EIN KATEGOR NA'ASEH SANEIGOR
The gemara in Rosh HaShana 26a discusses which horns may be used for performing the mitzva of shofar. The mishna there states that all horns may be used, except for that of a cow, since it is called a "keren" (lit. "horn"), but not a "shofar." The gemara analyzes this point, coming up with several other reasons why the horn of a cow should specifically be excluded from this mitzva. Finally, the gemara claims that a cow's horn may not be used because of the concept of "ein kategor na'aseh saneigor" – the accuser cannot become the defender. AsRashi explains, since a cow was the central focus in one of the most heinous sins in the history of the Jewish people, namely the Golden Calf, we cannot turn around and try to use that very same animal as our most visible symbol of repentance.
I would like to explore the more conceptual aspect of this concept of "ein kategor na'aseh saneigor." Tosafot in Eruvin 15b refer to it as a svara, a logical principle that does not rest on any scriptural basis. What exactly is that logical principle? Seemingly, we would say that it is not politic to use something that points to one's sins as a means of attaining forgiveness for those (or even other) sins! This idea may be in consonance with the gemara in Sanhedrin 25b which states that a gambler is only considered to have repented fully when he breaks his gambling chips, and a usurer is only considered to have repented once he has torn up any usurious documents. In both gemaras, the point is the same – one must remove all vestige of one's evil past before being able to attain complete expiation for one's misdeeds.
However, there are also instances where we use the very object that is reminiscent of the sin in order to achieve atonement. The most notable example of this is that of para aduma, the red heifer whose ashes were sprinkled on one who had become defiled through contact with a corpse. Like the horn of a cow, this heifer is clearly a reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf, and yet it is used to bring someone from a state of spiritual impurity to a state of purity! While there is a view that the para aduma was commanded to Elazar, and not his father Aaron, due to Aaron's involvement in the incident of the Golden Calf, the fact nevertheless remains that the continual use of the para aduma throughout Jewish history (until the destruction of the Temple) is a practice that runs counter to the principle of ein kategor na'aseh saneigor.
There are other instances where we invoke this rule. Tosafot in Yevamot 7b states that a kohein (priest) who has murdered someone may not bless the people, since his giving the blessing relies on his raising his hands, and the hands that killed may not now become a source of blessing, due to the principle of ein kategor na'aseh saneigor.
[There is also a case in Kiddushin 5a where this principle is invoked. However, this is not the reason that is ultimately used to determine the law, and it seems to be using it in a less formal manner. Thus, I do not feel that it has an impact on our present discussion.]
Before moving on, I would like to pose one question concerning ein kategor na'aseh saneigor. The cases that I have listed here are more or less the only cases in the Talmud where this phrase occurs (save for a few Aggadic passages). Why does it not come up more often? What makes this question interesting is the fact that there is a concept in the Talmud known as mitzvah ha-ba'a b'aveirah, a performance of a positive commandment that comes about through a sin, such as using a stolen lulav on Succot. Seemingly, such cases would fall under the category of ein kategor na'aseh saneigor as well, as one tries to plead his case before God by using the very thing that reeks of the sins that he has to atone for! Why are these two concepts not synonymous, or at least never mentioned in conjunction with one another?
To some degree, the answer to this last question, and by extension somewhat of an explanation for ein kategor na'aseh saneigor as a whole, may be based on some of the technical issues brought down in the gemara. Rosh HaShana 26a mentions two cases for which we invoke this rule – using the horn of a cow as a shofar on Rosh HaShana, and the law that the High Priest may not wear his golden clothing into the Holy of Holies on Yom HaKippurim, as that also is a reminder of the Golden Calf. The gemara then objects, stating that there were other vessels in the Temple that had gold on them, and thus should be problematic under this idea! The gemara eventually concludes that only those things that entered into the Temple itself were subject to this rule, and thus anything that was done outside did not fall under this rubric. The shofar, even though it was blown in the courtyard of the Temple, was considered to have been done inside, since it served as a "zikaron," a reminder to Hashem, it was considered as if it was inside and thus we want to keep it as sin-free as possible. This idea also answers our problem concerning the para aduma, as it was a ritual performed entirely in the courtyard, and not in the Temple itself, and thus we do not have to worry about ein kategor na'aseh saneigor.
What emerges is that ein kategor na'aseh saneigor is a more specialized concept that mitzva ha-ba'a b'aveirah. While the latter seems to be a broader, more legal issue, our issue seems to be concerned with only very specific cases, namely situations that are concerned with man's relationship to Hashem. The blessing given by the priests, the shofar that is blown, and the clothes of the High Priest are all involved in situations where an attempt is being made to attain forgiveness from Hashem or where Hashem is being invoked in some way. It is in those cases where we are extremely sensitive to our actions, and try our hardest to present the best image possible. Using an "accuser" as a "defender" in these cases is nothing less than either complete brazenness or sheer stupidity.
However, there is another question to deal with. If the hands of a priest that has killed may not be used for blessing the nation, how can any person ever do repentance? How can a person use the mouth that has said things that it should not have said, the legs that have gone where they should not have gone, and the hands that performed actions that they should not have performed, and now come before Hashem and ask for forgiveness? If it is the person himself who commits the sin, then how is his presence before Hashem not instantly a reminder of those sins?! If a horn of a cow may not be used in the context of Rosh HaShana because it is a reminder of an ancient sin, then it would seem logical that the person who actually commits a sin would be unable to present himself as worthy of serving as a conduit for atonement!
I believe that the answer to this question will help us to better understand the overall concept of teshuva (repentance) and what is expected of us in the repentance process. In discussing the laws of the priestly blessing, theBe'eir Heitev (O.C. 128:60) notes that a priest who has committed idolatry may repent and thus be able to bless the nation, but one who has committed murder never has such an opportunity. Why is there such a difference? He explains his position by invoking ein kategor na'aseh saneigor, that the hands of the priest serve as an eternal reminder of the horrible crime that they once committed. He is seemingly not bothered by our query, insofar as he does allow for repentance in other cases. What is the difference between an idolater and a murderer?
It appears that the main issue at stake is the difference between an internal and an external action. One who worships idols sins in his heart and in his mind. While those thoughts may temporarily translate into actions, there is nothing tangible that reveals his sinful nature. By contrast, one who murders commits a sin with his hands, and those hands serve as a constant reminder of what he has done. Even if he atones for his crime, his hands are still there. Just as a fully reformed criminal is not totally trusted as long as his still carries his pistol with him, so too can we not allow the priest who has committed such a crime to use his "weapons" to bless us with the blessing of Hashem. He may be able to do effective teshuva for all other situations, but this situation is too delicate, and thus his atonement will always be lacking in at least this respect.
So, why is a sinner able to repent? I think that the answer may lie in the gemara in Sanhedrin cited earlier.Rambam (Hilchot Sanhedrin 3:4) lists several tactics involved in the teshuva process, among them crying out to Hashem, pleading for forgiveness, changing one's name, and completely changing one's actions. The underlying principle at work here seems to be that real teshuva is done when a person completely breaks himself and them reassembles himself as a "new" individual. He is no longer the person who sinned, but rather a new individual, free of any blemish and prepared to accept the word of Hashem. Only once he has gone through this wrenching process can he fully repent, only after he has "broken his gambling chips and torn up his usurious documents" can he present himself as ready to once again be a part of the Jewish people. There is no longer an issue of ein kategor na'aseh saneigor, since the accuser, the sinful individual, no longer exists. Rather, there exists only an individual who truly desires to follow the Torah and all of its commandments. While a murderous priest cannot chop off his hands, and a shofar taken from a cow cannot eliminate the stigma of an ancient sin, an individual has within himself the power to remove even the vaguest reminders of any of his past misdeeds. In the words of Rambam, he is able to say "I am another, and not that person who did those (sinful) actions." One need only to cry out to Hashem and to accept upon himself the full weight of his actions, and even the accusers can be converted into defenders.
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