Posted in Dvar Torah, on September 18, 2014

Collective Punishment in Jewish Thought – Netzavim-VaYelech – Jonathan Levine, West Coast NCSY Alumnus


The sections of the Torah we are now dealing with are what many scholars might deem the “epilogue” of the Torah.  The crux of the Book of Deuteronomy is over.  We have seen the majority of Moses’ speech including a recap of all the commandments and a basic outline of Jewish history all culminating in the blessings and curses in last week’s reading.

This week we are blessed to have what is called a double-parsha.  Most weeks we only read one Torah portion, but this week we will read two, in order to be able to finish the Torah in time despite some conflicts in the calendar.  The first reading this week summarizes the covenant created between the Jews and God (which we discussed last week at great length) and reiterates the importance to listen to God and keep the Torah.  Along with this Moses provides some words of inspiration and encouragement to balance the forlorn tone of the curses.   The second reading describes the transition between Moses and Joshua, providing foreshadowing and context for the Book of Joshua.

There is one verse written in the first Torah portion, Parsha Va’Yelech, that lends itself to a fascinating topic:  “The hidden [sins] are for the Lord our God, but the revealed [sins] are for us and our children until forever.”  The simple meaning of the verse is that hidden sins are the province of God alone; for these sins, God holds no one responsible but the sinner himself.  However, the community at large is responsible and therefore culpable for openly committed sins.

Jewish tradition (Mesorah) dictates that these words are written in the Torah with dots upon them.  If you take a look at a Torah scroll (and most Hebrew printed copies) you will see that there are dots written above the words “for and us our children until.”  The Mishnaic scholars argue as to what the dots teach us:


Rabbi Yehuda says: ‘Why are dots placed above “for us and our children and on the letter “ayin” that appears in the word until? This teaches us that God did not punish the entire community for the private sins until the Jewish people crossed the Jordan [into the land of Israel]’

Rabbi Nechemiah said to Rabbi Yehuda: ‘But did God ever punish the Jewish people corporately for an individual’s hidden sins?  Does it not say explicitly in the verse that the nation as a whole will escape punishment for such crimes?  Rather, the dots teach that just as God did not punish the community as a whole for an individual’s hidden sins, so too He did not punish them for public sins until after the Jewish people crossed the Jordan.’ (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 43b).

(For more information on how the Rabbis approach reading the dots placed over words, see Rashi to Sanhedrin 43b and the Chidushei HaRan ibid.)


Rabbi Yehuda reasons that in the Land of Israel the entire community of Israel was held responsible for both private and public sins.  Rabbi Nechemiah maintains that they were only held liable for public sins, but the community was not held responsible for private sins. There is a fundamental argument regarding the nature of collective punishment in Jewish Law.  Both opinions are under the impression that collective punishment exists; they argue as to what extent it is enforced.

The Torah itself seems to imply contradictory sentiments towards collective punishment.  Above we saw that this week’s Parsha implies that collective punishment does exist for public sins.  However, in earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy the opposite is implied:

Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, and sons shall not be put to death because of fathers; a man should be put to death for his own sin. (24:16)

This seems to imply that a man can only be punished for his own transgression and does not bear responsibility for the sins of even his closest kin!

There are multiple times in Tanach where this theme is prevalent.  One example is the massacre in the city of Shechem found in Genesis.  After Dina, Jacob’s daughter, is kidnapped and raped by the prince of Shechem, Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s sons, devise a plan of revenge.  They tricked the leader, and got every male in the entire city of Shechem to undergo the process of circumcision.  While the population was still recovering from the operation, Simeon and Levi came into the city and killed every single male by sword.  The obvious question arises:  How could the entire city of Shechem have deserved such a punishment when only one man, albeit their leader, sinned?

We find ourselves struggling with the same theme in Joshua and the story of Achan.  The Jews, upon conquering Jericho, are commanded not to take any spoils or booty from the city.  Achan transgresses this divine command and takes some of the spoils for himself.  The nation then goes out to war with the city of Ai and are defeated, and many men are killed.  God refused to help them in war because Achan had taken from the spoils.  Achan is then found out and stoned to death.  There is an argument between the Talmud Bavli and the Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer as to whether or not Achan’s family was stoned along with him.  How could the entire nation be caused to lose a war and suffer many casualties because one man did not listen to the word of God?  And if we understand the story like the Sages quoted in the Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, how come Achan’s entire family was executed for his sin?

Other examples of this phenomenon include the all inclusive commandment to kill Amalek, the plague that is brought on the Jewish people at the end of II Kings because of David’s census, and the famine brought on the Jewish people for Saul’s decision to attack the Gibeonites in the Book of Samuel.

Clearly this theme is complex, has many moral and legal implications, and cannot be understood without further investigation.  However, I would like to point out one idea that is discussed by some commentaries that seems to shed some light on the morality and perhaps role of communal punishment in Jewish thought.

The Ramban (Nachmonides) discusses the story of Shechem in his commentary to Genesis (see Maimonedes Laws of Kings 14:9 for another approach).  He explains that while one man might have committed the sin alone, the culture of Shechem nurtured such atrocious behavior:

The men of Shechem were evil, and blood was as insignificant to them as water.


The blame was placed upon the entire city for fostering a community devoid of basic moral values that led to the sin.  The individual sin was symbolic of a greater pattern of immorality.

Rav Menachem Leibtag hypothesizes that the same was true about Achan.  In between Achan’s sin and its revelation to the public, we are told about the Jews battle with Ai.  Joshua sends spies to Ai to scout out their defenses to plan a tactical approach to the upcoming war.  The spies report back to Joshua:

Don’t bring the entire nation, only two thousand or three thousand men, and they will go up and strike Ai.  Do not bring the entire nation there for they are few in number.


As we see, the overall attitude of the Jewish people at that time was one of haughtiness and over confidence.  They did not take the war seriously for they thought extremely highly of themselves.  Not once in that scouting report was God or divine help mentioned.

Rav Leibtag maintains that Achan’s actions were symbolic of this greater theme.  The same way the Jews thought they “knew better” in the battle with Ai, Achan “knew better” when he took the spoils from Jericho.  The entire nation was punished for they nurtured a community of over confidence and promoted a superiority complex.  Achan’s mistaken notion of  that he was above the law was symbolic of the mindset of all of the people at the time.

Actually, there is a parallel between the text relating the sin of Shechem and the sin of Achan.  In both places, the situation is described as a “Nvalah” or a disgrace:

And the sons of Jacob came from the field and heard that a nvalah had been committed to Israel. (Genesis 34:7)


For the Jews have transgressed the covenant of God and for a nvalah has been committed in Israel. (Joshua 7:15)


It is possible to understand that nvalah hints to this concept of a society that causes individuals to sin.

I would therefore conclude that collective punishment both exists and does not exist in Jewish thought – it depends on what caused the individual to sin.  If an individual is brought up in a community that fosters good values and teaches morality and Jewish Law, yet he nevertheless decides to become a thief, it is tough to say that the community at large would be responsible for his sins.  However, if he is brought up in a community in which wealth is a priority and selfishness is commonplace, it might be safe to assume that the community bears responsibility for his individual sins.

Bernie Madoff stole millions of dollars and was caught in his Ponzi Scheme.  Does the Jewish community in America nurture materialism to the extent that the most extreme individual would do such a thing?

Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.  Does the National Religious community in Israel fail to promote fundamental love one Jew should have for one another along with other values?

We are all charged with the responsibility to create a community that fosters the right values.  Collective punishment is really a misnomer.  We are not collectively punished because one person committed a sin.  We are all punished because we fail to establish values in our society, and therefore the most extreme people sin.  We must keep in mind that along with our personal commitment to Torah values, we must make sure that our community stands for those same values, for a lack of morality in the Jewish community is a lack of person morality as well.

Shabbat Shalom!


Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast.  He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.