Is Man a sinner? Ask the rabbi

January 8, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers the question…


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Does Judaism believe that man is a sinner?

A. Classical Christianity would say yes: Judaism says no.

The basis of the discussion is the sin of Adam and Eve. God told them not to disobey, but they did.

For Christianity, this has lasting theological consequences. Man “fell” from his original state of innocence and henceforth is tainted by the effects of the sin, though some groups within Christianity deny that the sin persists through the generations but maintain that man has an inherent status of sinfulness.

The way out is to accept that Jesus sacrificed himself to redeem humanity from sin.

In Judaism it is a story without deep theological consequences. The early chapters of B’reshit explain how many things began – clothing, food, gender, language, and death (since God warned Adam and Eve that if they sinned they would die, and their sin therefore brought death into the world).

There are passages in the Bible that speak of inherited sin, e.g. the section of the Ten Commandments that says that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third or fourth generation.

There is a statement in the Prophets, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29, Ezek. 18:2).

Other passages insist that “the soul that sins, it shall die”: Ezek. 18:20, Jer. 31:30.

Rare Midrashim attach greater significance to the sin of Adam, but they do not represent normative Jewish doctrine.

Solomon Levy said that where Christianity posits Original Sin, Judaism responds with a doctrine of Original Virtue.


Q. Tombstone inscriptions seem to end with the Hebrew letters, tav, nun, tzaddi, bet and hey. Is this a word? What does it mean?

A. These are the initials of “tehi nafsho (‘nafshah’ for a woman) tzerurah bitz’ror hachayyim” – “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life”.

The words are from Abigail’s prayer for David in I Kings 25:29. Abigail meant this as a prayer for the living, i.e. “May his soul long be preserved in life”. The Targum, however, applies the words to life after death.

In this vein, the Metzudat David paraphrases the prayer: “May the soul of my lord be bound up in the bond of eternal spiritual life after its separation from the body.”

The Hebrew letters on a tombstone thus convey our confident hope that the deceased will enjoy immortality.


Q. I have a ring bearing the word “Mizpah”. Is this Hebrew and does it come from the Bible?

A. It is Hebrew, it comes from the Bible, and it is common on engagement rings.

Originally a place name (Gen. 31:49), Mitzpah is from a root that means “to watch”. The same root produces “tzofeh”, a scout, and “Har HaTzofim”, Mount Scopus (literally, “Hill of Watching”).

Mitzpah was the location of the deal made between Jacob and Laban, with the symbolism, “The Lord watch between me and you”. Since neither man really trusted the other, they depended on God to monitor their agreement.

In more recent times the word has been used as a lovers’ pledge, implying, “May God watch over us if ever we are apart”. HG Wells wrote, “Mizpah, as they say inside the engagement rings” (“Babes in Darkling Wood”, 1940, I:4:118).

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