The Bible’s take on whether parents and children bear the sins of the other is a tad complicated.
On the one hand, we have Exodus 20:5, which tells us that worshiping foreign deities will lead to God “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children.” (Yes, it’s followed by a promise to “show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments,” but still.) On the other, we have this claim from the prophet Ezekiel: “The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt.” (18:20)
Today’s daf explores a variation on this theme. In a lengthy examination of a beraita on the fulfillment of vows, we encounter a statement from Rava urging one to speedily carry out a vow promising to make a sacrificial offering. This is all well and good for an individual duty. But what if a person dies before carrying their obligations out? Do their heirs inherit their unfulfilled obligations?
The Gemara considers two sources, each one pointing to a different possible answer.
In Deuteronomy 23:22, we are told that when one makes a vow, “you shall not delay paying it.” This verse is directed specifically at someone who made a vow. Since the heir did not make the vow — their father did — perhaps the heir is free from the obligation to hurry things along.
But in Deuteronomy 12:5-6, it says: “And there you shall come; and there you shall bring your burnt-offerings and your sacrifices.” This verse is addressed to the entire community as a plural “you,” providing instructions for sacrifices in general without regard to whether they fulfill a vow or are another type of sacrifice. So perhaps all are responsible for ensuring the timely bringing of an offering — including the oath-taker’s heirs.
Rabbi Hiyya now comes along with a third source in an attempt to settle the matter:
Come and hear an answer to this, as Rabbi Hiyya taught a beraita that says: The verse states: “For the Lord your God will surely require it from you” (Deuteronomy 23:22), (which is interpreted to mean): To the exclusion of an heir.
Rabbi Hiyya quotes a verse that, like the first verse cited above, seems to suggest that only the person who made the vow is liable. The obligation doesn’t transfer to heirs. But the Gemara is not satisfied:
But this phrase from you is necessary (to teach a different halakhah, namely, that one transgresses the prohibition against delaying even for) gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the (produce of the) corner (of his field).
The Gemara answers this:
Rabbi Hiyya derived two halakhot (from this word). He read into the verse: “You [imakh],” (which he expounded as coming to include gleanings, forgotten sheaves and the produce of the corner of the field in the prohibition,) and he read into the verse: “From you [me’imakh],” (with the extra letter mem coming to exclude an heir).
What’s going on here exactly? It’s a general principle of halakhic interpretation that one may not derive more than one holding from a single piece of Torah. The Gemara suggests that Rabbi Hiyya cannot use this word to derive the law about an heir because the word is already being used to derive a different law — in this case, that it’s better to delay fulfilling an oath than to fail to leave three types of produce for the poor: produce that is forgotten in the field, that is dropped during the harvest, or that grows in the corner.
To get around this problem, the Gemara suggests that the word me’imakh — literally, “from you” — can be broken into two parts: me (“from”) and imakh (“you”), with one rule derived from each part.
The debate about vows isn’t settled, at least not fully, and later generations of scholars will continue to debate it. Nor do we settle the broader question of intergenerational responsibility.
That said, to the extent that we follow Rabbi Hiyya and distinguish between parents and children and the obligations one set bears for the other’s choices, we draw closer to Ezekiel’s view — one that is likely to advance the cause of personal accountability.
Read all of Rosh Hashanah 6 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 15th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.