"A Man Shall Be Put To Death Only For His Own Crime"

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"A Man Shall Be Put To Death Only For His Own Crime"

by Rav Yonatan Grossman


This week's shiur will focus on one of the many mitzvot presented in Parashat Ki-Tetze, a verse seemingly out of context in the parasha:

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

Wherein lies the significance of this verse, and what does it come to teach us? Does it constitute an imperative or prohibition, or does it merely inform us regarding the particulars of the divine justice system?

Chazal (Sifrei, Parasha 208; Massekhet Shabbat 32b), in their analysis of this verse, effectively divide it into two distinct sections. The first segment ("Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents") serves as a formal imperative directed to the Jewish court, related to the laws of testimony. The verse orders the judges not to sentence a defendant to death based on the testimony of his children, and, likewise, parents' testimony may not be used to issue a death sentence against their child. In other words, relatives may not testify against each other.

The second segment of the verse, however, is understood by Chazal as pertaining to the divine system of reward and punishment, establishing the principle that an individual is punished exclusively for his own sins, not for those of his parents or children.

Rashi, in his commentary, paraphrases Chazal's exegetical approach to this verse: "Parents shall not be put to death for children - through the testimony of [their] children. And if you will tell me [that it means] on account of the sin of [their] children, it already says, 'a man shall be put to death only for his own crime.' But one who is not a 'man' [i.e. a minor] dies on account of the sin of his father - minors die at the Hand of God on account of the sin of their parents." [Rashi's concluding comments, that minors are punished on account of their parent's misdeeds, likely relate to other verses dealing with this issue of familial requital for sins, e.g. in the second of the Ten Commandments.]

Thus, according to Chazal, our verse relates to two completely different topics: the formal guidelines relevant to the judicial process, and the philosophical issue of the Almighty's method of governing of the world and the processes by which He judges His creatures.

However, subsequent reference of this verse later in Tanakh may shed further light on its interpretation. Although an instance of this concept - the death of children on account of the parents' sins - appears in Yechezkel 18, this prophecy seems to relate to the more limited context of the political situation of his period and requires independent treatment.

The source that interests us here is the conduct of Amatzia, King of Yehuda, described in Melakhim II 14:5-6:

"Once he had the kingdom firmly in his grasp, he put to death the courtiers who had assassinated his father the king. But he did not put to death the children of the assassins, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Teaching of Moshe, where God commanded, 'Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime."

The verse in Melakhim cites our verse practically verbatim, and Amatzia undoubtedly had this ordinance in mind when he withheld the death sentence from the children of his father's assassins. (Significantly, the term "Book of the Teaching of Moshe" appears several times throughout Melakhim and often refers specifically to Sefer Devarim.)

In his comments to our parasha, Rashbam quotes the verses in Melakhim and, based thereupon, interprets our verse as a legal imperative. However, unlike Chazal and Rashi who view this law as legislating testimonial procedure, Rashbam sees this ordinance as pertaining to the process of sentencing. As opposed to God's Heavenly Court, which may punish a child on account of his parents' misdeeds should he continue their sinful behavior, the human court may administer punishment only for crimes committed by the defendant himself. [Chizkuni, as well, interprets the verse in this vein, whereas Rav Saadya Gaon adopts Chazal's approach.]

Clearly, in light of the reference in Melakhim, the Rashbam's understanding of the verse, as dictating guidelines whom to punish and whom not, seems more plausible. But the question that begs itself is, why would a monarch or judge consider punishing an individual on account of his parents' sins? Even the most superficial knowledge of the Torah's justice system leads one to recognize the inconceivability of such a provision. For the court to administer punishment, guilt must be established beyond any shadow of a doubt and the defendant must have clearly been warned just prior to the crime. As we know, these requirements render a death sentence almost impossible, even for the perpetrator himself. So why would the Torah need to warn against the execution of his son?!

The Seforno implicitly raises this question in his commentary:

"Parents shall not be put to death for children - even for the sin of rebellion, where the practice of kings was to kill even their children so they wouldn't rise up as enemies of the monarchy... In any event, the Torah prohibited our kings from killing one on account of the other, out of God's compassion for His nation."

In the specific instance of rebellion, it may occur to a king to adopt the practice of the foreign monarchs who, in their effort to solidify their rule in the aftermath of a failed coup d'יtat, eliminate the families of the dissidents. Our verse outlaws this practice. Seforno's interpretation works well with the citation of our verse in Melakhim, in the specific context of royal assassination. In accordance with the Torah's mandate, Amatzia kills only the perpetrators themselves, not their families.

However, we may suggest an alternate approach to understanding the significance of this law. Earlier in the parasha, the Torah forbids the return of a refugee slave to his master:

"You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master" (23:16).

It seems that this prohibition serves to protect the underprivileged (though some commentators, most notably the Ramban, offer different explanations) and apparently comes as an alternative to an ancient law found in the Code of Hammurabi (which was issued before the Torah was given at Sinai). Hammurabi legislated (16-17) that one who hides a refugee slave in his home is put to death, while one who hands over the slave to his owner receives a gratuity from the latter. In contrast to this provision, which evolves out of the general concern for the overall economic welfare of the kingdom, the Torah affords preference to the needs and privileges of the weaker members of society over the financial interests of the upper-class.

We cite this "debate" between our Torah and the Code of Hammurabi as the distinction between these two legal systems may help us appreciate the law we have been discussing. This prohibition of executing the children of a criminal may have also been presented to outlaw a practice prevalent in the time of Matan Torah. Hammurabi's code (229-230) orders a death sentence for a builder who builds a house incompetently, resulting in the building's collapse and death of the owner. The codes then call for the death of the builder's son should the building collapse and kill the homeowner's son.

Once again, economics emerge as the primary concern and top priority. The builder's negligence detracted from the workforce of his client's household; therefore, the equivalent loss of labor is decreed upon his family.

More importantly for us, this law demonstrates that the likelihood of executing a criminal's child existed in ancient lesystems. Our verse, therefore, comes to prohibit such sentencing, as Rashbam explained. The necessity of such a warning arises not only in cases of revolt, as Seforno has suggested, but in situations when the child's execution is warranted by other codes of law.

According to this explanation, this commandment is directed towards the judges and speaks to them about just and rightful legal process. As such, this verse fits perfectly into context, as it immediately precedes the requirement of impartiality in court:

"You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless" (24:17).

The Torah often underscores the need for moral sensitivity and its universal implications. But it places particular emphasis on the moral norms required in the judicial realm, where life and death are determined. Upon contrasting the moral norms presented in the Torah with the corresponding protocols that characterize other legal systems of the time, the Torah's rigorous and uncompromising ethical demands emerge ever so clearly, and we recognize more fully its refusal to accept anything less than the highest standards of moral sensitivity.

[Translated by David Silverberg.]




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