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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Ignorance of the Law

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Through the institution of Hatra' ah , warning by the witnesses before the crime was committed was made by the Rabbis a prerequisite to the infliction of punishment for all criminal acts (Sanh. 8b). The warning once given, the culprit could claim neither ignorance of fact nor ignorance of the Law. But when the warning had not been administered, the claim of ignorance was sufficient to exculpate the accused. In the case of murder, however, where, if the act was committed unwittingly, the manslayer was obliged to flee to a city of refuge, there was a distinction drawn between those who claimed ignorance or mistake in fact, and those who claimed ignorance of the Law. The former could escape the revenge of the Go' el (the avenger of blood) by fleeing to a city of refuge but the latter could not and if he was killed by the go' el, the court did not prosecute his slayer (Mak. 7b, 9a Maimonides, "Yad," Roẓ eaḥ , 6:10). A Noachid who had killed an Israelite could not advance the plea of ignorance of the Law, for "it was his duty to learn, and he did not learn." Nor was the hatra' ah necessary in order to convict a Noachid of murder ("Yad," Melakim, 9:14).

In Temple times a sacrifice was provided for the transgression, if committed unwittingly or through ignorance of the Law, of any of the negative Biblical commands which carried with it the punishment of excision ("karet") (Leviticus 4:27 Numbers 15:27 ). Ignorance was thus considered a sin, and had to be expiated by a sin-offering, differing in nature and in the accompanying ritual with the persons who exhibited it— whether the individual, the anointed priest, the ruler ("nasi"), or the highest court (see Horayot ). Maimonides ("Yad," Shegagot, 1:4) enumerates forty-three transgressions for which, if committed unwittingly or through ignorance of the Law, a sin-offering ("ḥ aṭ ṭ at") was brought. For every one of these transgressions, even if committed a number of times, the transgressor had to bring only one sacrifice. If, however, he was reminded of the Law after having transgressed it, and then forgot again and committed the same sin, he had to bring a sacrifice for each single act of transgression (Ker. 2b, 15a "Yad," l.c. iv.-vi.).

With regard to Sabbath, the following general rule was established: One who did not know that the Israelites were commanded to observe the Sabbath— e.g. , one who was brought up from his childhood among non-Jews, or one who became a proselyte when very young and was not taught the principles of Judaism— even though he violated many Sabbaths, had to bring one sacrifice only. The same principle applied to all other laws that he violated through ignorance and for each transgression, even when repeated a number of times, only one sin-offering had to be brought. If, however, he knew of the institution of Sabbath, but did not know that particular kinds of work were forbidden on that day, he had to bring a sacrifice for every one of the thirty-nine classes of works ("Abot Melakot") forbidden on the Sabbath (see Sabbath ) and which he transgressed (Shab. 67b, 68b "Yad," l.c. 2:6, 7:2).

Scholars were frequently warned not to insist upon the observance of such laws as were generally disregarded by the people for, as the Talmud puts it, "it is better that they do it out of ignorance than that they should do it knowingly." This principle applied only to such cases as did not touch on any law expressly stated in the Bible, and to other laws concerning which the scholar was convinced that his words would not be heeded. In other respects the Rabbis were ordered to teach and warn the people against any law of which they may have in the course of time become ignorant (Beẓ ah 30a "Yad," Shebitot ' Asor, 1:7 Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥ ayyim, 608,2, and Isserles' note). It is especially the scholar who can not plead ignorance in case of mistake. An old proverb runs: "Be cautious in study for mistake may amount to a presumptuous sin" (Ab. R. N. 18). See Sacrifice Sin .

Bibliography : Hastings, Dict. Bible , s.v. Ignorance Mendelsohn Criminal Jurisprudence , Baltimore, 1891.S. S. J. H. G.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ignorance of the Law'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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