Project Genesis

Basics of Judaism

Sin and Repentance

Guilt Extending Over Generations

Does Judaism believe in the idea that the guilt of an individual or group can be carried from one generation to the next? What does it mean when the Bible says, “Unto the Fourth Generation”?

Your question refers to the verse in Exodus (34:7) that states “...[G-d] is the preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, recalling the sins of the parents upon the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” This verse is part of the thirteen attributes of mercy, an integral part of the High Holiday season liturgy. If so, we must explain how this concept of generational guilt is actually a manifestation of G-d’s mercy. Rashi, quoting the Talmud in tractate Brachot (7a) states that children are only punished for the sins of their fathers if they continue in their evil ways. The Torah is telling us is that G-d is patient. He will wait four generations for repentance. Only when the same sin is perpetuated for four consecutive generations does he punish. (See Nachmanides and Sforno on the above verse.)

In fact, the central phrase of the vidui service is when we say, “But we and our fathers have sinned.” To the degree that we have continued in the wrongful ways of our predecessors, we are accountable for their shortcomings as well. A critical aspect of repentance is to recognize the origins of the sinful behavior, understand how it evolved, and then work to correct the problem by solving the root cause.

Best Wishes,

Rabbi Shlomo Soroka

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