At the conclusion of the Torah portion of Vayikra,1 we learn about the Asham Talui, the sacrificial offering brought in a case of questionable guilt. The Gemara2 offers the following example: A person has before him two pieces of fat and eats one of them. Subsequently he finds out that one of the two pieces was not kosher, but does not know whether he ate the kosher piece or the non-kosher piece. In such an instance he is to bring an Asham Talui.

The Asham Talui is thus brought when a person’s guilt is in doubt. This is in contrast to a regular sin offering, which is brought when a person definitely committed an unintentional sin. Logically, indubitable guilt should be treated more stringently than questionable guilt. Nevertheless, we find that the minimum value of the Asham Talui is 48 times greater than that of the minimum value of a regular sin offering.3

Why is this so?

Rabbeinu Yonah explains4 that this is because the atonement gained through an offering is accomplished by the individual’s repentance. When a person is sure he has sinned, his repentance will surely be whole and truthful. But when a person is in doubt as to whether he sinned at all, then it is necessary to seek a medium that will guarantee repentance. This is accomplished by having the offering cost more, thereby showing the person the importance of his accompanying repentance.

It would seem, however, that this reason does not suffice. While an offering had to be accompanied by repentance, the offering itself brought atonement and removed the taint caused by the particular sin. Evidently, the fact that an Asham Talui is much more expensive indicates that in some sense the taint of a questionable sin is greater than that of an incontrovertible sin.

How are we to understand this?

Generally speaking, sacrificial offerings atone only for those sins that were done inadvertently,5 for even an unintentional sin needs atonement.6 For though the sin itself was committed unwittingly, the fact that it was possible for the person to have sinned is an indication that he is spiritually lacking; were he to be spiritually complete he would not even sin inadvertently, as the verse states:7 “A righteous individual will not happen upon iniquity.”

Thus, inadvertent sin is a direct result of having allowed one’s animalistic tendencies to get out of hand.8

Those things that a person does without thinking tend to reflect the things in which he is immersed, and where his true pleasure lies. The actions of a truly holy individual are good and holy; succumbing to evil — even inadvertently — is an indication that a person does not find his pleasure only in goodness.

Thus, in one way inadvertent sin indicates a greater spiritual taint than conscious sin: When a person does something wrong knowingly, his action does not necessarily indicate to what degree he is bound up with the evil; it is entirely possible that his sole connection was only at the time of the deed, and affects only his power of action and present level of intent. However, when an individual sins unconsciously and without premeditation, then his action indicates a subconscious connection to sin; evil touches him on a level that goes much deeper than his awareness.

Just as in one sense the taint of an inadvertent sin is greater than that of a conscious sin, so too questionable guilt is in a sense harsher than indubitable guilt: When one knows for sure that he sinned inadvertently, he will be remorseful. But when his guilt is in question he may think that nothing untoward has happened. This may indicate an even deeper level of evil, wherein the individual is utterly insensitive to it.

This is why the cost of the offering for questionable guilt, the Asham Talui, is so much more than for incontrovertible guilt, for the Asham Talui must eradicate a deeper connection to sin, thereby enabling the person to once again be whole and pure before G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, pp. 942-946.