In Bereshit (21:17) Rashi tells us that the Angels wanted G-d to kill Yishmael, but G-d said that He wouldn't judge him according to his future deeds, but rather according to his present state:

In the place where he is. [I.e.,] he is judged according to his present deeds and not according to what he will do in the future. For the angels were declaiming against [him] and saying, "Master of the universe, for one whose descendants will eventually kill your children with thirst You will provide for him a well?" And He responds to them, "But, what is he now, righteous or wicked?" They respond to Him: "He is righteous." [Whereupon] He responds to them: "It is according to his present deeds that I judge him."

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16B) uses this story to teach us that a person is only judged according to his present deeds (at the time he is being judged).

But in (Sanhedrin 101B), Rashi quotes a Midrash that tells us as follows:

Moshe told G-d, "You have done bad to this nation, because now if they don't have bricks [the Egyptians] put the children of the Jews in the building [in place of the bricks]."

G-d responded to Moshe, "They are destroying thorns [i.e. people of no value]. I know that if they would live they would be wicked (another version: completely wicked). If you want, you can test me and remove one of the children."

Moshe saved a child and it was Micha.

(Micha is said by some to have been the one to create the Golden Calf, and is said by others to be the same Micha who made the "Pesel Micha" at the end of the Book of Judges - see here)

Here we have a child who is completely blameless, yet G-d wants to kill him because of his future sins. Why does this differ from Yishmael?

Many commentaries ask what the difference between Yishmael and the Ben Sorer U'Moreh is: In Devarim (21:18,22), Rashi tells us that a Ben Sorer U'Moreh is killed because if he wasn't killed, he would ultimately become a degenerate:

Verse 18: ...The wayward, rebellious son is executed in consideration of his ignoble end. The Torah penetrates to the logical conclusion of his thought--- ultimately, he will squander his father's fortune, attempt to apply himself to his studies and fail, station himself near an intersection and plunder his fellow creatures; the Torah declares: Let him die in innocence rather than die laden with guilt.

Verse 22: If a man is guilty of a capital offense. The proximity of the chapters teaches that if his mother and father take pity on him, he will ultimately develop into a degenerate, commit transgressions, and be sentenced to death by the courts.

The commentaries give many answers why a Ben Sorer U'Moreh is killed if he hasn't sinned yet. Most of these answers focus on explaining that the Ben Sorer U'Moreh is indeed being judged according to his present actions.

For example, the Mizrachi answers (see here) that the Ben Sorer U'Moreh has already started sinning, so he is not entirely blameless. The Gur Aryeh answers that we are killing him because Torah says that a son who fulfills the criteria of a Ben Sorer U'Moreh should be killed. While it's true that Torah has a reason, namely because of what he will become in the future, Beit Din only kills him because he is now halachically in the category of a Ben Sorer U'Moreh (i.e. because of his present deeds), not because of what he will become.

All these answers make the question about the children used as bricks even stronger. If we only judge based on present actions, why kill the children because of their future actions?

Even the answer given by the Devek Tov, differentiating between Yishmael, whose descendants would sin, and the Ben Sorer U'Moreh, who is himself a sinner, seems to only answer why Yishael wasn't killed. The Devek Tov himself brings a different answer to explain why the Ben Sorer U'Moreh should be killed. He says that the Earthly Bet Din is judging him based on his future actions, but the Heavenly Court only judges based on present actions.

If so, the question remains. Why did the Heavenly Court (G-d) decree to kill the children in Egypt, they presently were not wicked?

  • I've restructured my question to emphasize what I'm looking for, but this may invalidate most of the answers already given. Not sure if this is an issue, discuss on chat.
    – Menachem
    Sep 16, 2011 at 9:37

4 Answers 4


One difference might be that in Yishmael's case, it wasn't he personally who was going to be sinning in the future (indeed, he eventually did teshuvah), but his descendants. Whereas Michah and the ben sorer umoreh will be personally guilty.

Another possibility: We know (see Ohr Hachayim to Gen. 37:21) that in general, Hashem is more reluctant to interfere with people's free will than with anything else in the natural order. In the cases of Michah and the ben sorer umoreh, the killing is being done by people with free will - the Egyptians and (lehavdil) the beis din, respectively. In those cases, then, He won't blatantly interfere to save from their hands people whom He knows are going to grow up to be really wicked. (In the case of the ben sorer umoreh, anyway, the usual rule applies, that "the judge is to follow only what his eyes see" - they can't really know the future.) Whereas with Yishmael, his imminent death was one at the hands of G-d directly, and so it's less of an interference for G-d to countermand that.

  • 1
    The Egyptians were killing people of their own free will and were punished for it. However, it seems like the Beit Din is killing the Ben Sorer U'Moreh only because G-d said to do it (as you said, the Beit Din doesn't know the future) and if G-d hadn't told them to do it they wouldn't do it on their own (since they don't know the future).
    – Menachem
    Sep 9, 2011 at 22:57
  • The Chumas Shai LaMorah brings your first answer in the name of the Devek Tov, but I didn't find it there: hebrewbooks.org/40140
    – Menachem
    Sep 11, 2011 at 2:14
  • @Menachem: thanks - it's on pages 34 and 191 (Acrobat 33 and 190), respectively (in the footnotes). To answer your question, in the latter place he says that it is indeed the job of the beis din to prevent him from committing further sins, and therefore it is appropriate for them to punish him with execution once they see how things are going; by contrast, Hashem can look at the future and see whether indeed he is definitely going to go in that direction or not.
    – Alex
    Sep 11, 2011 at 6:13
  • Thanks, I didn't scroll down far enough to see the footnotes.
    – Menachem
    Sep 11, 2011 at 18:41
  • I've restructured my question to emphasize what I'm looking for, but this may invalidate most of the answers already given. Not sure if this is an issue, discuss on chat.
    – Menachem
    Sep 16, 2011 at 9:40

A friend of mine offered an interesting solution. He pointed out as follows.

The angels didn't say, "His descendants will eventually kill your children with thirst why shouldn't you kill him with thirst?"

Instead, they said, "for one whose descendants will eventually kill your children with thirst You will provide for him a well?".

In other words, my friend posits, G-d had already decided to let him live (perhaps because, as Alex mentioned in his first answer, it wasn't Yishmael who would kill the Jews with thirst, rather his descendants). The angels were now complaining to G-d, "We can understand that you've decided to save Yishmael, but why give him a well? His descendants will kill your children with thirst. Give him enough to survive, don't give him a well to satiate himself with". To which G-d replies that now he is righteous and deserves a well, I won't judge him for what his descendants will do.

If we understand the story with Yishmael this way, the question falls away. We can establish that G-d doesn't have a problem with killing someone now based on their future sins (which is why the Ben Sorer U'Moreh and Michah were both killed based on their future sins), and in the case of Yishmael G-d wasn't planning on killing him.

Is this a good answer? One big problem seems to be that most commentaries try to answer the opposite, that as the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16B) says, a person is only judged according to his present actions. [See for example the Gur Aryeh (Vayetzei) who explains that the Ben Sorer U'Moreh is judged according to his present actions. The Torah tells us that someone who presently fulfills the criteria of Ben Sorer U'Moreh is killed, and that is why the Beit Din kill him. The reason for this is because of his future actions, but But Beit Din is only doing it because Torah says so -- This doesn't answer the story with Michah however.]


I actually find the situation of the Ben sorer a stronger question than with the children being killed in the bricks.

The children in the bricks are neither righteous nor wicked. They have yet to do anything. They currently have nothing to be judged on in one way or another.

Ishmael, had done good deeds, and bad deeds. He had lived a number of years and could be found to be either righteous or wicked. And today he is Righteous.

The Ben Sorer U'Moreh however, at that point in time is guilty. He is rebelling against his parents. He is not currently 'righteous'.

In other words, I read the Rashi on Ishmael as interpreting the gemmorah slightly differently. The Angels are not saying he is guilty of some crime and so should be punished, as much as they are figuratively saying .. "Even though right now he is righteous, and should not be punished, shouldn't his status in the future of being wicked, or his descendants of being wicked, be reason for his status of Righteous to be over written?" No says Gd, he is righteous now, and so he will be treated with righteousness.

Innocent children, and rebellious children, are not officially in the status of 'righteous' at the point they are being punished. Either from a lack of action or from actively acting badly.

For completeness sake: There is also the possibility that different Tanaim and Amoraim have different philosophical positions on the status of Future sinners. Rashi could just be providing differing points of view. But even if so, I think my answer above explains why it is not a contradiction in Rashi's understanding.

  • I've restructured my question to emphasize what I'm looking for. I find your solution interesting, but even though the children now are not righteous, the are being killed because they will be wicked in the future. If they are to be judged as they are now, they don't deserve to die.
    – Menachem
    Sep 16, 2011 at 9:43
  • But they also don't deserve to be saved, is the point. A miracle would be needed to save them. But I'll have to go over your new question after Shabbat.
    – avi
    Sep 16, 2011 at 12:15
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    The Gur Aryeh to Devarim 28:6, points out that just as children are born without sin, they are also born without merit. This lines up with what you're saying: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14195&pgnum=125
    – Menachem
    Sep 18, 2011 at 2:41

The ben sorer umore is being judged by a human court, whose job is to prevent sins. So they have to judge him al shem sofo, according to how he will turn out. Yishmael, on the other hand, was being judged by Hashem, who judges as the true judge, not in order to prevent future sins. So he was found innocent.

I heard the above from my father-in-law in the name of the Maharal. While I assume it's in the Gur Arye, I don't know that for certain, and certainly don't know where in the Gur Arye it might be (though obvious guesses are at Yishmael and ben sorer umore). Also, although I only heard it as an explanation of ben sorer umore and Yishmael, it seems to be that it applies also to the babies in Egypt. Finally, note that it was explained better and more fully than I've relayed it, but I forget the details.

  • The Gur Aryeh in both places mentions it, In my answer I linked to the one in Vayeira: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14210&pgnum=123 . However, I don't see how that applies to the babies in Egypt. If anything, according to that logic, G-d should not have killed the babies.
    – Menachem
    Sep 11, 2011 at 5:31
  • @Menachem, there are reasons Hashem will kill babies; see, e.g., Rashi on "ish b'chet'o".
    – msh210
    Sep 11, 2011 at 13:17
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    (Rashi on Devarim 24:16 - tachash.org/metsudah/d06r.html#fn197). However, G-d said explicitly that he's killing the children because of their future sins, and not because their parents sins. Also, it seems a little bit of a stretch to say that every child used as bricks in egypt were killed for their fathers' sins.
    – Menachem
    Sep 11, 2011 at 13:35
  • I've restructured my question to emphasize what I'm looking for, but this may invalidate most of the answers already given. Not sure if this is an issue, discuss on chat.
    – Menachem
    Sep 16, 2011 at 9:40

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