Back on Rosh Hashanah 6, we examined the obligation of children to fulfill vows their parents made. In doing so, we considered two different biblical perspectives: the one laid out in Exodus 20:5, which punishes children for their parents’ transgressions, and the other proclaimed in Ezekiel 18:20, which holds that a child is not accountable for what their parents have done. Today, we’ll revisit this topic in a more confusing and disturbing setting.
The context is a story related in the Book of Samuel concerning the Gibeonites, a people who inhabited the land of Israel alongside the Israelites. While the Gibeonites’ leaders might not have been the most honest and upstanding individuals, Joshua swore to a long-term truce with them. But a century or two later, King Saul effectively violated that truce in an effort to wipe them out. When King David took the throne, the Gibeonites petitioned him for justice and asked him to hand over seven of Saul’s male descendants to be impaled. David agreed.
The Gemara is understandably concerned about this:
But isn’t it written: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children; neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers” (Deuteronomy 24:16)? Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: It is better that one letter (and one mitzvah) be uprooted from the Torah and the name of Heaven not be desecrated in public.
In other words, David’s conduct contravenes Torah law, but Saul’s conduct — which desecrated God’s name in public — was worse. Violating the prohibition on intergenerational retribution here helps to atone for Saul’s earlier sin undertaken in the name of the whole community.
The Gemara goes on to note that the corpses of Saul’s descendants were left up overnight, in violation of another Torah law: Deuteronomy 21:23 requires that impaled bodies be buried the same day. What’s up with that?
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: It is better that one letter be uprooted from the Torah and thereby the name of Heaven be sanctified in public. How so? As the gentile passersby would say: What is the nature of these people? These are sons of kings.
And what did they do? They had laid their hands upon calculating converts. There is no nation as worthy of cleaving to it as this one. If the sons of kings are treated in this manner, all the more so would the sons of ordinary people. And if calculating converts are related to in this way, all the more so the Jewish people themselves.
Again, our text finds that there’s a broader principle at issue here. Seeing the Gibeonites as the equivalent of converts, Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon hold that the extended public display of dead bodies shows the integrity and resilience of the Jewish people: If the king’s own descendants are held accountable for harm to marginalized people like the Gibeonites, how much more so would ordinary Jews who transgressed against their own people. In other words, the Jewish sense of justice is strong. In this case, the public demonstration of this fact overrides the specific wrong.
To summarize, even though they’re guiltless, David condemns seven people to death and denies them a timely burial in an effort to make a broader point about the Torah and the Jewish people.
There’s too much here to unpack in a single Daf Yomi commentary: whether David was right; what justice looks like; whether the lessons the rabbis draw here are the correct ones; whether murdering seven people is the equivalent of “uprooting one letter from the Torah”; whether sacrificing one piece of Torah to uphold the rest is the right thing to do in general; and so much more.
But at the core of it is the question of whether punishing children for their parents’ transgressions is a legitimate Jewish approach, under specific circumstances or ever. And with all of the dimensions our page brings to that conversation, the Talmud’s answer is less clear — and more problematic — than ever.
Read all of Yevamot 79 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 25th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.