I noticed that Rashi (based on Sifrei 111:1) understand the sin described in Bamidbar 15 to be about idolatry, while the (O)JPS translation reads (verse 22): "And when ye shall err, and not observe all these commandments". The NJPS reads: "If you unwittingly fail to observe any of the commandments", while other commentators read: "if you sin unintentionally/inadvertently".

But if this is about idolatry, then how can one sin (do idolatry) unwittingly, unintentionally, inadvertenly?

  • 3
    If you don't know you're not allowed to do it
    – Heshy
    Jun 28 '17 at 21:41
  • 1
    Your title should read unintentionally break the command which prohibits idolatry
    – robev
    Jun 28 '17 at 22:30
  • If you don't realize what you're doing is actually avodah zarah (example: a Jew who was raised Christian).
    – ezra
    Jun 28 '17 at 23:05
  • Have you looked at Ramban (Nachmanides) he explains part of it.
    – Levi
    Jun 29 '17 at 10:01

The Gemara in Horayos 5b interprets the passage as a special Par He'elam Davar - i.e. The courts ruled that a part of idolatry is permitted when it's not, and a majority of the people sinned based on their ruling. In general, in this case, a bull is brought (Vayikra 4:13ff), but our passage makes a special halacha in the case of idolatry, that a goat should be brought as well. This Gemara is quoted in Rashi to v. 24 there.

  • 2
    I'm not sure this answers the question. "how can one sin (do idolatry) unwittingly, unintentionally, inadvertenly?" Can you give an example of how that would happen?
    – Double AA
    Jun 29 '17 at 14:16
  • 1
    @DoubleAA The answer is that the courts told him it was okay.
    – DonielF
    Jun 29 '17 at 14:16

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