Can Children Die For The Sins Of Their Parents?

Our Sages say when misfortune befalls, one should look at ones deeds. I sometimes ask myself ‘What did I do wrong that my son should pass away? What did he do wrong to cause an early death?’ However, I should be asking a different and much more insightful question. But more on that later. 

Various passages in the Torah and Talmud seem to imply that children can be punished for their parent’s mistakes. I want to fast forward to the end of this post and answer this question straightaway – no, children do not die for the sins of their parents. 

Now that we know the answer to this question, we can calmly proceed to learn where this concept originated and why it doesn’t apply today.

What Does Our Bible Say About Premature Death?

Conflicting Verses In The Torah

The Torah has two passages that imply G-d punishes children for the mistakes of their parents. Discussing the prohibition of idol worship, the Torah states: ‘…You shall not prostrate yourself before them or worship them, for I, the L-rd, your G-d, am a zealous G-d, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me…’ (Exodus 20:5) and ‘…He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.’ (Exodus 34:7) 

This doesn’t seem fair. We know that G-d is just, so what’s going on?

Looking for an explanation, we find the commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (1040-1105). Rashi says that these passages refer to a situation where the children continue in the sinful ways of their parents. But this applies only if the child doesn’t know better. If a child was not taught about G-d and His mitzvos, and just continues doing what the parents did, how can we expect the child to do any different? Today, we live in a society where even the parents weren’t taught properly by their parents, so how can people ignorant of their Judaism be held accountable?

Further on in the Torah, a conflicting passage says ‘…each man shall be put to death for his own transgression’. (Deuteronomy 24:16) Rashi says this passage is saying that a child, ie, one who is not yet a man, may die on account of his father’s transgressions. We learn in Tanach, after King David’s affair with Batsheva, their first infant child died. It seems that David was punished for the affair with Batsheva with the death of his child. King David’s next son with Batsheva was Solomon, and it was through Solomon that David’s posterity was to be realized.

How do we reconcile all these statements as well as Rashi’s commentary? What’s interesting is that the Torah follows the verse in Exodus 20 with a statement of His love saying that G-d: ‘…does kindness for two thousand generations to those who love Me and to those who observe My commandments’ (Exodus 20:6).

Clearly, G-d loves us and only does what is fair and proper. 

The High Spiritual Level Of Olden Days

In Biblical Times Almost Everyone Was A Prophet

A long time ago, the Jewish people were on a very high spiritual level. Our Sages say that at the splitting of the Sea during the Egyptian Exodus, the simplest person saw greater Divine visions than would the later famous prophets. In Biblical times, there were thousands of prophets. In fact, so many people wanted to connect with G-d, that there were actually schools for people who wanted to receive prophetic visions. Sometimes these people became prophets, sometimes they didn’t, but the point is that people were on a high level of spirituality. Of those people who became prophets, only the visions of a few made it into Tanach. 

Quick Punishment For Sin In The Bible

Because the Jewish people were on such an exalted spiritual level, sometimes punishment for a sin was immediate. These people had a clear understanding of the spiritual Heavenly damage that resulted because of the transgression, yet they opposed G-d’s will anyway. Examples of immediate punishment include the plagues in the desert during the Exodus and the skin disease tzaraat for the sin of gossip and slander. In fact, the those who lived during the Temple period did not listen to the prophets who begged them to do teshuvah. They didn’t believe in the concept of teshuvah. They fully understood the spiritual damage their sins caused in Heaven and believed this damage couldn’t be undone. They were wrong, but nonetheless, it shows how spiritually in tune they were.

Our Lowly Spiritual Level Today

Nowadays, we are not on such a high spiritual level. We don’t understand the spiritual consequences of our sins as did the generations of the past. (Maybe ignorance is truly bliss?) The Talmud Makkot 24a recounts that the prophet Ezekiel, well acquainted with the emotional state of his people and those of the coming generations, asked G-d to be lenient. Ezekiel felt it would be too much for the people to bear if children died for their parent’s sins. G-d responded ‘…all lives are Mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins, only he shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)

We also have to remember that a child is not obligated to fulfill mitzvos until the age of bar/bat mitzvah. Even then, one is not liable to Heavenly punishment until age twenty. 

So in our time, children do not die for the sins of their parents. 

Can One Die Prematurely For Sin?

I might ask if one could die prematurely for sin, like for example a young adult, like my Jacob? My Rabbi told me that today G-d gives one ample time to do teshuvah. And because people are not on a high spiritual level, death is not an immediate consequence of sin. After all, G-d told Ezekiel ‘…Do I desire the death of the wicked? says G-d. Is it not rather in his repenting of his ways that he may live?’ (Ezekiel 18:23)

There are myriads of souls in Heaven waiting to come down into physical bodies. Some will pass away early, some will live a long life in this world. I’ve heard that while still in Heaven, the soul actually chooses the parents who will raise it in this physical world. It’s awesome that Jacob chose my husband and me to be his parents. Thank you Jacob!

Now For My Question…

As I said in my post How I’m Coping with the Loss of My Adult Son, a person’s lifespan is determined by G-d’s precise accounting based on what He wants that person to accomplish in this world. My son’s passing wasn’t for something I did nor was it for something he did.

Instead of asking myself why did my son die prematurely, my question should be:

‘Why was I given a child who was going to die?’ 

After all, with so many souls up there in Heaven, G-d could have given me a child who would outlive me. G-d chose not to do so for a reason.

Like in a basketball game, G-d has thrown the ball in my court. What do I do with it, where do I run with it? Clearly, I’m supposed to do something and it probably has to do with goodness, kindness, and making people and G-d happy. Maybe G-d wants me to console others who have lost a child. Maybe He wants me to give more tzedakah. Maybe He wants me to teach people, including myself, how to be better Jews. Maybe I should smile more. Maybe…

The list of things He wants me to do could be endless. Nonetheless, I have to do what I can to make my small corner of the world a better place. Like the prophet Micah says:

‘…He has told you, O man, what is good. What does G-d require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micha 6:8)

I’ll try.

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