I am aware that the concept of reward and punishment is difficult, and often requires a complex understanding. However, there are places where the Mishna or Gemara claims a specific punishment for a specific sin. The most well known example is probably found in the second chapter of Shabbat, where it says, "for 3 sins women die in childbirth: not being careful about niddah, challah and candlelighting". Another example is the statement that particular disabilities of children, such as blindness or muteness, are the result of parental sexual sins.

This seems difficult to reconcile with the reality that not everyone who gets these punishments has neccesarily committed these sins. How do commentators or others deal with this? Does anyone take these passages non-literally? If so, what do they say?

  • 6
    I don't know if anyone goes in this direction, but remember that "A implies B" does not imply that "B implies A". Saying that a certain sin is punished with a certain outcome doesn't mean that all who have that outcome have it as a result of that sin. Sep 7, 2012 at 18:00
  • 1
    @MonicaCellio This should be the official answer. It just needs to be backed by a source.
    – user1292
    Sep 7, 2012 at 20:45
  • @mochinrechavim it's a logical argument, inherently unsourced. The question asks how "commentators or others" deal with this; while, technically, I'm an "other", I don't think that's what OP meant. :-) If I had a source for someone making that (or another) argument I'd post that as an answer. Sep 7, 2012 at 20:56
  • If others have an answer that speaks to them and works with their theology, I'd consider that an acceptable answer, though the standards here tend to prefer sourced answers.
    – Ze'ev
    Sep 7, 2012 at 22:43
  • 2
    My issue with @MonicaCellio's answer (also mentioned by hodofhod below) is that in both cases, the language there seems pretty clear that this is THE reason. 'For 3 sins, X punishment happens' suggests that only these three. 'Why are children born mute? {sin x}' implies only sin x is punished that way, no?
    – Ze'ev
    Sep 9, 2012 at 5:19

2 Answers 2


R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Iggeres HaTeshuva that

But even if one has incurred excision or death, there yet remains an impression within him of his Divine soul, and through this he may live until fifty (in the case of excision) or sixty years (in the case of death by divine agency), but no more.

In the next chapter, however, he says that

However, all this obtained when Israel was on an elevated plane, when the Divine Presence dwelt among Israel1 in the Beit HaMikdash. Then the body received its vitality only through the divine soul, from the innermost source of the life-giving power issuing from the Infinite One, through the Tetragrammaton, as discussed above. But they then fell from their estate, and through their actions brought about the mystic exile of the Divine Presence, This means that the benevolence flowing forth from the above-mentioned latter hei of the Tetragrammaton was lowered far down, from plane to plane, until it became enclothed in the Ten Sefirot of nogah, which transmit the benevolence and vitality through the hosts of heaven and those charged over them, to every living physical being in this world, even to vegetation, as our Sages state: “There is no blade of grass below that has no spirit [Above that smites it and commands it: Grow!]” Hence, even the sinful and deliberate transgressors of Israel may receive vitality [from it] for their bodies and animal souls, exactly as other living creatures do...

Hence the statement of our Sages, of blessed memory: “It is not within our hands (i.e., it is not given us) to understand the reason for either the tranquillity of the wicked [or the suffering of the righteous].” The quotation specifies “in our hands,” i.e., in this time of exile after the Destruction

In other words, there is a spiritual system laid out in the Torah - Do mitzvos and get a reward. Do aveiros and get punished. It worked in the time of the Beis Hamikdash as our physical life and sustenance was given through the "direct flow" of G-dliness. Therefore, someone that was punishable for the death penalty in the heavenly court would die right away, as he had no source from which to live. However, nowadays we are in exile, and not just physically but also spiritually. Therefore, our life-force comes through the impure-side (which gets its life-force from the Makkif [the G-dly light which comes through without limitations]). Therefore, we do not always have a correlation between doing mitzvas and reward (and lack of mitzvas and lack of reward).

  • That's fine in the general case of "Hey, Bob is a big sinner but he won the lotto. And Shmulie is super righteous and his family is so poor." But when Shmulie's wife dies in childbirth, do I say (to myself) clearly she wasn't observant enough of niddah, challah & candlelighting?
    – Ze'ev
    Sep 7, 2012 at 22:41
  • 1
    @ze'ev don't make the mistake of "post hoc ergo propter hoc". Not keeping those Mitzvos may cause death in childbirth (or might have used to) but that doesn't mean that every childbirth death is because of it.
    – HodofHod
    Sep 8, 2012 at 1:39

The Bartenura explains what the sages are saying with this Mishna. Childbirth is a time of danger. As such, it is particularly susceptible to punishment. (Rashi in Bereshit 44:29 tells us that Satan accuses during a time of danger)

The Mishna lists 3 Mitzvot that she is responsible for, and says if she was lax in doing the Mitzvot she was responsible for, she may be punished when she is in danger.

Obviously, if she has some other transgressions, she could be punished for them during childbirth (or for that matter, any time of danger). On the flip side, even if she was guilty of these (and other transgressions) she may be protected due to meritorious acts that she had performed (see Kohelet Rabba 7:32)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .