• Rav Yaakov Beasley





In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Our parasha contains seventy-four mitzvot, over ten percent of all of the Torah’s commandments.  Near the end of the parasha, the Torah makes the following declaration:


Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor shall children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Devarim 24:16)


Although this straightforward statement appears obvious, almost to the point of being simplistic and unnecessary,[1] this verse aroused much discussion among the commentators regarding its scope and purpose.  Foremost, it appears to contradict the explicit assertion found in the Ten Commandments that Hashem will visit “the sins of the fathers on the children, on the third generation and the fourth generation of those who hate Me” (Shemot 20:5).  Even when reformulated in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the principle that Hashem apparently does not differentiate between the perpetrator and his offspring remains intact:  "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (ibid. 34:7). 


There have been several attempts to reconcile the finality of our parasha’s declaration with the Torah’s previous descriptions of how Divine justice operates.  According to the Ralbag, as explicated by R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, the verses in Sefer Shemot do not describe an actual punishment that Hashem may mete out to the offspring of transgressors, but rather the ultimate, biological outcome of being born to such parents:


We can perceive ourselves how parents bequeath to their children both good and bad traits, the father’s conduct being a necessary cause of good or evil in his children.  The process constitutes one of the secrets of hidden providence that Hashem made so they should fear Him.  For every father loves his children, and the concern lest his bad example should bring evil on his sons acts as a deterrent, to a lesser or greater extent, on the willfulness of his heart… That this influence of the fathers on the lives of their children is a process perceivable by all of us is similar to what Ralbag stated when he observed that the punishment of fathers continues automatically.  I perceive that it is the Torah’s idiom to depict good and evil descending from above, in the shape of deliberate reward and punishment, even when they come about naturally according to the normal course of events.  For indeed there is nothing accidental in life, but everything has a cause, ultimately harking back to the First Cause.  Just as Hashem instituted the natural law that the iniquities of the father automatically bring evil on his descendants in order to deter man from evil and guide him on the right path, so too the Torah states that Hashem visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children as if He does this through vengeance and anger, when really nothing happens except in the form of a natural process. 


According to the approach of R. David Tzvi Hoffmann in his understanding of the Ralbag’s explanation, the verses in Sefer Shemot that state that Hashem will bring punishment upon the children of sinners are to be understood in only the most indirect sense of causation, and not as a pledge of Divine retribution.  True justice accords with the simple meaning of the verse in our parasha - everyone dies for his or her sins alone.   


The explicit renunciation of the idea that children may suffer for the sins of their parents (even according to Divine justice) is the explicit message of two of the later prophets, Yermiyahu and Yechezkel:


In those days people will no longer say, ''The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes - his own teeth will be set on edge. (Yermiyahu 31:29-30)


The word of the Lord came to me: "What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the Land of Israel: 'The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?' As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son - both alike belong to me. The soul that sins is the one who will die." (Yechezkel 18: 1-3)


That this understanding of Divine justice was prevalent even earlier is evident from the behavior of one of the kings of Judah, Amatzia.  His father Yehoash, one the righteous kings of Judah, attempted to stamp out corruption among the priests, only to be assassinated by two of his officials. Amatzia succeeded him, and the Tanach describes the retribution he took:


After the kingdom was firmly in his grasp, he [Amatzia] executed the officials who had murdered his father the king. Yet he did not put the sons of the assassins to death, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, wherein the Lord commanded: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins." (Melachim II 14:5-6)


Other commentators, however, attempt to preserve the simple meaning of the verses in Sefer Shemot and attempt to resolve the contradiction between the verses differently. The Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam distinguish between who is meting out the punishment in each context:


The text “Parents shall not be put to death for children” is a command to the Jewish People, while the passage “visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, on the third generation, and the fourth generation” refers to the Visitor (Hashem) Himself! (Ibn Ezra)


Our text is addressed to the court of justice, as in Melachim II 14:5-6, where it states “Yet he did not put the sons of the assassins to death, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses where the Lord commanded, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers.’”  But the Holy One, blessed be He, does visit the iniquity upon the children when they continue to emulate the deeds of their fathers… to destroy their inheritance, but not through the court.  (Rashbam)


Both the Rashbam and the Ibn Ezra argue that the verses do not contradict one another, but instead refer to two forms of justice - human and Divine.  The Rashbam seeks to ease the qualms that we modern readers may feel with the concept that innocent children may be punished for their parents’ actions; if the children "continue to emulate the deeds of their fathers," they are not, after all, so innocent. 


Ibn Kaspi further develops this distinction between Divine and human justice: 


The fathers shall not be put to death for the children through judicial penalty, since it would not be right [for humans] to implement the visiting of the fathers’ iniquities on the children through anyone else. [This is as unlike the case of] Hashem, Who formed the human soul and knows the calculation of iniquities.


Accordingly, the text’s simple meaning in that children should not be judicially punished for their parents’ sins or vice versa. 


The Seforno makes a fascinating suggestion as to the purpose of this commandment based on what he understood to be ancient norms:


[This commandment applies] even for the sin of treason against the Israelite monarchy, when it was the custom of ancient kings to kill the children to prevent them from avenging themselves against them, as described by [the prophet] Yeshayahu: “Prepare yourselves for the slaughter of his children for their father’s transgressions, so that they not rise up and possess the earth and fill the face of the world with enemies” (14:21).  The Torah outright forbade the kings of the Jewish people from adopting such a practice, out of Hashem’s compassion for his people.  Amatzia, the king of Judah, honored this precept…


However well this understanding of the verse’s meaning arises from a simple reading of the verses, it is not the only or even predominant explanation among the commentators.  Many could not conceive that the Torah would be guilty of tautology or repetition, especially in the legal sections, in which laws are learnt from every letter.  The Malbim brings an additional, internal motivation for straying from the verse’s literal understanding:


It is inconceivable to explain the text literally, in the sense of a command to the court not to sentence fathers for the sins of their children and vice versa... Did not the Torah adjure that “the congregation shall judge… and the congregation shall deliver,” implying that the court is obligated to exhaust every conceivable loophole to acquit the accused?  [How, then, could a court] sentence him to death for the sins of others?!


For these reasons, the Rabbis in the Talmud (cited by Rashi in his commentary) understand the meaning of the verse differently.  The first half of the verse – the negative formulation – forbids a court from sentencing a person to death based on testimony from the accused’s relatives.  The second half of the verse – the positive formulation – states that a person should suffer the consequences of his deeds only, and not those of others. In conclusion, the Talmud also raises the question of whether or not the verses from Shemot and Devarim contradict one another, and comes to a fascinating conclusion:


Said R. Jose ben Hanina: Our master Moshe pronounced four [adverse] sentences on Israel, but four prophets came and revoked them… Moshe said, "He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." Yechezkel came and declared: "The soul that sins is the one who will die." (Makkot 24a)


Can it be that what Moshe decreed (the verse from Shemot), Yechekzel could undo (the approach of Devarim and Yechezkel himself), especially if what Moshe uttered came from Hashem himself?  Clearly, what the Talmud is describing is what the Ibn Ezra described above - the fundamental difference between Divine and human justice.  Moshe speaks from the Heavenly perspective.  A person’s evil deeds will follow him to the end of his conceivable days (the third and fourth generation). The effect of his kindnesses will last forever.  However, as the mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) points out, human justice is limited. The court warns a witness in capital cases that should a person be wrongly sentenced to death due to the witness’s false testimony, he "is held responsible for his [the accused's] blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants until the end of time."  Yermiyahu and Yechezkel, who prophesized to a generation scarred by destruction that was unseen until that point, had to reassure the people that they would lo longer be held accountable for their ancestors’ failings.  Within the smoke and ashes of the devastation lay the possibility of a clean slate, a chance for rebirth and rebuilding.  In that, they could appreciate Hashem’s compassion and mercy, as well as His justice.

[1] It may be argued that although the principle that each person is spiritually and/or legally responsible for his own actions and choices appears obvious to us, it did not sound common or straightforward to the ancient ear.  Witness the historical evidence for the surrounding mores of the period:

In the Middle Assyrian Laws, the rape of an unbetrothed virgin who lives in her father's house is punished by the ravishing of the rapist's wife, who also remains thereafter with the father of the victim. Hammurabi decrees that if a man struck a pregnant woman, thereby causing her to miscarry and die, it is the assailant's daughter who is put to death. If a builder erected a house that collapsed, killing the owner's son, then the builder's son, not the builder, is put to death. (Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 176)