


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What is the Common Denominator?

Vayikra 4 details the laws of the Chatat, one of the two obligatory sacrifices.  The opening verses of the chapter mandate that anyone who unintentionally transgressed a commandment must bring the offering:1


דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר נֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא בִשְׁגָגָה מִכֹּל מִצְוֺת י״י אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה וְעָשָׂה מֵאַחַת מֵהֵנָּה.

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone sins unintentionally, in any of the things which Hashem has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them:

Vayikra 5:1-13 adds several other cases, all also involving those who have sinned,2 suggesting that the sacrifice is a sin-offering. 

Elsewhere, though, other individuals are obligated to bring a Chatat even though there is no indication of their having sinned.  These include one who is undergoing purification after having given birth,3 having tzara'at,4 or having an emission,5 a Nazirite who has finished the days of his oath of abstinence,6 and the Levites upon their consecration7. A Chatat is also brought on the holidays and New Moon.8  What is the common denominator between all these cases?  Many of the procedures conclude by stating, "וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו", implying that this is the end goal of the process.  What, though, does the root "כפר" mean and what does it suggest is the primary purpose of bringing a Chatat?

Status Dependent

Vayikra 4 describes distinct sacrificial procedures for various potential offenders who are obligated to bring a Chatat, including the anointed priest, the community, a prince, or a layman, making the Chatat sacrificial protocol status-dependent.  No other offering distinguishes based on one's position or rank. Why is this offering unique in this regard? Moreover, how are we to understand the specific differences in protocol? 

  • Choice of animal – Why must the priest and community bring a cow, while the prince brings a he-goat, and the layman either a she-goat or lamb?
  • Where the blood is sprinkled – The blood of the offering of the priest and community is brought into the Outer Sanctum where it is sprinkled on the Incense Altar, while that of the offerings of the prince or layman are sprinkled only on the Outer Altar. Why?
  • Burning/eating of offering – Why is the flesh of the sacrifice of the anointed priest and community burned outside of the camp, while that of the prince and layman is eaten by the priest?

Comparison to Other Offerings

To understand the nature of the Chatat, it is helpful to compare it and its sacrificial procedures to other offerings:

  • Role of blood – When directing that the blood of the Olah and Shelamim be placed on the altar, Torah employs the language of: "וְזָרְקוּ אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב".  By the Chatat, in contrast, the verse states, "וּמִן הַדָּם יִתֵּן עַל קַרְנֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ". Is there a significance to this difference? In addition, there is much more of an emphasis on the blood rite by the Chatat (mentioning sprinkling,9 placing and pouring) than by other offerings. What is the import and role of the blood in the Chatat offering?
  • "אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַי"י" – While other sacrifices are said to be "אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַי"י", the Chatat is never referred to as an "אִשֶּׁה לַי״י", and only the offering of the individual layman is said to have a "pleasing fragrance".  How are we to understand the omissions?
  • Laying of hands – What is the purpose of the laying of hands on the offering? Does this play the same role in all sacrifices? 
  • Comparison to the Asham – What distinguishes the Chatat from the Asham? Why for certain sins does one bring a Chatat, but for others an Asham is obligated?
  • The "graduated" Chatat (קרבן עולה ויורד) – What distinguishes the cases for which one may bring a graduated Chatat offering (where the individual offering differs based on the economic means of the offeror)? How is this similar to, yet different from, the regular Chatat?