Among a myriad of other Mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Teitzei is the commandment of “Lo Yumetu Banim Al Avot, Ish BeChet’o Yumatu,” “Sons shall not be put to death [for the transgressions] of their fathers, rather, every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (BeMidbar 24:16). This is an important concept in Jewish thought and specifically in Tanach, enough so that this is the only law quoted verbatim in Nach from the Torah. The repetition appears when King Amatzyah kills the murderers of his father, Yo’ash, but not their sons, in accordance with the Torah law (Melachim II 14:6). It is clear from here that this directive was well known in the Israel of the Tanach and was followed to a certain degree. However, this law seems to contradict what is written in Shemot as part of the second of the Aseret HaDibrot: “Ki Anochi Hashem Elokecha Keil Kanah Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim Al Shileishim VeAl Ribei’im LeSon’ay”, “For I, your God, am a vengeful God, who visits iniquity of the father on sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons” (Shemot 20:4). This Pasuk makes it seem as if Hashem punishes children for what their father has done. However, Rashbam (ad loc. s.v LeSon’ay) steps in to explain that the word “LeSon’ay” refers to the children, so the Pasuk means that Hashem will revisit the iniquity of the father on the children only if they continue to spite Hashem.
The issue of killing seemingly innocent children must be addressed regarding the topic of killing the innocent children of an Ir HaNidachat, a city in which some people (or all, the Pasuk is not at all clear) have been subverted to worship idolatry (Devarim 13: 13-19). The Sifri (Devarim 94) and Midrash Tanna’im (Mechilta on Devarim) quote a debate on this subject. One side interprets the Pasuk which says to “kill the inhabitants” as proof that we kill even the children, since there is no mention of sparing the children. However, Abba Chanan argues that “Lo Yumetu Avot Al Banim” applies here and we do not kill the children.
Rambam (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 4:3) rules that we kill even the children based on the Pasuk “Hachareim Otah VeEt Kol Asher Bah”, “Destroy it, and all that lies within it” (13:16). This position is supported by the text, which uses the term “Hachareim” earlier in Devarim to indicate a killing of all men, women, and children (Devarim 3:6). However, Rambam goes one step further and posits that the “children and wives of the worshippers are killed,” which hints to us here that we kill the innocent citizens of an Ir HaNidachat not because they sinned, but because they were related to the men who sinned.
Rambam’s harsh position for the relatives of those who sinned in an Ir HaNidachat stirred up a giant polemic in the last years of his life. The Ramah criticized Rambam quite harshly and wrote that if the women/children served Avodah Zarah, then they should be included in the law of Ir HaNidachat itself, and not by Rambam’s redaction of the law. However, If they did not serve Avodah Zarah, then why are they then killed?
Perhaps a rejoinder to the Ramah’s words can be found in Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim: “An Ir HaNidachat is like Sedom and Amorah – innocents may be killed in the tumult since the point is to get rid of the evil doers.” Therefore, the wives and children do not die as a result of their sins, but as a result of their misfortune of living in an evil city.
From all of these examples, we see that the meta-theme of sons not dying for the sins of the father holds through: Amatzyah did not kill the sons of the murderers of his father, Hashem punishes children based on the iniquities of their parents only if the sons persist in continuing their father’s bad habits, and in an Ir HaNidachat, innocent children die so as to get rid of the evil that is an Ir HaNidachat, not as a direct result of the parents sins. They are simply a sacrifice needed to be made in order to do away with an Ir HaNidachat.