In parshas Ki Tavo there is much talk in the curse section about parents eating their own children, G-d forbid. We understand this came into fruition in the time of the first Temple's destruction. Question is: How is this possible for Jewish people? Even in the worst of situations there are countless stories of the incredible selflessness, and Chasidus explains that this is because of the G-dly Soul in every one of us.

I personally know someone who recalls that during the holocaust her mother would get a single crust of bread per day and would break it into prices for her children to eat while the mother would not eat any of it. We are known for rising up against physical things especially in the most difficult of situations. How do we understand the Torah setting this as a consequence?

Further Rashi comments, "because they will be besieging the city and there will be distress there - the oppression of hunger." So we are talking about something within the bounds of nature - not a Divinely inspired sense of selfishness coming on the people.

  • Even in the worst of situations there are countless stories of the incredible selflessness just because there are some, or even many, examples of selflessness does not mean that there are no examples of hunger winning out.
    – mevaqesh
    Aug 12, 2016 at 5:48
  • 1
    A holocaust survivor I know told me that he remembers cannibalism taking place during the holocaust.
    – Mennyg
    Aug 12, 2016 at 6:04

6 Answers 6


I wonder whether perhaps it's related to the fact that idolatry was rampant in those times (the urge towards it was abolished early in the Second Temple period, at the urgent request of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah – Yoma 69b and Sanhedrin 64a).

We find that some idolatrous ceremonies involved putting one's children in danger, or even killing them, G-d forbid (see, for example, Deut. 12:31 and Jer. 7:31). For people who have already come to consider such degradation something normal, then, perhaps even cannibalizing those same children wouldn't be beyond the pale?


Not to split hairs on the horrific nature of that particular curse and the horrific nature of events that occurred during the period of the destruction of the Beith HaMikdash and the Holocaust and the many times in history when we have been made to suffer.

But I think you are making a leap from one horror spelled out in the Pasuk to another horror that you are assuming it means. The Pasuk does not say that, in times during which the curse is in place, the parents will kill and eat the children, only that they will eat them; they will have already died (of whatever cause), and the hunger will be unbearable that the parents will have no choice but to do the unthinkable. It's a horror I don't wish to dwell on, so I will leave it there.


Let me preface my answer by reminding you that this account of cannibalism does not come from a concerted historical account. Quite the contrary - we read about it out of a dirge, from writings meant to evoke pity and remind the later generations of that horrible war. Thus we don't know if this was an isolated case among a very selfless population or a common occurrence because the story was handpicked to produce the effect of horror, especially siting how even the Zealots were horrified by what their actions (of burning for food stocks) caused.

Let me list a few suggestions in order of increasing Chezkas Hashrus:

  1. In every generation there are low-lives capable of doing terrible things (no matter what moral inspiration you think the presence of the Temple was.) In fact, if there were none in that generation the nation would not be in the mess, be it for reason of senseless hatred to which we ascribe the downfall, or the specific heinous actions of the Zealots.

  2. Alex makes a good point, above: killing one's child may not have been so far-fetched. If she was indeed going on an idolatrous habit of thought, she might have even thought that appealing to another god who appreciates such a dear sacrifice would bring some relief.

  3. Her situation may be even more complex. Let's not be hasty and assume she wanted to survive at her child's expense. Seeing no end to the crisis, she was terrified of letting her child die a most painful form of death. Perhaps, you might say, blinded by this maternal terror, she did what she thought was most merciful for the child. Once dead, there are many reasons for why she should eat the corpse. Halochically, she is not allowed to die if there is a way out. Remember, her murder is behind her now, and whatever the verdict on that act she cannot sentence herself to some death of solidarity with her child. More generally, whatever her beliefs were, her moral sense may have told her that she must continue living for herself or perhaps for others. For all you know there are other people under her care who will die without her!

  • Igor, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for the interesting, creative, and thoughtful answer! We'd love to have you as a fully-registered member, which you can accomplish by clicking register, above.
    – Isaac Moses
    Aug 25, 2010 at 22:21
  • Downvoting, becuase Midrash Eicha has stories about canibalism. It's not a mere dirge. I think Alex has the better answer.
    – Chanoch
    Aug 31, 2010 at 0:32
  • Upvoting because it's a nice thorough answer
    – chaimp
    Sep 3, 2010 at 5:52
  • Igor, thank you for the nice thorough answer. Regarding point #3, "For all you know there are other people under her care who will die without her", I believe it's explained in the Pshat (it could be Rashi or maybe even says explicitly - I don't remember) that she would do this in secret as to not have to share with anyone.
    – chaimp
    Sep 3, 2010 at 5:55
  • 1
    Chanoch, I don't know what is "mere" about a dirge, and an emotional one at that.
    – Double AA
    Dec 2, 2012 at 17:46

(I'm adding a possible answer to my own question...)

I have googled and found this logical statement in regard to animals eating their young: "If there are too many animals in a limited area, the whole group may die out, due to too little food being available. If many of the animals die, the food supply goes further and the survivors can produce young when conditions are ideal."

The idea is that is the natural thing that an animal might think to do for survival of the entire species.

However, we as Jews have historically been known to sacrifice everything for the sake of our children as we understand that our entire survival as a people is based on how we educate and raise our children. Jewish parents are generally known for making big sacrifices for their children seemingly naturally. And we certainly have cases of even besieging and hunger, like during the holocaust, where parents even sacrificed their lives for their children, based on the slight hope that their children will some out make it out of there, and many of them did and are a living proof to the courage of incredible giving of Jewish parents.

So, why does Rashi give that answer - that we would do what's logical for a group of animals under similar conditions? I think that maybe that's the curse.

That's why this is a curse explicitly and not just a warning that "If you do X, Y will happen."


By the sound of it and going through those stories we may say that desperate times call for desperate measures, but even then they have limits. A typical mother would emplace her own life than ever eat the flesh of her own child, yet even then the sins of the times were so great that they brought about such chaos.

You can look at it as a possessed being, especially for an act so gruesome. Mankind is always ruled by the ruach (spirit) within one's hear. Thus we as am yisroel try to always receive the ruach hakodesh (holy spirirt) in all of our traits which is what the Torah helps us acquire through its commandments. In order that we not come to be ruled by these entities of the opposite force (sitra achra) which may lead anyone whether smart educated in books or whoever it may be to become the opposite of their character. Everything we do, the way we spoke how we dress, how we communicate, what we eat, all of these within our daily affairs work with the spirit within the person.

  • Would you say that the curse caused these mothers to lose their ability to choose?
    – chaimp
    Sep 3, 2010 at 5:50
  • yes, because they removed from themselves the yoke of heaven to go towards idol worship or whatever it was that was not towards hashem torah and mitsvot which gives am yisroel its freedom, thus they lost all freedom including to chose the life of their own children.
    – Koachyah
    Sep 5, 2010 at 12:19

I think this is a question is Philosophical more than practical but here is a practical answer bordering on Philosophical .It says Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world that is the Torah establishes reality. Meaning if it says in the Torah it will happen than that is the reality and Hence it happened and is possible for Jewish people since the Torah said so creating the reality of the Situation.

  • I think the question is founded on the observation that it is not, in fact, the reality that Jewish mothers would chas veshalom --- their own -------- even in the most dire circumstances. How do you recognize this Torah-derived reality with this passage in the Torah? – Isaac Moses 0 secs ago
    – Isaac Moses
    Aug 24, 2010 at 4:52
  • The Medrash Eicha has stories where it happened I am telling him Why Aug 24, 2010 at 12:28

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