Question: Why must one ask for forgiveness from Hashem for sins one has committed unknowingly? We know that there is no such thing as even a righteous man who does not sin at all and it is impossible for one not to sin even unknowingly sometimes! Why must we then repent for even sins of this nature?
Answer: The Gemara in Masechet Yoma (36b) states: “Rabbi Meir says, what is the correct order of confession? One must say, ‘I have transgressed (Aviti), I have committed iniquities (Pashati), and I have sinned (Chatati).’” (Rabbi Meir’s order is based on the verse regarding the service of Yom Kippur which included a goat being thrown off the top of a cliff to atone for the sins of the Jewish nation. The verse states, “He (the Kohen Gadol) shall confess the transgressions of the Jewish nation and all of their iniquities for all of their sins.” Thus, the proper order of confession is “Aviti, Pashati, Chatati.”)
However, the Sages disagree with Rabbi Meir and they say that the correct order for confession is “Chatati, Aviti, Pashati”, for a “Chet” (sin) refers to something done unknowingly, as the verse states “A soul which will sin unknowingly.” “Avon” (transgression) refers to something done knowingly, as the verse states, “That soul shall surely be cut off, its transgression is upon it.” “Pesha” (iniquity) refers to a sin committed rebelliously which is the most severe of all, as the verse states, “The king of Mo’av committed an iniquity against me.” Since it is improper to confess sins performed unknowingly after one has confessed the sins one has committed knowingly and rebelliously, the proper order of confession is indeed “Chatati, Aviti, Pashati” according to the Sages. The Halacha indeed follows the opinion of the Sages. Similarly, we find King David saying, “We have sinned with our fathers; we have transgressed and acted wickedly.” He likewise addresses sins (“Chet”) before transgressions (“Avon”).
Based on this we see that although “Chet” refers to sins performed unknowingly and “Avon” refers to transgressions committed knowingly, according to Rabbi Meir it remains unchanged and one must still mention the transgressions one has committed knowingly before the sins he has committed unknowingly. We must therefore try to understand Rabbi Meir’s opinion, for it seems that one should mention “Chet” before “Avon” as it seems inappropriate to ask forgiveness for the greater sin and then the lesser sin!
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l explains the reasoning of Rabbi Meir that really one should not have to ask forgiveness for sins he has committed unknowingly at all, for, as we have discussed in our question, there is no such thing as a perfectly righteous man who does not sin at all and it does not make sense that during one’s entire lifetime that one has not even inadvertently transgressed some sort of sin. Nevertheless, if the person was completely righteous and would follow the path of the Torah in every aspect of his life, no fault would come to his hands at all, for every Jew has a holy soul and it is impossible for one to sin even unknowingly unless one has transgressed another commandment of the Torah knowingly and willingly in which case one’s soul becomes blemished and tarnished; as a result, one later commits other sins unknowingly. Maran zt”l writes that the great Rabbeinu Moshe Alshich writes likewise that based on the root of one’s soul, one should never be able to sin at all; the only reason that one commits sins unknowingly is as a result of the sins that he has transgressed knowingly.
Regarding this idea did King David exclaim, “I shall tell over my transgression (“Avon”), I shall worry as a result my sin (“Chet”),” meaning that after transgressing a transgression knowingly, I shall then worry about my unknowing sins which will come about as a result.
For this reason, Rabbi Meir maintains that the correct order of confession is first to say “Aviti” and only then to exclaim “Chatati”, for one’s knowing sins cause one to commit sins unknowingly later.
One must therefore confess one’s sins and repent fully and not falsely convince himself that “my situation is more or less fine” or “if only others were like me, Mashiach would have arrived already” and the like, for the truth of the matter is that this is mere foolishness, for who can really bear the brunt of the depths of Hashem’s judgment? One must therefore repent fully, especially for sins one has transgressed knowingly and by doing so, one will be protected from Heaven and not even transgress sins unknowingly.
On a personal note, we remember well how although Maran zt”l’s entire life was dedicated to Torah study and the performance of Mitzvot and good deeds, he once exclaimed to us that for a certain amount of time, he would be abstaining from certain materialistic and physical things and dedicate himself completely to Torah study because “I have resolved to perform Teshuva.” How great is our longing for this great man, for although he was truly a giant and champion of Torah and Mitzvot, he was nevertheless exceedingly humble and of low spirit and he was never complacent with his level of spirituality and as a result, he would constantly strive to ascend to great heights in Torah and fear of Heaven until he eventually merited becoming the leader of the entire generation.
May Hashem accept our repentance willingly.