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Children Punished for Sins of Parents

How do we understand verses such as Exodus 20:5 (in the Ten Commandments) that God punishes not only sinners, but their descendants till four generations? How is it possibly fair to punish children for that which they did not do?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for the fundamental question. Before anything else, I will answer that this is no longer the case today. The Talmud (Makkot 24a) records that the prophet Ezekiel felt this was too difficult for people to bear. He therefore interceded that God should henceforth deal with His children more compassionately, only punishing people for their own sins. This is as God says to Ezekiel: “The soul that sins – it shall die” (18:4). We are not accountable for anyone else’s actions but our own alone – which admittedly for most of us is difficult enough.

In truth, however, although your question is not practically relevant, it is a very valid question. Why was this God’s original plan, so to speak? How was it fair to judge children for actions they never committed – in fact which might well have been done before they were born?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 27b; see also Targum to Exodus 20:5) answers by noting a contradiction in the verses of the Torah itself. On the one hand, Exodus 34:7 states: “He visits the sins of the fathers on the sons…” On the other, Deuteronomy 24:16 states, “A man shall be put to death for his own sin.” The Talmud answers that when is a person punished for his forebears’ sins – when he follows in their footsteps. If the child learns better but willingly and consciously decides to continue in his parents’ wicked path, then he becomes obligated to rectify not only his own sins but the past family sins he took responsibility for by adopting as his own.

If, however, such a person simply follows his parents’ ways because he does not know better, not only will he not be punished for what his parents did, but no doubt he will be judged much more leniently himself since he had no proper role models to learn from. (This would no doubt be the case even today, after Ezekiel’s intercession.)

It should be stated that although even this somewhat modified principle seems harsh, the Torah immediately continues after one such verse that God “…does kindness to two thousand [generations] to those who love Me and to those who observe My commandments” (Exodus 20:6). Based on this the Midrash concludes that God’s mercy is 500 times greater than his justice (2000/4; Mechilta to that verse, cited in Rashi).

When I was a schoolchild of about ten, I remember reading a library book which described Judaism as a stern, unforgiving religion – in which God punishes not only sinners, but their children as well. (It may have contrasted it to its much gentler and loving successor – Christianity.) Fortunately, even at that tender age, I had enough Jewish background and maturity to realize I was reading complete rubbish. Sadly, there are too many today not sophisticated enough to recognize such.

There is a deeper notion to the concept of God punishing – as well as rewarding – children for their ancestors’ behavior. It is not so much punishment per se, but that a person whose parents were sinful will have that much harder a time improving himself. He was raised on wickedness and poor ethics. They have become his default mindset. He will therefore be obligated to “bear their sins” – having to struggle much harder to outgrow the sinful dispositions and biases which his parents forced upon him.

I discuss this much more fully in the context of a person who hails from righteous ancestors over here.

See also this response which discusses this in the context of the Egyptian plagues.

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