Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins?

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

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:

Vicarious Punishment

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.

Which sins? Idolatry is the context in which "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" appears in the Decalogue,7 but Shadal rejects the possibility that the phrase refers exclusively to idolatry,8 arguing that it is not the context when the phrase appears again in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.9
What form of punishment? Most of these commentators do not specify the nature of the punishment of the children, and Shadal speaks of a mild one with reversible effects. R. Astruc, though, discusses only death, and R. Meir Wolf (HaMeamer) is even more extreme in understanding the punishment to be that all of the sinner's descendants die an untimely death during his lifetime.10
Individual or national? Most of these sources explain that vicarious punishment is applied even for the sins of individuals. Cassuto, however, explains that vicarious punishment of children occurs only on the national level,11 and that the terms "אָבוֹת" and "בָּנִים" are speaking of the nation as a whole.
Adult progeny or minors?
"פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" – mercy or vengeance? These commentators all agree that parents care most about their children, and thus the worst possible punishment for the parents is for their children to suffer.19 As such, they all also agree that the fear of such a fate serves as a powerful deterrent from sin.20 They disagree, though, in how they view the nature and main objective of Hashem's actions.
  • 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
Moral justification – Ibn Kaspi suffices with simply stating that although Hashem's ways are perfect and just (Devarim 32:4), humans are not capable of comprehending them (Yeshayahu 55:9).25 Other commentators, however, do offer various possible approaches to understanding the morality of punishing innocent children:
  • 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 RambamRambam Teshuvah 6:1About R. Moshe Maimonides that minor children are considered to be simply an extension of their parents.
Historical cases and Divine implementation – While there are many cases of vicarious punishment in Tanakh,34 there are also many cases in which the sinners themselves are physically punished by God, either alone or as part of a collective.35 These can be accounted for in different ways:
  • 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
Targeting of the family in Vayikra 20Vayikra 20:5 provides the impetus for R. Meir Wolf's position that the offspring are sometimes wiped out entirely because of their parents' sin. Shadal who limits vicarious punishment to mild forms, and Cassuto who restricts it to the national level, must interpret this verse to refer to family members who participated in the sin.43
Confession for the sins of parents – Shadal notes that Vayikra 26:39-40 and other verses44 which speak of a dual confession for both personal sins and the sins of parents prove that children are punished also for parental sins.45
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of their parents.46 This approach could maintain that all of these refer to vicarious punishment.
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7
  • 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.
"אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ" in Devarim 24 and human implementation – Ibn Kaspi and Shadal explain that Devarim 24:16 refers to human courts.50 Humans are forbidden from implementing vicarious or collective punishment on their own because they do not have the capabilities to do so justly.51
Punishment of only the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel
  • 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 GaonHaNivchar BaEmunot UvaDeiot 9:3About 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.
"לְשֹׂנְאָי" – Ibn Kaspi, Shadal, and R. D"Z Hoffmann all explain that this must refer to the parents who sinned, rather than to their righteous descendants.55 R. D"Z Hoffmann brings a proof for this interpretation from the parallel use of "לְשֹׂנְאָיו" in Devarim 7:10.
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי" – This position could explain that there is vicarious reward, just as there is vicarious punishment, as good fortune for one's descendants is the greatest recompense a righteous person could receive.56 Shadal, however, notes that this does not mean that descendants are automatically rewarded even if they sin, but rather that Hashem has an eternal covenant with Avraham that any punishments meted out to his descendants will be designed to motivate them to repent.57 According to Cassuto, the reward and punishment both apply on the national level, rather than on the personal level.
"רִבֵּעִים" and "לַאֲלָפִים"
  • 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
Moshe's concerns about Divine justice – Mishnat R. Eliezer depicts Moshe as asking Hashem why sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper,62 and Hashem responding that this is because reward and punishment in this world is dependent on the actions of one's parents rather than on one's own actions.

Collective Punishment

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.

Which sins and punishments?
  • 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
Dynamics of the process – There is a fundamental divide between how these sources perceive the process of the collective punishment:
  • 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
"פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" – mercy or vengeance?
  • 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
Moral justification
  • 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.
Historical cases and Divine implementation – Ralbag and the Hoil Moshe must account for all of the Biblical cases which appear to be vicarious punishment or intentional collective punishment.77 Thus, Ralbag claims that innocent family members did not die along with Korach,78 and the Hoil Moshe adopts the position that only the sons of Geichazi who had abetted his actions were punished, but not their descendants.79 The Hoil Moshe also explains that the sins of Menashe placed the nation in a disastrous situation which ultimately led to the exile, but that the nation was not punished vicariously and could still have repented and avoided punishment.80
Punishment of only the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel – What are these prophets saying will change to cause people to no longer say that Hashem punishes the innocent?
  • 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.
Individual or national? Ralbag, the Akeidat Yitzchak, and the Hoil Moshe apply the concept of intergenerational collective punishment on both the individual and national levels. Ralbag explains that once the nation has already been exiled, a higher level of virtue is needed in order to merit redemption, than would have been necessary to merely remain in the land. Thus, subsequent generations pay the price for the sins of their parents. The Hoil Moshe adds that the natural process is that once a nation is weakened militarily or economically, the effects do not simply disappear overnight but can rather last for many generations.
Adult progeny or minors? All of these sources maintain that the collective punishment applies to adult children as well, but the Rambam's position may vary between his different works.84
Four generations in Egyptian ExileAbarbanelBereshit 15About R. Yitzchak Abarbanel suggests that three generations of Yosef's brothers' descendants endured exile in Egypt as part of the collateral damage from the brothers' punishment for their sale of Yosef.85 See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.
Targeting of the family in Vayikra 20
  • 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.
Confession for the sins of parents – The Hoil Moshe notes the difficulty that Vayikra 26:39-40 and similar verses pose for the position that there is collective punishment in general, as there is little point in confessing the sins of others.87 Ralbag thus explains that the children are confessing that their own sins have continued those of their parents and thereby delayed the redemption from the exile which began during the time of their parents.
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of parents.88 This approach would maintain that in all of these cases children are being punished along with their parents.
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7Devarim 7:10 poses no contradiction for this approach, as it merely affirms that the sinner himself is punished.89
Punishing the children of an עיר הנדחת‎ – The Rambam in Mishneh Torah rules that even the wives and young children of the idolaters in the עיר הנדחת are put to death.90 In his Moreh Nevukhim, he explains that the special status of idolatry requires even human courts to punish the descendants of the idolater.91
"אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ" in Devarim 24 and human implementation – Ralbag says that Devarim 24:16 comes to dispel any possible notion that human courts have the authority to imitate the ways of Hashem and implement collective punishment.92 In light of this, Ralbag interprets that Akhan's children were not put to death but were only brought to witness Akhan's execution,93 while the Hoil Moshe offers the alternatives that this was a fulfillment of a special Divine command and not a human initiative,94 or that they had been accomplices.95
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי" – This approach understands that reward, like punishment, is extended to future generations, either intentionally or as a natural consequence (Ralbag). According to the Akeidat Yitzchak, the reward is distributed among the various generations.

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.

Dynamics of Divine justice – This approach rejects the possibility that the conduct of parents predetermines the fate of the children, and it allows for vicarious or collective punishment only in a case where children opt to continue their parents' offenses.100 Justice is dispensed in this world also, and is not just reserved for the World to Come.
Are the parents punished for their own sins? The Mekhilta, Bavli, Targumim, and Rashi are all silent on this issue, but most of the later commentators address the question. Their conflicting opinions determine whether "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים" describes the primary address of the punishment or just the secondary one. This, in turn, has fundamental ramifications for whether the phrase should be understood as a reflection of mercy or vengeance and for making sense of its different usages by both Hashem and Moshe:
  • 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 righteousR. Yisrael b. Yosefcited by R. Yosef Nachmias Yirmeyahu 31:29About R. Yosef Nachmias 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.
Which sins? Many of these commentators apply this principle across the board to all types of sins. Some sources,119 though, limit it to when successive generations worship idolatry.120 This restriction significantly reduces the number of cases in which children are punished for the sins of their parents, and conversely, allows for the expansion of who is included in the category of "לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי" to all non-idolaters.121
Moral justification – Shadal asks why it is fair that children who follow in their parents' footsteps should be punished also for their parents' sins and not just for their own.122 These commentators offer several suggestions:
  • 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.
  • RehabilitationRalbagShemot 20:4-5Shemot 34:7-9Yehoshua 7:1About R. Levi b. Gershom, 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 MosheShemot 20:5About R. Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi, 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
Which generations of sinners are punished?
  • 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.
What form of punishment?
  • Death and wiping out of the sinner's bloodline – Pesikta DeRav Kahana, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, and Seforno.133
  • All types and degrees – R. Saadia, Radak.134
Adult progeny or minors? Radak and R"Y Nachmias maintain that minors are considered the personal property of the parents and may be punished even if they have not yet continued in their parents' sinful ways.135
4th generation and the sin of the Amorites – According to Rashbam, Ramban, and Seforno, the sins of the Amorites were cumulative and reached critical mass by the fourth generation.136
Targeting of the family in Vayikra 20 – This approach rejects the possibility that collective punishment affects innocent people. Thus, Bavli Shevuot, Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and Rashi all follow the SifraKedoshim 10About Sifra in reading collective punishment out of Vayikra 20:5 by limiting it to accomplices.137
Confession for the sins of parents – Bavli Sanhedrin, Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and Rashi all follow the SifraBechukotai 2About Sifra and interpret the verses in Vayikra 26:39-40 to refer to a case where the children continue their parents' sins.
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of their parents.138 This approach would maintain that these all refer to cases where the children are continuing in their parents' evil ways.139
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7 – Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, R. Saadia GaonHaNivchar BaEmunot UvaDeiot 5:2About R. Saadia Gaon, and Rashi all reinterpret Devarim 7:10 to refer to the small reward which the wicked get in this world so that they will receive their full measure of punishment in the World to Come.140 However, Rashbam,141 Ibn Ezra,142 and others say that the verse refers to the punishment received by the sinner.143
Punishing the children of an עיר הנדחת‎ – Ramban (citing the Sifre DevarimDevarim 94About Sifre Devarim) rejects the possibility that innocent children are killed. It is possible, though, that Radak and R"Y Nachmias, who say that minor children are considered their parents' property, would also claim that in an apostate city they are punished along with their parents.
"אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ" in Devarim 24 and human implementation
  • 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
Historical cases and Divine implementation – This approach must account for all of the Biblical cases which appear to be collective or vicarious punishment of innocents. The commentators do so by employing four basic methods:
  • 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.
Punishment of only the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel – Radak explains that the prophecies of both Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel conform precisely to the Torah's two rules that each person always receives punishment for their own sins and that children who follow their parents in worshipping idols are doubly punished.159 On this backdrop, he says:
  • 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
While Radak's approach is able to reconcile the verses from Yechezkel, the Pesikta and R. Saadia (who say that a sinner is punished only if his descendants are also wicked) will have difficulty understanding Yechezkel's verdict that every sinner is punished regardless of the conduct of his ancestors or descendants. This also poses a problem for the commentators like Ibn Ezra who maintain that Hashem punishes only the fourth consecutive generation of sinners.166
Individual or national – Most of these commentators discuss punishment on the individual level, but Radak applies the principle on the national level as well.
"פֹּקֵד" – Within this general approach, there are a number of possible meanings of the word:
  • Remember – Ibn Ezra explains that Hashem remembers the sins of the first three generations.
  • Avenge – Targum Onkelos, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Ramban.167
  • Store up – R. Saadia according to R"Y Nachmias's first possibility.168
  • Reduce – R. Saadia according to R"Y Nachmias's second possibility.169
"לְשֹׂנְאָי" – Commentators disagree whether this term refers to the children or parents:
  • 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.
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי"
  • 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
"רִבֵּעִים" and "לַאֲלָפִים" – R. Yishmael b. Yosef cited by R"Y Nachmias suggests that both of these simply mean for eternity, and that there is no difference between how Hashem relates to virtue and sin.174 R"Y Nachmias, while noting that this theory could explain cases like Eli in which a punishment is promised for eternity,175 nevertheless rejects it as it does not explain why the Torah would have differentiated between the numbers for reward and punishment.
Moshe's concerns about Divine justice – The Mekhilta portrays Moshe's concern that Hashem will punish people more than they deserve, and his relief upon thinking that there would never be a case of four consecutive sinners.176 Similarly, the Bavli depicts Moshe as asking Hashem why sometimes the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, and Hashem responding that these are people who are not completely righteous or wicked.

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

Dynamics of Divine justice – According to this approach, Divine justice is neither vicarious nor collective, and the actions of others have no impact whatsoever on the reward or punishment received by the individual.180
What about "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים"?
  • 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
Hashem and Moshe's usages of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" – R. Reggio proves from the context of the Decalogue that the phrase comes to buttress the prohibition of idolatry and explain why Hashem is superior to all other gods, rather than simply to instill a fear of the consequences of Divine wrath. According to him, the Torah is saying that the proof that Hashem is the true God is from His ability to constantly and eternally reward and punish.184 R. Reggio adds that the reason the Torah specifically uses the phrase "עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" is to teach that having wicked parents is not considered extenuating circumstances and does not allow one to evade punishment. However, this approach encounters difficulty in understanding why Moshe would have included "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" while praying for mercy.
Moral justification and uniform application – According to these sources, every sinner (both parents and children) receives their deserved punishment, and there is no distinction between different types of sins or sinners.
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי" and merits of the Patriarchs – R. Reggio similarly interprets this phrase as describing how Hashem gives each person their just due. Thus, he reads it as simply saying that Hashem will always bestow kindness upon (only) those who are righteous,185 and not as referring to any special Divine favor transmitted from one generation to another.186 In similar fashion, R. Reggio explains that our prayers which mention the merits of our Patriarchs are merely intended to inspire us to emulate their actions so that we will then become worthy of Divine grace.187
Targeting of the family in Vayikra 20 – R. Reggio proposes that the word "וּבְמִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ" in Vayikra 20:5 does not mean his family, but rather refers to those who act similarly (to the sinner).188
Confession for the sins of parents – Shadal in Ohev Ger explains that Vayikra 26:39-40 and similar verses refer to the sins learned from parents, rather than the sins of the parents themselves.189
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of their parents.190 Of them, R. Reggio suggests that Yeshayahu 14:21 and Tehillim 109:14 are merely poetic language.191
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7 – R. Reggio says that sometimes Hashem punishes the sinner immediately, but that at other times He waits to punish.192 These latter cases, he notes, account for the phenomenon of רשע וטוב לו.
Punishing the children of an עיר הנדחת‎ – According to R. Reggio, only the idolaters are killed, but innocent children are spared.193
"אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ" in Devarim 24 and human implementation – Bemidbar Rabbah understands Devarim 24:16 to be speaking of the Divine way of justice after Moshe's intercession.194
Historical cases and Divine implementation
  • 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.
Yoshiyahu and the roots of the erroneous notion of vicarious punishment – R. Reggio suggests that the belief that children are punished for the sins of parents originated with an attempt to explain Yoshiyahu's death in battle despite his generally exemplary and righteous conduct.195 R. Reggio, though, argues that this was a misconception, and that the real reason for Yoshiyahu being punished was that he did not consult with Yirmeyahu before waging war.
Punishment of only the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel – According to Bavli Makkot, these verses depict a newly updated concept of Divine justice, and one must analyze what caused this change.196 According to the other sources, these verses simply reflect how Hashem always administered justice.
"לְשֹׂנְאָי" – R. Reggio claims that "לְשֹׂנְאָי", like its counterpart "לְאֹהֲבַי" in the following verse, must refer to the children.197
"רִבֵּעִים" and "לַאֲלָפִים" – R. Reggio understands "רִבֵּעִים" literally as the number of generations that the original sinner might see in his lifetime, and he says that the Torah is emphasizing that the father is being punished by witnessing the punishment of his descendants and knowing that he is responsible.198 Like Ibn Ezra, though, he understands "לַאֲלָפִים" to mean forever.199
Moshe's concerns about Divine justice – Bemidbar Rabbah depicts Moshe as challenging Hashem's system of vicarious justice, and Hashem acknowledging the correctness of Moshe's point and changing His ways.

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.

Dynamics of Divine justice – Hashem punishes only for the individual's own sins, and He never administers vicarious or collective punishment,201 and thus every person has control of their own destiny. On the other hand, a person's potential is evaluated in light of their lineage and their ancestors' track record, and this affects the number of chances they are given to repent. Hashem punishes only as a last resort, after all hopes for repentance or for righteous offspring have been exhausted, and therefore He does so only after the sin has been ingrained for three generations.202 Conversely, the virtues of a righteous ancestor protect the next three generations of his descendants from being punished, even if they sin.203
What about "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים"? According to this approach, the verse means that Hashem remembers or stores the sins of parents and waits to see how the subsequent three generations (their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) will conduct themselves. If all of these sin, Hashem waits no longer and punishes the great-grandchildren for their own sins.204 If, however, any of the generations were righteous, Hashem does not punish anyone.205
Hashem and Moshe's usages of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" – When Hashem uses the phrase in the Decalogue, He is warning the people that if they and their descendants sin, their actions will ultimately catch up with them and their descendants will be punished.206 However, when Moshe uses the expression, he is appealing for Divine mercy that will withhold immediate punishment and give the sinner and his descendants a chance to survive and repent. The fact that Moshe includes "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת" in his prayers proves, according to R"Y Bekhor Shor, that it constitutes an attribute of mercy.207
Which sins and punishments? According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, the principle deals with capital crimes, and when there are four consecutive sinners, the fourth dies without an opportunity to produce any offspring.208
Moral justification – According to this approach, Hashem is merciful and never punishes anyone unless they have sinned and there is no potential for repentance.
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי" – R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that extra Divine reward similarly applies only to consecutive righteous generations,209 but not to sinners.210
4th generation and the sin of the Amorites – R"Y Bekhor Shor applies the same Divine principles of justice to non-Jews as well. Thus, he explains, Hashem waited for the fourth consecutive generation of Amorites to sin before wiping them out.
Targeting of the family in Vayikra 20 – R"Y Bekhor Shor maintains that "וּבְמִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ" in Vayikra 20:5 refers to those who abetted the crime, rather than to family.211
Confession for the sins of parents – This approach would say that Vayikra 26:39-40 and similar verses refer to a case where the children continue their parents' sins.
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of their parents.212 This position would explain that these all refer to cases where the children themselves sinned213 and were following in the path of several generations of their ancestors.
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7 – This approach could explain that Devarim 7:10 refers to the fourth consecutive generation of sinners.
"אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ" in Devarim 24 and human implementation – R"Y Bekhor Shor understands Devarim 24:16214 to be referring to Divine judgment215 in a case of consecutive generations of sinners.
Historical cases and Divine implementation – Mekhilta DeRashbi and R"Y Bekhor Shor read the promise to Yehu that his dynasty will last for four generations, as a fulfillment of the principle that punishment is deferred until the fourth generation.216 This approach, though, will encounter considerable difficulty in explaining all of the other cases in Tanakh in which the sinner and/or his descendants are punished without there being any indication that this followed prior consecutive generations of sinners.
Punishment of only the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel – While this position matches the prescription in Yechezkel that no person suffers for another's sins,217 it does not accord with the verdict there that the wicked person dies for his sins even though he is the son of a righteous person and not the fourth consecutive generation of sinners.218
"פֹּקֵד" – R. Yehuda in Mekhilta DeRashbi defines the word as to gather and store up, while R"Y Bekhor Shor may be interpreting it as to remember.219
"רִבֵּעִים" and "לַאֲלָפִים" – R"Y Bekhor Shor explains that the distinction between the terms is because in the case of the sinner, his bloodline ceases to exist after four generations, and there are no subsequent generations of which to speak.

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.

Sources: Second interpretation in Mishnat R. Eliezer5About Mishnat R. Eliezer220
Dynamics of Divine justice – Hashem punishes only for the individual's own sins, and He never administers vicarious or collective punishment,221 and thus every person has control of their own destiny. However, an evaluation of a person's complete legacy must take into account the impact he has on future generations.222 Therefore, Hashem views righteous descendants as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to punish a sinner.223 Moreover, since a person can be evaluated only in retrospect, a sinner is placed on probation pending a review of the conduct of his descendants.224
What about "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים"? According to Mishnat R. Eliezer, the verse means that Hashem remembers or stores the sins of parents and waits to see how the subsequent four generations conduct themselves. If all of these are sinners, Hashem punishes the parents for their own sins, but if any of the generations were righteous, Hashem does not punish anyone.225
Hashem and Moshe's usages of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" – When Hashem uses the phrase in the Decalogue, He is reminding the people that if they and their descendants sin, they will ultimately be punished. However, when Moshe uses the expression, he is appealing for Divine mercy that will withhold immediate punishment and give the sinner's descendants an opportunity to atone for him. Mishnat R. Eliezer attempts to prove from this latter context that the words must be an attribute of mercy.226
What form of punishment? Mishnat R. Eliezer applies this to both punishments in this world and in the World to Come.
Adult progeny or minors? According to Mishnat R. Eliezer, both can play a role in saving their parents. Adult descendants, through their righteous actions, can save any of the previous four generations of their ancestors from punishment, while the death of young children atones for the sins of their biological parents.227
Moral justification – According to this approach, Hashem is merciful and never punishes anyone unless they have both sinned and not produced any meritorious descendants.
Historical cases and Divine implementation
  • 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.
"וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי" – It is unclear how Mishnat R. Eliezer explains this process and whether it is parallel to "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת".
Targeting of the sinner and his family in Vayikra 20 – Mishnat R. Eliezer might explain that Hashem is punishing the sinner because his descendants are also wicked.
Confession for the sins of parents – Mishnat R. Eliezer might explain that the descendants are atoning for their ancestors' sins.
Children being punished – There are several verses in Neviim Acharonim and Ketuvim which imply that children are punished for the sins of their parents.231 It is unclear how Mishnat R. Eliezer would explain them.
Immediate punishment of the sinner in Devarim 7 – Mishnat R. Eliezer would likely interpret Devarim 7:10 to mean that the sinner will be punished in his lifetime, if his descendants are wicked.
Punishment of the sinner himself in Yirmeyahu and Yechezkel – Mishnat R. Eliezer must explain Yechezkel's statement that a wicked person dies for his sins even though he has a righteous son. It is possible that in this case the father's sins were too grievous for the son to atone for them.232
"פֹּקֵד" – Mishnat R. Eliezer interprets the word as to keep hanging pending further developments.
"רִבֵּעִים" – Mishnat R. Eliezer counts four generations, not including the sinner himself, as per the verse in Shemot 34 which lists also "בְּנֵי בָנִים".
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