Many Biblical and Rabbinic sources speak of the Earthy retribution - a person suffers (is justly punished) in this Earthy world because of the sins of previous generations. For example,

"אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי׃" - For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me" Exodus.20.5

In fact, billions of people (Jews included) through history suffered from starvation, enslavement, wars, diseases, and more, and rabbis often ascribe all that to their "ancestral sins".

But why isn't Heavenly judgment exhaustive to punish a person for all his sins and continue no suffering onto the following generations?

Please refrain from referring to our intellectual inferiority.

  • 1
    From a Justice perspective, it would suffice. BUT.... (1) People in this world wouldn't be improved; so this world would be a much worse place. And (2) negative consequences when we are still capable of changing ourselves (such as teshuvah) is more merciful -- less pain to achieve the same results. Dec 1 '20 at 21:14
  • Is the question just about later generations, or - as would seem from the logic - should you also be asking why there are ever punishments (and rewards!) in this world? [See 2nd paragraph of Shema.] If that is really the question, I think it's backwards: Reward and punishment in this world, midah k'neged midah, is part of the ideal system.
    – MichoelR
    Dec 1 '20 at 21:58
  • 1
    "Please refrain from referring to our intellectual inferiority." What's that about?
    – MichoelR
    Dec 2 '20 at 2:32
  • @MichoelR Many use our seeming intellectual inferiority as an excuse for answering questions - "we couldn't understand that", "that's beyond us" etc.
    – Al Berko
    Dec 15 '20 at 21:04
  • Perhaps it is true, in some cases? If you're asking a serious question, I don't see how you can rule out that as being the right answer.
    – MichoelR
    Dec 16 '20 at 23:58

Since I do not think that G-d has emotions and since I agree with Maimonides that G-d does not become angry, it does not make sense that G-d would punish innocent people for generations. I take another approach.

I think Maimonides answered this well. I just read an excellent essay today by Professor Warren Zev Harvey about Jewish views of evil. In the essay, Harvey reveals that Maimonides felt that the Babylonians and Romans destroyed the Temples because Jews focused on bad theology, not military preparations (Art of war).[1] Thus, Rambam writes that all evil is the deprivation of knowledge. Rather than attribute the evils of the world to devils or satans, Rambam points evil to humanity. It is man’s responsibility to repulse evil. And it is man's fault for bringing evil into the world. Not a cosmic force.

This is also the view of Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits. He felt that “because of our sins,” was “[no longer] a satisfactory explanation.”[2]

The verse, “and that by no means clears the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation,” means that people should realize that every act, whether good or bad has consequences. People should be responsible because some actions can have long-lasting effects that may last for generations. Before the Native American Indians made any decision or new policy, they would always consult their wise leaders and took into consideration at least seven generations in the future. This wise teaching can be found in the Bible.

[1] I credit this to Rabbi Natan Slifkin who pointed this out to me in Rambam’s letter to the Jews of Marseilles

[2] See his book G-d, Man and history, Crisis and Faith. And Major Themes in Modern Jewish Philosophy


No one is punished only because of ancestral sins.

The Torah very clearly says לא יומתו אבות על בנים and איש בחטאו יומתו (Devarim 24:15)

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 27B) asks about "אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי and answers that this is speaking about a situation where the children are continuing to do the sins of their ancestors so they are getting punished for what they are doing.And even then it only goes on for four generation. Unlike reward which as the posuk continues goes on for two thousand generations.

In fact, billions of people (Jews included) through history suffered from starvation, enslavement, wars, diseases, and more, and rabbis often ascribe all that to their "ancestral sins".

This is too vague of a question to answer but as above "ancestral sins" would not be the only factor in why people suffered from starvation, enslavement, wars, diseases, and more

  • Yechezkel 18 said it before the Gemara did
    – Double AA
    Dec 3 '20 at 1:44
  • if you were saying that nobody suffers because of the sins of his ancestors I would argue, but you didn't address the question at all which was why would anybody suffer, as the judgment could be final.
    – Al Berko
    Dec 5 '20 at 16:20

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