Body or Soul: Which is Responsible for Committing Sins? 

To illustrate the body and soul’s responsibility for sin, an early midrash presents the parable of the blind and lame watchmen. Curiously, this parable later shows up in Piyyut and in a Christian text. What might this teach us about the spread of rabbinic texts and ideas in late antiquity?

The blind and the lame, by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1596. Rijksmuseum

Why People Sin 

On the face of it, to commit a sin within a religious context does not make sense; why would someone disobey God’s commandments, especially knowing of the inevitable punishment?

The Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud struggled with this question and offered different solutions to this problem. The classical rabbinic division of the human into two parts, body and soul or, if you will, matter and spirit, enables the rabbis to imagine an inner struggle within the human being between right and wrong, and thus solves this question.

An early and beautiful rabbinic text that portrays this inner drama is found in the c. third century Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and parallel rabbinic texts. The midrash relates a dialogue between a certain Antoninus and Rabbi Judah HaNasi. Antoninus represents the Greek philosophical tradition and in this discussion maintains that only the body is responsible for committing sins, while Rabbi Judah HaNasi presents the rabbinic view. Since the textual transmission of the midrash is quite complex and difficult to reconstruct, the text is quoted from a clearer parallel found at b. Sanhedrin 91a-b:

אמר ליה אנטונינוס לרבי: גוף ונשמה יכולין לפטור עצמן מן הדין, כיצד? גוף אומר: נשמה חטאת, שמיום שפירשה ממני – הריני מוטל כאבן דומם בקבר. ונשמה אומרת: גוף חטא, שמיום שפירשתי ממנו – הריני פורחת באויר כצפור.
Antoninus said to Rabbi: The body and the soul can both free themselves from judgment. How so? The body can say: “The soul has sinned, [the proof being] that from the day it left me I lie like a dumb stone in the grave [powerless to do anything].” While the soul can say, “the body has sinned, [the proof being] that from the day I departed from it I fly about in the air like a bird [and commit no sin].”
אמר ליה, אמשול לך משל, למה הדבר דומה: למלך בשר ודם, שהיה לו פרדס נאה, והיה בו בכורות נאות, והושיב בו שני שומרים, אחד חיגר ואחד סומא. אמר לו חיגר לסומא: בכורות נאות אני רואה בפרדס. בא והרכיבני ונביאם לאכלם. רכב חיגר על גבי סומא, והביאום ואכלום.
He replied: I will offer you a parable. To what may this be compared? To a human king who owned a beautiful orchard which contained splendid figs. Now, he appointed two watchmen therein, one lame and the other blind. [One day] the lame man said to the blind, “I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Come and take me upon thy shoulder, that we may procure and eat them.” So the lame bestrode the blind, procured, and ate them.
לימים בא בעל פרדס. אמר להן: בכורות נאות היכן הן? – אמר לו חיגר: כלום יש לי רגלים להלך בהן? – אמר לו סומא: כלום יש לי עינים לראות? מה עשה – הרכיב חיגר על גבי סומא ודן אותם כאחד.
Sometime after, the owner of the orchard came and inquired of them, “Where are those beautiful figs?” The lame man replied, “Have I then feet to walk with?” The blind man replied, “Have I then eyes to see with?” What did he do? He placed the lame upon the blind and judged them together.
אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מביא נשמה וזורקה בגוף, ודן אותם כאחד. שנאמר “יקרא אל השמים מעל ואל הארץ לדין עמו” (תהלים נ, ד). “יקרא אל השמים מעל” – זו נשמה, “ואל הארץ לדין עמו” – זה הגוף.
So will the Holy One, blessed be He, bring the soul, [re]place it in the body, and judge them together, as it is written, “He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people” (Psalms 50:4):  “He shall call to the heavens from above” – this refers to the soul; “and to the earth, that he may judge his people” –to the body.

This parable compellingly illustrates the rabbinic notion that while the human is indeed made of two “substances,” a body and a soul, both are responsible for human mischief.

The Dispute of the Body and the Soul in Piyyut

The dualistic idea that humans are divisible into body and soul is attested across rabbinic literature. Several piyyutim (liturgical poems), composed in the Galilee in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, portray the dispute between body and soul and relate the same parable of the lame and the blind.[1]

These piyyutim belong to the liturgical genre known as “admonition” (תוכחה), and their main liturgical context is High Holiday prayers, especially those composed for Yom Kippur. In principle, this is a penitential genre in which the paytan enumerates the frailties of humankind. They share the same conclusion: Without God’s mercy all is lost.

The Payytanic Prototype 5th C.

The earliest piyyut of this type which has come down to us apparently dates to the early fifth century.[2] It is rather long, so I quote here only the opening, followed by the section that is devoted specifically to the dispute of the body and the soul. The text begins with a general statement relating to Yom Kippur, and then a refrain repeated after every strophe:

אָיֹם וְנוֹרָא צוֹם הֶעָשׂוֹר לְכָל הַיְצוּרִים
Great and awesome is the fast of the tenth [day] for all creation,
אֵין תְּלוּת פָּנִים בֹּשֶת לְכָל פָּנִים לְאָבוֹת וּבָנִים
No preference is given, all faces put to shame, fathers and sons.
אֱמוּנָה תּוֹכִיחַ צֶדֶק תַּעֲנֶה חוֹתָמְךָ אֱמֶת
You reprove in good faith, pronounce justice, Your seal is true.
הַנְּשָׁמָה לָךְ וְהַגּוּף פָּעֳלָךְ חוּסָה עַל עֲמָלָךְ
The soul is Yours and the body Your making, Have mercy on your creatures!

At this point, the dispute itself begins in the form of dramatic dialogues between the body and soul, each turning to God in order to convict the other. First comes an introductory strophe in which the courtly setting is introduced:

בְּעָרְכְּךָ מִשְׁפָּט תִּקְרָא לַשָּׁמַיִם לִתֵּן הַנֶּפֶשׁ
When You set forth judgment, You call to the heavens to render the soul,
בְּכֵן אֶל הָאָרֶץ תִּקְרָא מִתַּחַת בָּשָׂר לְהַעֲמִיד
Thus also the earth You call from below to raise up the flesh.
בְּעֵת יִדָּרֵשׁוּ מִי חָטָא לִי תַּעַן וְזֶה לָזֶה יוֹכִיחוּ
When they are examined, “Who sinned unto Me?” You say, and each other they reprove.

Then begins the dispute proper with the body’s first argument:

גֹּלֶם יַעַן בִּהְיוֹת בִּי הַנֶּפֶשׁ הִיא הִרְשִׁעַתְנִי
The lump declares: “While the soul was within me she condemned me.
גַּם הָיְתָה לִי כְּמִכְשׁוֹל עֲלֵי אֹרַח לִפְנֵי עִוֵּר
Indeed, she was for me like a stumbling block on the path before the blind.
גַּם בְּעוֹפְפָה מֶנִּי הָשְׁלַכְתִּי לְרִמָּה כְּמוֹ אֶבֶן דּוּמָם
Then when she flew from me I was thrown to the worms like a dumb stone.”

The piyyut shares several images with the and the midrash, most specifically the stone imagery.

The soul then gets to reply:

דִּבְּרָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הֲלֹא זַכָּה אָנִי כְּמוֹ אֲשֶׁר נֻפַּחְתִּי
The soul speaks: “Surely I am pure as when I was in-breathed,
דִּמִּיתִי כְּגֹלֶם כְּזַךְ עִם עַוָּל בְּדִירַת בֵּית חָבֶר
I became as the lump, like the pure with the wicked,  living in a common home.
דָּץ לְהַחְטִיאֵנִי בַּכֹּל כַּחַשׁ וְגֶזֶל לְפִיו וְלֹא מִלְּאַנִי
He rejoiced in making me sin, deception and theft in his mouth, yet did not sate me.”

One more round of debate is introduced:

הַבָּשָׂר יַעַן נֶפֶשׁ הִדְרִכַתְנִי נְתִיב עֲקַלְקַלּוֹת
The flesh declares: “The soul led me on a crooked road –
הִרְהוּר הַלֵּב וּמַרְאִית הָעַיִן וְהֶעָרַת יֵצֶר
Fancies of the heart, visions of the eye, rousing of the appetite.
הֻסְּעָה מֶנִּי לֹא תֹאַר וְלֹא שִׂיחַ וְלֹא עָווֹן לִי
She was taken from me, [leaving] no form and no speech and no sin in me.”

The soul responds:

וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ תֹּאמַר אֵיךְ תַּרְשִׁיעֵנִי לְמַעַן תִּצְדַּק
And the soul says: “You dare condemn me that you may be justified?
וְאַתָּה נִכְסַפְתָּה לְבֶצַע מַעֲשָׁק גִּוְיְךָ לְמַלּאוֹת
When you were eager with the gain of oppression to fill your trunk!
וּמֵעֵת פָּרְשִׁי טֶרֶף לֹא טָעַמְתִּי הִנְנִי עֲנֵה בִי
And ever since I withdrew I have tasted no food – Here I am, confront me!

At this point God intervenes and exposes the foolishness of the arguments of both body and the soul:

זֶה מִמָּרוֹם עֲלֵיהֶם יִלְעַג כִּי כַחַשׁ בְּיָדָם
He from on High mocks them for the deception they harbor.
זֶה לְעֻמַּת זֶה אֲמָרִים יָשִׁיבוּ מִדִּין לְהִנָּצֵל
The one with the other, exchanging arguments to be saved from judgment.
זֻמְּנוּ זֶה בָזֶה יָשִׂימוּ יָד עַל פֶּה כִּי אֵין מַעֲנֶה
Summoned one against another, they place hand on mouth for there is nothing to answer.

Finally, this piyyut features a concise version of the parable of the lame and the blind. It is worth noting that the paytan assumes some knowledge of the full midrashic parable:

חֲשׁוּבִים הֵם כְּצֶמֶד כְּחִגֵּר וְשׂוֹמֶא שׁוֹמְרֵי בִּשְׂדֵה מֶלֶךְ
They are likened to a pair, the lame and the blind, guardians of a king’s orchard.
חֻבְּלוּ פֵרוֹת עַל יַד שְׁנֵיהֶם וְכִחֲשׁוּ לְהוֹדוֹת
The fruits were stolen by the efforts of both, but they deceived in the admission.
חָשׁ מֶלֶךְ לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּחֲשָׁם בַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְהִרְכִּיבָם וְדָנָם
The king hastened to expose their deception in the court, so he combined and convicted them.[3]

From this point onwards the piyyut continues with penitential prayers in hope for forgiveness and atonement.

It is worth noting how the midrashic literary dispute becomes a performative drama in the piyyut.[4] We can imagine that its impact on the congregants, who repeated the refrain, was powerful:

הַנְּשָׁמָה לָךְ וְהַגּוּף פָּעֳלָךְ חוּסָה עַל עֲמָלָךְ
The soul is Yours and the body Your making, Have mercy on your creatures!

The refrain serves as a platform for congregational participation in the performance of the piyyut and it reinforces the unity of body and soul and the plea for the mercy of God.[5] It is improbable that the congregants could have forgotten the phrase upon departing the synagogue. Whether they desired to or not, they would have had to take the refrain with them to bed that night, and perhaps awake with it the next morning.

The Dispute in Other Liturgical Contexts

The same theme was taken up by Yannai, the sixth century paytan, in a composition for the Torah reading from Lev. 4:1 (‘If a soul shall sin’):

הַנֶּפֶשׁ תֹּאמַר בָּשָׂר הֶחֱטִיאַנִי
וּבָשַׂר יֹאמַר נֶפֶשׁ הֶחֱטִיאַתְנִי
The soul will say the flesh brought me to sin
And the flesh will retort the soul brought me to sin.
וְדָן מִפְעֲלֵיהֶם יִשְׂחַק עֲלֵיהֶם
כִּי הוּא יוֹצְרָם יוֹדֵעַ יִצְרָם
The Judge of their deeds will laugh at them
For He is their Maker and knows their make.
זֶה וָזֶה כְּפִּסֵּחַ וְעִוֵּר חֲשׁוּבִים
אֲשֶׁר גַּן מֶלֶך יוֹשְׁבִים
The two together are like a lame one and blind
Who had their abode in the king’s garden.
חִבְּלוּ פֵּרוֹת בְּרָכְבָם זֶה עַל זֶה
מֶלֶךְ יְדִינֵם רְכוּבִים זֶה עַל זֶה
They ruined the fruit as one hoisted another.
The king will judge them hoisted on one another.

Yannai’s version of the parable is also concise, but no less powerful. The entire composition builds on the ancient notion of the sinful soul, and at the beginning of the text, Yannai indeed puts the blame on that soul. Soon, however, he advocates the more balanced rabbinic notion of the joint responsibility of body and soul.

 A Christian Connection?

This same motif appears in the writing of the fourth century Church Father Epiphanius of Salamis, who writes:

A king had made soldiers of everyone in his kingdom and had no civilians but two, one lame and one blind … And the blind man said, “Let’s go into the garden and ruin the plants there.” But the lame man said, “And how can I, when I’m lame and can’t [even] crawl?” And the blind man said, “Can I do anything myself, when I can’t see where I’m going? But let’s figure something out.”… By so doing they got into the garden, and whether they did it any danger or not, their tracks were there to be seen in the garden afterwards.

And the merrymakers who entered the garden on leaving the wedding were surprised to see the tracks in the garden … What did the righteous judge do? Seeing how the two had been put together he put the lame man on the blind man and examined them both under the lash, and they couldn’t deny the charge.[6]

The similarity between the Midrash and Epiphanius drew the attention of scholars already in the first half of the twentieth century. Most concluded that the Church Father was aware of the Midrash,[7] though they debated which version they knew.  But must we assume that Epiphanius actually had direct access to the Midrash?

The Piyyut Discovered in the Cairo Genizah

By considering another relevant admonition piyyut, recently discovered in the Cairo Genizah,[8] we can propose a different path of transmission. Generally speaking, this piyyut follows the lines of the previously mentioned איום ונורא צום העשור, though it contains several unusual features that are unknown to us from any other Jewish version, in prose or verse, of the parable of the lame and the blind:

מָשָׁל מְדֻומֶּה  לְחִגֵּר וְסוֹמֵה מְשַׁמְּרֵי כַּרְמֵי
A fanciful parable about vineyard keepers, a lame one and a blind.
נָם פִּסֵּחַ לְסוֹמֵה בְּסִיחַ עֵסֶק יָסִיחַ
The lame one holds speech with the blind proposing a scheme.
סוֹמֵה הֱשִׁיבוֹ וְגָעַר בּוֹ בְּחִיגֵּר וּבְחִישּׁוּבוֹ
The blind one retorts reprimanding his fellow the lame one and his plot.
עָנָה חִיגֵּר וּמָה חִגֵּר חֶרֶב חוֹגֵר
פִּסֵּחַ אֲנִי בּוֹא וּטַעֲנֵינִי וַאֲמַל חָצְנִי
The lame one replied how does the lame gird on a sword.
I am lame; come bear me and I’ll fill my garment’s bosom.
צֻומְּדוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם וְלָקְחוּ בֵּינֵיהֶם  כָּל צִבְיוֹנֵיהֶם
The two were joined and between them took all their heart’s desire.

In this second couplet, the lame person describes himself as someone who cannot carry a sword, that is to say, he is not a soldier. A second interesting feature in the poem is the figure of the wayfarer, who discovers the stolen fruit :

קָם אוֹרֵחַ וְרָאָה טוֹרַח  וּלְמֶלֶךְ צָרַח רָאָה אֲדוֹנָם  פֵּירוֹת וְאֵינָם  וְכֵן עָנָם
A wayfarer stood, saw the burden and cried out to the king. Their lord saw that the fruit was gone and said to them thus:
שְׁלָחִים וְאֶשְׁלָם  מִי חִיבְּלָם  וּפֵירוֹת מִי נְטָלָם
Branches and tree, who wrecked them and who took the fruit?
הַנְּשָׁמָה לָךְ וְהַגּוּף פָּעֳלָךְ חוּסָה עַל עֲמָלָךְ
The soul is Yours and the body Your making, Have mercy on your creatures!

The evidence of this piyyut, along with the piyyutim discussed above, strengthens the evidence that its themes were also disseminated outside the somewhat confined walls of the Beit Midrash, and thus we could assume that Epiphanius was familiar with some version, perhaps oral, of the parable as it known to us from midrash and piyyut. As it turns out, the similarities to the text in Epiphanius and these examples of piyyut are striking.[9]


Since late antiquity, Jews have grappled with the human propensity to sin even though they possess a divine, immortal soul. The rabbis attempted to solve this problem by both acknowledging a dualistic division between body and soul while maintaining that this did not absolve either body or soul from culpability. They composed midrashim presenting their view, and related parables to illustrate their ideas. The rabbinic doctrine about the combined responsibility of body and soul was most compellingly developed in liturgical compositions related to Yom Kippur.

To this day, one of the most memorable lines in the Selihot (both Ashkenazi and Sephardic) recited before Rosh Hashana and continuing through Yom Kippur Selihot, is the paytanic refrain we have been examining:

הַנְּשָׁמָה לָךְ וְהַגּוּף פָּעֳלָךְ חוּסָה עַל עֲמָלָךְ
The soul is Yours and the body Your making, Have mercy on your creatures!

Unknown to most, its origin lies in the dispute between body and soul.


An Aramaic Dirge on the Responsibility of the Body and Soul

Another piyyut takes up the theme in Aramaic.[10] It is a dirge, sung during a funeral service. As we can see, this Aramaic piyyut follows exactly the dispute pattern from the earlier Hebrew piyyut that was discussed beforehand. Although it does not mention the parable of the lame of the blind, all the other elements of the dispute known from this story are present.

Selected verses from this piyyut:

מלכא מרוממה  ומשבחה ומיחדה  הוא עתיד דיין  גופה ונפשה כחדה
The King, exalted, glorious and unequaled –  He’ll judge body and soul as one.
נפשה וגופה  מיקטרגין לחדה  למתן דין וחושבן  על כל עובדה
Soul and body contend at law together, Rendering an account of every deed.
קרא גופא ואיליל אי לי
את היא דרערתי יתי ואנשת חיילי
The body cries out, “Woe, woe is me!
You’re the one that broke me and sapped my strength.
רוחי כד אשלמת ערק ממללי
לה שעו ולה שפר ולה דיי הווה לי
My spirit when I rendered, my speech fled,
Neither talk nor beauty – have I not had enough?”
שרית נפשה אמרה לגופה
את הוא דעבדת כל מילה בישה
Then begins the soul to say to the body,
“You’re the one that performed every evil deed.
תחות עפרה נבלתך כבישה
סגור ויהב בבית חבישה
Then begins the soul to say to the body,
“You’re the one that performed every evil deed.
תקיפה הוא דחמה על עובדיה דבני אנשא
ואמר לגופה ולנפשה
The Mighty One sees all the acts of mankind
And says to the body and to the soul,
תריכון  עתידין למתדנה  על כל מלה ומלה  ביום חשבונה
“You both will be judged for every deed on the day of reckoning.”



Prof. Ophir Münz-Manor, an associate professor of Rabbinic Culture at the Open University of Israel, is a specialist in Jewish liturgy and liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. His studies focus on the intersections with contemporary Christian texts as well as questions of ritual, performance and gender in late antique Near Eastern cultures. His recent publications include Early Piyyut – An Annotated Anthology (Tel Aviv University Press, 2015) and Gender and Sexuality in Rabbinic Culture (The Open University of Israel Press, 2016).