“One male goat, to atone for you” (Bamidbar 28:30). Whereas the male goat brought for atonement on the other holidays is referred to as a “sin offering” (28:15, 28:22, 29:5, 29:11, 29:16, 29:19, 29:22, 29:25, 29:28, 29:31, 29:34 and 29:38), the one brought on Shavuos is not. The Y’rushalmi (Rosh HaShana 4:8) explains why: “G-d said to Israel, ‘since you accepted upon yourselves the yoke of the Torah, I will consider it as if you never sinned in all your days.” In other words, the Torah doesn’t call this offering a sin offering because it is brought on the day we renew our commitment to keep the Torah (the very act of celebrating getting the Torah confirms our willingness to maintain this commitment), and because of our renewed commitment, G-d forgives/overlooks our sins, thereby negating the need for a sin offering.
There are several questions that can be asked on this idea. First of all, if we don’t need forgiveness, why are we told that the offering is brought “to atone for you”? Granted, the word “for a sin offering” is conspicuously missing, but if the reason it was omitted is because we have no sins, why do we need atonement? Secondly (and this question is discussed by several commentators), even though this offering is not described as a “sin offering” in Bamidbar, it is referred to as a “sin offering” in Vayikra (23:19). How could it be referred to as a “sin offering” anywhere if we have no sins?
As far as the first issue is concerned, it can easily be suggested that needing atonement to erase the stain left from sin is separate from being held accountable for the sin. This is especially true when it comes to the sin offering brought on Yomim Tovim (holidays), since they atone for unknown ritual impurity in the Temple and its offerings (see Sh’vuos 1:4-5); the offering serves to cleanse the ritual impurity, something that is needed even if the inappropriate actions that led to such ritual impurity are erased/overlooked because of our acceptance of the yoke of the Torah. [Pa’anayach Raza, one of the later Tosafists, says that the words “to atone for you” actually refer to the “atonement” obtained by accepting the Torah. The verse would then read, “one male goat, but not as a sin offering, since you have already been forgiven.”] I will therefore focus on the second issue, why it is called a “sin offering” in Vayikra if it is as if we have not sinned.
It should be noted that the sin offering mentioned in Vayikra is not necessarily the same one as in Bamidbar (see M’nachos 45b). Although according to Rabbi Tarfon they are one and the same, according to Rabbi Akiva they refer to two separate offerings, and Rambam (Hilchos T‘midim u‘Musafim 8:1) follows Rabbi Akiva’s opinion. Which means that one of the two is referred to a “sin offering” while the other is not. Nevertheless, since both are brought on Shavuos, if we had no sins when one was brought, the same should be true for the other.
Tal Torah (quoted in the back of some editions of the Y’rushalmi) strings together a few possibilities to create a difference between these two offerings. First, he references the Talmud (Z’vachim 6b) which says two offerings that atone for the same thing are still brought on the same day in order to atone for any ritual impurity that occurred between the time the first was brought and when the second was brought. He then asks how this works if the moment of “cleansing” occurs when the animals are set aside before Yom Tov started, explaining that one of the animals was aside conditionally, so that it will not accomplish its cleansing until shortly before it is offered. He then suggests that G-d overlooks our sins when Yom Tov starts (which is when we start celebrating getting the Torah, and thereby recommitting to it). He frames it as our being considered “converts,” whose sins done prior to the conversion are forgiven, but not the sins done after the conversion has occurred. Therefore, any sin committed after Yom Tov starts needs atonement. The last piece of the puzzle is which of these two offerings was brought first. If the one mentioned in Bamidbar was brought first, and is therefore meant to atone for the ritually impurity that occurred before Shavuos, it would not referred to as a “sin offering” because our sins had been wiped clean. The one mentioned in Vayikra, on the other hand, if brought afterwards, atones for any ritual impurity that occurred after Shavuos had started, and is therefore referred to as a “sin offering.”
Four answers are suggested in “M’rafsin Igri” (on the Moadim), with the first being the exact opposite of Tal Torah’s. Instead of the sins committed before Yom Tov being wiped clean, HaRav Avraham Landau suggests that any ritual impurity that occurs on Shavuos itself, after we have recommitted to the Torah, is overlooked, while any ritual impurity that occurred before the commitment was made needs atonement, and is therefore referred to as a “sin offering.” Personally, I am uncomfortable with both approaches. Besides having to string together a series of “ifs” (such as which offering is brought first), since we are celebrating getting the Torah the entire Yom Tov, if G-d is going to overlook our misdeeds based on our recommitment to the Torah, it should apply not only to anything we did before Yom Tov, but to anything done on Yom Tov as well. (Additionally, neither explains things according to Rabbi Tarfon, since according to him there is only one he-goat offered on Shavuos.)
The third answer quoted, based on the Meshech Chuchmuh (on 28:15), has the sin offering mentioned in Vaykira atoning for G-d, not us, as an extension of the “sin offering for G-d” brought on Rosh Chodesh to atone for His having made the moon smaller (see Rashi). This created a need for “atonement” because had the moon been left as large as the sun (and given off as much light), the sun wouldn’t have seemed so special, and people wouldn’t have worshipped it, making G-d’s diminishing of the moon a causal factor in the sun being worshipped. Since the he-goat in Vayikra is the one brought with the offering of two loaves, which is connected to having a bountiful fruit harvest (see Rosh HaShana 16a), which, from a natural perspective, relies heavily on sunshine, G-d needs (as it were) additional atonement for leading people to rely on the sun. Once the atonement is for G-d, not us, being called a “sin offering” does not contradict our sins having been overlooked. However, it is clear from the Talmud that this offering is meant to atone for ritual impurity, and therefore reflects our need for atonement rather than G-d’s.
The fourth answer (suggested by HaRav Shimon Nemet) is that the he-goat mentioned in Bamidbar is more closely connected with the Yom Tov itself, and therefore with our accepting the Torah, whereas the one in Vayikra is connected to the offering of the two loaves, and by extension to a successful fruit harvest. Even though this works better if the one in Vayikra is brought first, with the nation’s recommitment to the Torah first occurring when the one in Bamidbar is brought, so our sins were not yet overlooked when the first was brought, he adds that it works even if the order is reversed, since the one in Bamidbar is the one that represents our accepting the Torah. [This fits well with Pa’anayach Raza’s explanation of “to atone for you,“ as the acceptance of the Torah is associated specifically with this offering.] However, since our sins being considered as if they didn’t exist is based on our accepting the Torah (not a ritual symbolic of that acceptance), it wouldn’t seem to be connected to when a particular offering was brought. (If it were, after the Temple was destroyed and offerings were no longer brought, our sins would no longer be erased every Shavuos.)
Rabbeinu Chaim Paltiel (another of the later Tosafists) simply states that calling it a “sin offering” in Vayikra isn’t problematic since the words “to atone for you” aren’t included. However, by that logic, mentioning “to atone for you” in Bamidbar would undermine not calling it a “sin offering” there. Unless he means something similar to the second answer quoted in M’rafsin Igri (suggested by HaRav Moshe Eichenstein), which is the one that resonates most with me.
The term “sin offering” has two connotations, one referring to why the offering is brought (to atone for sin), and one that is “borrowed” from the first, describing the type of offering it is and the process through which it is brought (based on how “sin offerings” that do atone for sin are brought). Each type of offering (e.g. burnt offerings peace offering, sin offering) has specific details attached to it; a burnt offering is completely burned on the altar, a peace offering has some parts put on the altar to burn, some parts eaten by Kohanim, and some parts eaten by non-Kohanim too, and a sin offering has some parts put on the altar and some parts eaten by Kohanim. [Other details are unique to each type as well, such as where in the Temple it is slaughtered.] In Bamidbar, it is obvious from the context (between the term “sin offering” being used in otherwise parallel verses and the expression “to atone for you”) that the procedure to be followed is the same as for a sin offering, allowing the term to be omitted in order to teach us that G-d considers it as if we have no sins. In Vayikra, though, where other types of offerings are mentioned in the same set of verses, if this offering wasn’t called a “sin offering,” meaning that it is offered in the same way a sin offering, we wouldn’t know what kind of offering to treat it as.
Even though the expression “to atone for you” in Bamidbar doesn’t negate the idea that G-d overlooks our sins on Shavuos (since it does remove the stain left by ritual impurity, and/or could refer to this very “atonement”), because this expression is not included in Vayikra, the term “sin offering” there can refer to the type of offering it is, and how to bring it, rather than implying that there are still sins we need to atone for.