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Devarim 24:16 makes a statement which is central to Jewish theology. The posuk makes clear that a father will not be put to death for the sins of his son and that a son will not be put to death for the sins of his father – the gemara develops this to say that neither shall be put to death through the testimony of the other. Then, to expand on the first part, lest one think that people outside of the family can receive punishment on behalf of others, the verse concludes “ish b’chet’o yumatu” a man, in his own sin, will be put to death. This idea of banning vicarious expiation of sin through the death of another forms a solid challenge to any religious system predicated on the death of another to atone for the sins of a person who remains, effectively, unpunished.

לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת: אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.

However, there is a grammatical problem with the posuk – it states in those final three words “ish (a man) b’chet’o (in his sin) yumatu (they will be put to death, or possibly he will be put to death by them)” – the final vav turns the word “yumat” into some form of a plural. This plural form appears only three other times in tanach. In those, the actions of two parties condemned them both to the death penalty (vayikra 20:13, 16, 27). Here, the verse clearly limits the offender and offense to the singular as an explicit shift from the first part of the posuk with reads “lo yumtu avot” that father*s* shall not be put to death (Onkelos translates both "yumtu" and "yumatu" as "y'mootoon" and T"Yonatan has both being "yitkatlun"). The singular verb (yumat) occurs almost 50 times, both in conjunction with “mot” (as in “mot yumat”) and on its own. Why would this verse switch to a pluralized action and to what does the plural refer? What doesn’t the posuk simply read “ish b’chet’o yumat”?

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2 Answers 2

Sifri (Devarim 280) understands this last clause to be stating an exception to the rule about vicarious punishment: "Fathers [or, per Gra's note: adults] die for their own sins, but sons [Gra: minors] may die for their parents' sins," G-d forbid. (See also Shabbos 32b, which lists several sins that may bear such consequences.)

So the plural form fits with this: "each man, for his sins, they [his children]..."

(Which may also explain why the verse in Kings that DoubleAA cited indeed changes the form: there this particular detail isn't relevant, since it refers specifically to Divine punishment rather than the human-imposed kind.)

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The way the Tora T'mima understands this Sifre, the word "man" in "each man shall die for his sins" is being picked on by the Sifre to exclude children: according to that, the yumasu applies to the adults, not the children, which means that the Sifre doesn't help answer the question above. But it may well be that your way of reading the Sifre is a valid alternative to the TT's. –  msh210 Apr 29 '12 at 4:56
    
@alex so the ish is the father and the plural in yumatu is his sons? Why would the text switch from avot to ish when referring to the same relationship and presenting a subtlety in a subcategory? –  Danno Apr 29 '12 at 16:03
    
@Dan: because the key is the difference between בנים in general (who don't suffer for their father's sins) and those who are not איש (see msh210's comment). –  Alex Apr 29 '12 at 18:30

Well, according to the Navi (II Kings 14:6) it does say it that way:

‏...כַּכָּתוּב בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת-מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת--כִּי אִם-אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָת‏
...according to that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, as the LORD commanded saying: 'The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin.'

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all that does is intensify the question on the grammar in devarim –  Danno Apr 27 '12 at 22:41
    
@Dan It raises much stronger questions than that. –  Double AA Apr 27 '12 at 22:43
    
@DoubleAA: not any more than the fact that the Gemara frequently paraphrases pesukim rather than quoting them word for word. –  Alex Apr 29 '12 at 4:31
    
@Alex This pasuk doesn't give any obvious indication that it is paraphrasing. Also, it seems odd to paraphrase one letter off the end of a word, especially if that letter is as significant as the question implies. –  Double AA Apr 29 '12 at 4:33
    
@DoubleAA: it's not just the one letter, though - there's also the added כי אם. –  Alex Apr 29 '12 at 4:39

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