The phrase "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" raises two questions which are flip sides of the same coin: Does Hashem punish innocent children (צדיק ורע לו), and does He permit guilty parents to go unpunished (רשע וטוב לו)? In other words:
1. Who sinned in this verse – only the parent, only the child, or both?
2. Who is punished – only the parent, only the child, or both?
Almost all of the possible permutations and combinations of answers to these questions can be found in the various commentators. Exegetes choose between them based on the different contexts in which the phrase appears and by culling evidence from various Biblical stories and prophecies which describe crime and punishment. In doing so, they attempt to present composite theories of how Divine justice works in Tanakh and throughout the course of history.
Ibn Kaspi and Shadal maintain that, indeed, the parent is the only one who sinned and the child is the only one punished, and they attempt to explain the morality of vicarious punishment. At the other end of the spectrum, this option is rejected in favor of a theory of complete individual justice. Thus, R. Y.S. Reggio reinterprets "עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" and claims that it is the children who sinned, and Mishnat R. Eliezer reinterprets "פֹּקֵד... עַל" and suggests that it is only the parents who are punished. The majority of commentators, though, chart various compromise positions according to which justice is either collective or only semi-vicarious. They do so by positing that either both the parents and children sinned (Ibn Ezra / R"Y Bekhor Shor), both the parents and children are punished (Ralbag), or a combination of these two (Pesikta / Radak).
Many of these exegetes explore whether ultimate reward and punishment comes in this world or the next, on the familial level or the national level, and to the person himself or his descendants. They also relate to the status of minor children, the distinction between idolatry and other sins, parental/filial interdependence, and to whom the merits of the Patriarchs are applied. Finally, they shed light on whether Hashem's ways of administering justice changed in the wake of the Babylonian Exile.
Yes: Children Suffer for Their Parents' Sins
Even righteous children are punished for the sins of their parents. This approach subdivides over whether the children are the only ones punished, or whether they are simply punished along with their parents:
Although the parents are the only sinners, the children are the only ones punished for these sins. Hashem punishes the children in lieu of their parents, because of their parents' sins.
- According to most of the above sources, even adult children are punished for the sins of their parents. This is, in fact, how Avot DeRabbi Natan and Mishnat R. Eliezer explain the phenomenon of "צדיק ורע לו".12 They assert that all rewards or punishments a person receives in this world are directly correlated, not with the individual's own actions,13 but with those of his parents.14
- R. Astruc, though, appears to limit such punishment to younger children, and he cites the formulation of the Rambam that minors are considered to be part of their parents' property.15 The general notion of innocent children dying for their parents' sins appears also in Midrash Tannaim,16 Bavli Shabbat,17 and Rashi Devarim.18
- Mercy – Shadal views "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" as a merciful act in which the child is not punished harshly but just enough to educate the parent and encourage him to repent.21 Some sources who limit the application of the principle to minors, go so far as to say that the death of young children atones for their parents' sins and enables their parents to merit a portion in the World to Come.22
- Vengeance – For R. Meir Wolf (HaMeamer) who asserts that all of the sinner's descendants are wiped out, this is the ultimate act of Divine retribution. Cassuto, while adopting a more moderate interpretation of the punishment, also views it as a manifestation of the Divine attribute of harsh justice. According to these understandings, it is difficult to understand why Moshe would have included the phrase in his prayer on behalf of the nation after the sin of the Spies.
- Both – Ibn Kaspi suggests that "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" is both mercy on the parent who is not immediately punished and rather receives the opportunity to procreate,23 but also vengeance on the child who is punished for no sin of his own. Thus, Ibn Kaspi explains that the phrase appears in both a context of vengeance in the Decalogue and a context of mercy in the Thirteen Attributes.24
- Shadal suggests that the punishment visited upon the children is not total or permanent,26 and that Hashem compensates them27 at a different point in their lives for any undeserved suffering.28
- R. Shelomo Astruc, R. Meir Wolf, and R. D"Z Hoffmann contend that the death of a child is in effect a punishment only for his parents,29 whereas the child himself ascends to a better world30 where he receives his just reward.31
- Cassuto, who limits the principle to the national level, views the Jewish nation as a unified transgenerational community with a collective life of its own. Thus, he says, it is only reasonable that the actions32 of any generation or part of this body would have a lasting impact on all of the rest.33
- Other sources which limit vicarious punishment to young children could explain like the Rambam that minor children are considered to be simply an extension of their parents.
- Avot DeRabbi Natan and Mishnat R. Eliezer36 might claim that sometimes there are exceptional cases which require an expedited judicial track and cannot wait for future generations.37
- Ibn Kaspi asserts that the historical record demonstrates that Hashem has multiple modes of justice, but the rules for when Hashem punishes just the sinner, also his descendants, or only his descendants, as well as which generations of them, are not consistent or readily comprehensible to humans.38 He adds that it is impossible to fathom why Hashem didn't punish Menashe immediately as mandated by Devarim 7,39 or why Hashem punished the generation of Tzidkiyahu for the sins of Menashe, but did not reward them for the virtues of Yoshiyahu. Similarly, he points out the difficulty in understanding why Yehu received such a great reward for a small good deed, why Chizkiyahu received a very harsh punishment for a minor infraction, or why the Babylonian Exile was only for seventy years while the Roman Exile lasted many times that.
- For Cassuto, the national cases are readily understood40 as, according to his theory, there is no reason the punishment should not also apply to the sinners themselves.41
- R. Shelomo Astruc, R. Meir Wolf, and R. D"Z Hoffmann, who maintain that it is really the surviving parents who are being punished when children die, will have difficulty explaining cases like Datan and Aviram in which the parents perished together with the children.42
- Ibn Kaspi posits that the many contradictory Biblical descriptions of how Hashem administers justice are intended to be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.47 Thus, Devarim 7:10 describes how Hashem sometimes dispenses justice immediately upon the sinner himself, while Shemot 20 explains that at other times He waits many generations.48 Similarly, in the case of Midyan (Bemidbar 31), the Israelites are commanded to take immediate revenge, while by Amalek (Devarim 25), there is a waiting period of several generations.
- R. D"Z Hoffmann49 explains that Devarim 7:10 merely means that, during his own lifetime, the sinner will witness Hashem's punishing of multiple generations of his descendants.
- According to Ibn Kaspi, the nation is complaining that they are righteous and being unfairly punished for their parents' sins, and the prophets respond that a day will come when the people will recognize their sins and the justness of Hashem's actions.52
- In contrast, Shadal understands that the nation had despaired of the efficacy of repentance, claiming that there was no point in repenting since the prophets had already ordained that the destruction of the Temple was going to occur because of the sins of Menashe. In response, the prophets reassure the people that only small and temporary punishments come as a result of parental sins, and if they repent they will avoid a more severe and enduring penalty.53
- R. Saadia Gaon in HaNivchar BaEmunot UvaDeiot suggests that the verse in Yechezkel must be referring to punishment in the World to Come.54
- This approach could also maintain that Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel herald a profound change in the system of Divine justice – see discussion below of Bavli Makkot.
- Most of these exegetes understand "רִבֵּעִים" to be the maximum number of generations that the sinner will live to see,58 but that, in contrast, the reward is maintained even after the righteous person's death, for a thousand generations ("לַאֲלָפִים").
- However, Ibn Kaspi explains that both of these terms are simply hyperbolic ways to say multiple generations,59 and that Hashem does not reward virtue for a greater number of generations than he applies punishment.60 He proves this from the fact that Yehu received his reward for only four generations and not a thousand. Postulating that these are simply round numbers also allows Ibn Kaspi to maintain that Divine reward and punishment are not always consistent, and that the specific number of generations can vary from case to case.61
Even if only the parents sin, both they and their children are punished for these sins. Hashem metes out collective punishment, but not vicarious punishment, punishing children along with parents, but not instead of them.
- Sins in general – Ralbag and the Hoil Moshe understand that the principle of collective punishment applies equally to all types of sins and punishments.65
- Only idolatry – Rambam and Malbim restrict the application of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" to the sin of idolatry,66 as per the context of Shemot 20:5.67 According to them, the seriousness of this crime mandates the obliterating of any trace of the sinner or his progeny.68 See also below that Malbim connects the change in the time of Yechezkel to the weakening of the inclination towards idolatry.
- Capital crimes – The Akeidat Yitzchak maintains that the principle of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" applies to all crimes for which the sinner deserves to die. According to him, Hashem spreads out the punishment instead of killing off the sinner.69
- Collateral damage – According to Ralbag and the Hoil Moshe, the children are not the intended target of the punishment, but only suffer as a natural consequence of their parents being punished.70 Ralbag offers an analogy to a person punished by the confiscation of his property whose children will thus be poorer as they receive no inheritance.71
- Intentional response – Rambam and Malbim view the death of all living descendants of the idolater as a Divinely designed and guided measure, unique to the sin of idolatry. Rambam's position is unique in that all four generations are killed together on the same day.72
- Distributed punishment – The Akeidat Yitzchak explains that Hashem divides and spreads out the sinner's punishment among four generations, rather than killing the sinner immediately. This allows the sinner to have progeny and for his bloodline to survive.73
- Vengeance – For Rambam and Malbim, the collective punishment for idolatry is a vengeful act mandated by the severity of the crime. While this would explain why Hashem emphasizes this concept in His prohibition of idolatry, it is difficult to understand why Moshe would have used the phrase when he prayed for the nation after the sin of the Spies.
- Both – According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, it combines mercy on the sinner with vengeance on his descendants. He notes that it must contain some element of mercy, as otherwise Moshe would not have incorporated it in his prayers on behalf of the nation. R. Arama explains that Moshe asked Hashem not to wipe out the nation in one fell swoop ("וְהֵמַתָּה אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד"), but rather to spread the punishment out over time, even though this would result in the descendants suffering as well ("וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת זְנוּתֵיכֶם עַד תֹּם פִּגְרֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר").
- Neither – For the Ralbag and Hoil Moshe, the collective punishment is merely natural order and does not manifest any particular Divine attribute.74 This interpretation encounters difficulty in explaining Moshe's inclusion of the phrase in his prayers for mercy.75
- Just natural order – Ralbag76 and the Hoil Moshe explain that the collective punishment is merely a consequence of natural order. The Hoil Moshe adds that Hashem makes sure to compensate the children for any undeserved suffering.
- Protecting society – For Rambam and Malbim, idolatry is such a pernicious evil which could endanger everyone, that society's need to eradicate all traces of it trumps the right to life of the sinner's family and justifies even the punishing of innocents.
- Survival – According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, it would be unjust for Hashem to entirely forego punishment for sins, and if not for the transferring of some of the brunt of the punishment, the sinner's descendants would never be born.
- Malbim, who maintains like the Rambam that Hashem dispenses collective punishment only for idolatry, connects the changes prophesied by Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel to the weakening of the desire to worship idols after the Babylonian Exile.81 Thus, he explains that "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" would no longer apply, not because Hashem changed his ways, but rather because idol worship would be eliminated.82
- The Hoil Moshe similarly explains that Yechezkel is not describing any fundamental change in reality or the ways of Hashem's judgment,83 but merely that the people will now realize that, despite the sins of the previous generations, their destiny is still in their own hands, and that if they repent, Hashem will save them.
- For the Rambam, collective punishment is required in Vayikra 20:5, as it is a case of idolatry,86 and thus Hashem actively seeks out the sinner's family to punish them.
- For Ralbag and the Hoil Moshe, collective punishment of innocents is never intentional. Thus, Ralbag explains that the verse refers only to the guilty family members who followed in the idolater's footsteps ("וְאֵת כָּל הַזֹּנִים אַחֲרָיו").
- For the Akeidat Yitzchak who maintains that the purpose of collective punishment in general is not to wipe out the sinner, and certainly not his family, this verse is difficult.
Only if They Persist in Their Parents' Path
Righteous children are never punished, but if children continue down their parents' sinful path ("אוחזין מעשה אבותיהם בידיהם"), Hashem punishes them for both their own sins and those of their parents.
- Yes, the parents are punished – According to Radak and R"Y Nachmias, every person always gets rewarded or punished for their own deeds,101 and thus it goes without saying that the parents themselves are punished. The verse of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" comes in the Decalogue to teach that, in addition, when children continue in their parents' sinful path,102 God punishes them with a vengeance103 also for their parents' sins, resulting in their receiving an extra measure of punishment.104 This position encounters significant difficultly in explaining why Moshe would mention it in his prayer for mercy.105
- Only if their children are also sinners – Pesikta DeRav Kahana implies that punishment is meted out on all generations,106 but only if four consecutive generations sin,107 and R. Saadia states explicitly that having righteous children can partially108 reduce the punishment of the parents.109 According to R. Saadia, "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" can play out as either an attribute of vengeance or mercy depending on the child's behavior,110 as it engenders a harsher result for the child if he continues in his parents' path,111 but allows for the alleviating of the parents' punishment if the child is righteous.112 Thus, R. Saadia explains that Moshe utilizes it in his prayer for mercy, petitioning "הארך להם ה' כמו שהבטחת אולי יהיו מבניהם צדיקים".
- Only if their children are righteous – R. Yisrael b. Yosef suggests that the Attributes of Mercy present an array of different options for how Divine justice is dispensed.113 When Hashem knows that the sinner will have righteous children, He punishes the sinner himself, but He is still "אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם" and postpones the implementation of the punishment. However, when Hashem knows that the children will also do evil, He is "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" and waits to punish the sinner vicariously through his children.114
- No, parents are not punished – According to Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Seforno115 the punishment is vicarious and is visited only upon the descendants (assuming they also sin) and not the original sinner.116 Ibn Ezra maintains that "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" is primarily an attribute of mercy,117 as Hashem affords ample opportunities for repentance and administers punishment only if four straight generations are wicked.118 This position is thus able to explain the presence of the phrase in Moshe's requests for Divine mercy after both of the sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies.
- Deterrent – R. Saadia argues that a greater punishment is needed to deter the children of sinners from their natural inclination to follow in their parents' evil ways.
- Rehabilitation – Ralbag, in explaining the position of the Bavli,123 contends that Divine punishment is designed, not for revenge, but rather to prompt the sinner to repent and prevent him from sinning further. When a child continues in his parents' path and becomes mired in sin, he requires a greater punishment to help him out of his morass than other sinners do.124
- Retribution – The Hoil Moshe, in explaining the opinion of the Bavli and Targum Onkelos,125 proposes that the child of a sinner is treated like a repeat offender ("הולך בקרי") and punished more severely, because his sin constitutes an act of defiance against God, as he did not learn from the punishments already suffered by his parents for their sins.126
- All of the generations – Pesikta DeRav Kahana, R. Saadia, Radak, and R. Yosef Nachmias maintain that no sinner goes unpunished.127
- Just the fourth generation – Ibn Ezra explains that Hashem does not punish128 the first three generations129 in the hope that they will repent themselves or at least have righteous descendants.130 By the fourth generation, though, there is no hope left.131
- It varies – Ramban and Seforno say that the sins are cumulative, and can reach critical mass at any time between the second and fourth generations.132 Seforno cites examples from the book of Melakhim for dynasties being wiped out during each of the second, third, and fourth generations.
- R. Saadia, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and R. Avraham b. HaRambam all explain that Devarim 24:16 comes to distinguish between Divine and human modes of punishment, and to clarify that punishment for the sins of others is not applied by human courts.144
- In contrast, the Bavli and Pesikta DeRav Kahana maintain that this verse too speaks of Divine punishment,145 but that it refers to a case where the children do not follow in their parents' sinful path.146
- The children were not punished at all – Bavli Sanhedrin 44a and Rashi posit that Akhan's children were not executed but were rather brought only to watch.147
- The children were not innocent but rather abetted the original crimes – Radak utilizes this explanation in the cases of Akhan's family,148 Yoav's descendants, and Geichazi's sons,149 and R. Saadia150 uses it for the story of Shaul's descendants and the Givonim,151 as well as to explain the plague which affected the nation after David's census.152
- The children were not innocent but rather continued their parents' evil ways – Radak utilizes this explanation in the cases of Eli's household,153 Shaul's descendants and the Givonim,154 and the dynasties of Yorovam, Achav, and Menashe.155
- The children were minors and thus considered their parents' property156 – Rashi157 notes that even infants were punished in Korach's rebellion,158 and this may also explain the cases of Yavesh Gilad, David and Batsheva's son, Chiel Beit HaEli's sons, and the children of Amatzyah the priest of Beit El.
- Yirmeyahu is telling the nation that, in the future, everyone will worship Hashem, and thus there will be no further cases of idolatry or a child being punished for a parent's sin.160
- Yechezkel, on the other hand, is addressing the past and clarifying to the people that while it is true that the prophets stated that Menashe's iniquity was the initial trigger for the Exile, this had not sealed the nation's fate,161 and the destruction and exile could still be avoided entirely if the current generation did not continue down Menashe's evil path.162
- Radak then illustrates the Divine principles of justice through application to the Judean kings. Chizkiyahu and Yoshiyahu, he says, are examples of righteous kings who were not punished for their father's sins, Menashe is an instance of a wicked king who was punished despite his father's good deeds,163 and Amon is a case of a wicked king who was doubly punished with an abbreviated two year reign because he followed in his father's evil ways.
- According to Radak's approach, the seeming contradiction between the Torah and Yechezkel results only from a difference in subject matter. The verses in the Torah speak only of a רשע בן רשע and a צדיק בן צדיק,164 while the chapter in Yechezkel speaks only of a רשע בן צדיק and a צדיק בן רשע.165
- Children – Rashi and Rashbam explain that the verse is saying that Hashem punishes the descendants if they hate Hashem and do evil.
- Parents – Shadal and R. D"Z Hoffmann contend that even though the Bavli, Targum Onkelos, and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan say that the verse is limited to a case where the descendants are wicked, they still understand the word "לְשֹׂנְאָי" to refer to the parents.170
- Both – This may be the position of Ibn Ezra and R"Y Nachmias.
- Which children? – Ibn Ezra, Radak, and R"Y Nachmias all note that just as additional punishment for parents' sins is meted out only when the descendants are wicked, so too extra reward is given only when the descendants are righteous.171 For Radak and R"Y Nachmias, though, idolatry is the determining factor, and the bar is set very low. Thus, they explain that every non-idolater today qualifies to receive reward for the deeds of the Patriarchs.
- Are also the righteous parents rewarded? – According to Radak and R"Y Nachmias, the parents themselves should also always be rewarded. However, according to R. Saadia, this should be dependent on whether their descendants are righteous,172 and according to Ibn Ezra it should be the descendants who receive the main reward.173
No: Children are Punished Only for Their Own Sins
Hashem punishes children for their own sins only, but never for the sins of their parents, even if the children follow in their parents' footsteps. This approach subdivides over whether punishment even for one's own sins is sometimes waived or deferred, because of the merits of either one's parents or children.
Strict Individual Justice
Hashem punishes every generation precisely according to its own sins, and each of parents and children always receive their just deserts, no more and no less.177
- Retracted – Bemidbar Rabbah says that this is one of the three things Hashem modified or withdrew as a result of Moshe's intercession.181 In contrast, Bavli Makkot attributes the cancellation to Yechezkel.182
- Reinterpreted – Shadal in Ohev Ger and R. Reggio explain that the phrase "עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" means the sins which children learned from their parents' conduct, rather than the sins of the parents themselves.183
- Bemidbar Rabbah, R. Reggio, and Shadal in Ohev Ger must account for all of the Biblical cases which appear to be collective or vicarious punishment of innocents. For the case of Korach's rebellion, see R. Reggio's interpretation that the verse emphasizes that Datan and Aviram's families participated in the rebellion and were thus included in the punishment.
- Bavli Makkot, on the other hand, can simply say that the cases of collective or vicarious punishment predate the change in Divine mode of judgment in the time of Yechezkel.
Saved by Righteous Ancestors
Hashem punishes people for their own sins only if the three consecutive generations of their immediate ancestors were all sinners. If any of the ancestors were righteous, their next three generations of descendants are all spared.
Saved by Righteous Descendants
Hashem punishes people for their own sins only if the four consecutive generations of their immediate descendants are all sinners. If any of the these descendants are righteous, their ancestor is spared.
- Korach – Mishnat R. Eliezer explains that because Korach's sons were righteous, Moshe petitioned Hashem to make a special exception to the rule of suspending punishment because of righteous descendants, and to bring about Korach's death despite the righteousness of his sons.228
- David and Batsheva's son – Mishnat R. Eliezer maintains that the infant died as an atonement for David's sin,229 and that his death was actually a relief for David because it saved him from Gehinom.
- Other cases – This approach, though, will encounter considerable difficulty in explaining many of the other cases of punishment in Tanakh230 in which the sinner and/or his descendants are punished without there being any indication that their descendants were four consecutive generations of sinners.