reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
The fathers shall not be put to death for the children and the children shall not be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (24:16)
A well-known difficulty faces the student of this text. Does it not directly contradict the passage in the Decalogue which reads: “visiting the sins of the fathers on the children and on the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me?” Many commentators have proposed an answer to this difficulty all in the same strain: With his usual acumen Ibn Ezra comments:
The text “the fathers shall not be put to death for the children’ is a command to Israel: the passage: “visiting the sins of the fathers on the children …” refers to the Visitor Himself”
Rashbam briefly and simply notes:
Our text is addressed to the court of justice as in 2 Kings 14:6, where it is stated: “The sons of the slayer he did nut kill. as written in the Law of Moses: ‘The children shall not be put to death for the fathers.'” But the Holy One blessed be He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children when they continue to emulate the deeds of their fathers… to destroy their inheritance, but not through the court.
An added reasoning is given to this distinction between the working of mortal and Divine justice by Ibn Kaspi:
The fathers shall not be put to death for the children through judicial penalty since it would not be right to implement the visiting of the fathers iniquitirs on the children through anyone else but God who formed the human soul and knows the calculation of iniquities.
Admittedly we see in the everyday reality around us bow the criminal behavior of parents, their irresponsibility and license has had its tragic repercussions on their children’, demoralized by parental example. What greater punishment can there be for children for their parents’ transgressions? But a mortal judge cannot imitate the deeds of the Creator and the wars of His providence in the world. He must remain within the narrow and clearly defined limits set him by the Torah. He must judge each man by his deeds and the testimony of witnesses.
Rabbi Ishmael observed in Midrash Tannaim:
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children”. What was the need for this text? Because another text states: “Visiting the sins of the fathers on the children”. I might infer that this applies even to those who have been sentenced to death by the court. The text therefore informs us: ”The fathers shall not be put to death fur the sins of the children.”
The plain meaning of the text then is that children should not be judicially punished For the sins of their parents and vice versa. Sforno sets this out in detail:
Even for the sin of treason against the Israelite monarchy when it was the custom of ancient kings to kill the children to prevent them avenging themselves against them as In Isaiah 14:21:”Prepare ye slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers that they rise not up and possess the earth and fill the face of the world with enemies”. The Torah forbad outright the kings of Israel to adopt such a practice, out of the compassion of the Lord for His people. This precept was honored by Amaziah king of Judah (2 Chronicles 15:4-5) about whom it is stated: “And it came to pass when the kingdom was restored to him that he killed his servant who had smitten the king, his father, but their sons be did not kill, as written in the book of Moses wherein the Lord had commanded saying: The fathers shall not be put to death for the sons and sons for the fathers”.
But another interpretation is put upon the text by our Sages (cited by Rashi) in Sanhedrin 27b:
What is the implication of the text “The fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of the children?” If it implies the fathers shall be put to death For the iniquity of the fathers, that has already been stated (Deut. ibid.): “every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” But the text implies that the Fathers shall not be put to death on the testimony of the children and the children on the testimony of their fathers.
Since our Sages did not conceive that the Torah could be guilty of repetition or tautology, they did not adopt the literal explanation followed by other commentators in which we have the same idea repeated, once negatively and then affirmatively purely for emphasis. This parallelism which is particularly frequent in the poetic parts of Scripture is inconceivable in a legal code where every word must need to add some- thing new. They therefore explained the two parts of the verse differently. The first part – the negative formulation – they understood as forbidding sentence of death on the evidence of relatives of the accused, the second – affirmative formulation – that a man should only suffer for his own deeds and not for those of others. But there is another reason – not purely formalistic or stylistic – an inner reason which prompted their explanation.
This is given by Malbim:
It is inconceivable to explain the text literally. in the sense of a command to the court not to sentence fathers for the sins of their children and vice versa. For how could it enter one’s mind that the court regarding which Scripture admonished “the congregation shall judge … the congregation shall deliver” implying thep are obliged to exhaust every conceivable loophole to acquit the accused. should sentence him to death for the sin of others?
Other commentators go even further, arguing how is it possible to imagine such a thing, when the murderer himself is only put do death for his own crime, when there are witnesses and he was given due warning of the consequences of his crime and when there was a proper cross-examination. Only when there is not the shadow of a doubt about his guilt – that he perpetrated his crime with malice a forethought in front of witnesses, only then, is he executed.
We can certainly not imagine that the Torah should allow a man to be punished for the sin of another. Our Sages therefore understood the text in the sense of disqualifying the evidence of children and fathers in a capital case. Jewish law extends this to all relatives of the accused. Here is the explanation of this ruling given in Sefer Ha-hinukh:
Human affairs are chiefly and principally dependent on human testimony. God therefore wished that human justice should be executed only an the basis of the strongest and most authentic evidence. above all suspicion. To this end Me disqualified the testimony of all relatives. even to condemn lest it lead to acceptance of their favorable evidence on each other. This exemplifies the ways of the perfect Torah which always keeps us far from things liable to mislead and cause harm to man. There is yet another advantage in this ruling. Relatives are often together, and in each other’s way. It is impossible that they should not occasionally fall out and if we were to believe their evidence against each other. Perhaps prompted by the anger of the moment, they would betake themselves to the judge who would be off with their heads to the king. But when his anger subsided the relative would want to hang himself for what he had caused his kinsman. All the ways of the Lord are upright.
Nevertheless the two passages we have quoted from Kings and Chronicles respectively that describe Amaziah’s conduct would seem to contradict our Sages’ explanation of our text. Here are the passages in full:
And it came to pass when the kingdom was strengthened in his hand that he smote his servants who had slain the king his father. But the sons of the murderers he did not put to death, as written in the book of the Law of Moses whereto the Lord commanded saying: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children neither shall the children be put to death For the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (2 Kings 14:5-6) And he slew his servants who had smitten the king his father; but their sons he did not put to death; for as written in the law of the book of Moses wherein the: Lord commanded saying: “The fathers shall not be put to death For the children neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” (2 Chronicles 25:3-4)
In the above passages the Biblical text is understood in its literal and not in its homiletic sense, as punishment for the sin of the fathers and not on the testimony of fathers”. The upholders of the literal explanation indeed adduce this as support far their contention.
But the author of Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbalah states an important general principle of interpretation in answer to this difficulty. The sacred text admits of more than one explanation. There are many levels of meaning, but none of the expositions and exegesis read into the text by our Sages override the literal sense – on first reading.
This principle was stated by the Sages themselves in their dictim: “The Scripture can never be divorced from its plain meaning.” Rashi observes on this dictim:
Though the text is expounded in, its homiletic sense it never completely loses its literal significance.
This is a fundamental principle which should be ever In front of the student of the Torah. The best proof of it is from the text we have studied.