Should Youthful Indiscretions Be Forgiven (According to Jewish Law?)

Dear Jew in the City-

Are the mistakes of youth (teens) counted differently in Judaism?


Dear AJ-

Thanks for your question. In Judaism, the age of an offender is certainly taken into account, in a number of ways. The first and most obvious example is the concept of bar and bas mitzvah, that a boy and girl are not legally responsible for their actions before the ages of 13 and 12, respectively. The Torah describes the different paths taken by our forefather Yaakov and his brother Eisav: “The boys grew up; Eisav became a skillful hunter, a man of the field and Yaakov was a wholesome man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). The Midrash in Bereishis Rabba (63:10) explains that for the first 13 years of their lives, Yaakov and Eisav both went to school. After that, their paths diverged, one brother leaning towards idolatry and the other towards Torah study. Rabbi Elazar comments on this Midrash that a parent is legally responsible for his child until the age of majority, which is 13 for a boy. At that point, he recites Baruch shepatrani – “Blessed is the One Who has exempted me from punishment on behalf of this one,” referring to his child.

We see from this Midrash that one is not responsible for his actions before a certain age – 13 for a boy and 12 for a girl. But it’s not as if responsibility for a minor’s actions doesn’t exist. The parent is responsible for his offspring until that age. For example, if a child under the age of bar or bas mitzvah breaks something, the parent has to pay for it. A parent is also obligated to teach his child how to keep the Torah, which the child is not truly obligated to do before they reach the age of majority. I cannot say what spiritual responsibility the parent bears for a child’s transgressions before that age but I infer from the text of the Baruch shepatrani that there is some form of liability.

The following, however, may be even more germane to your question. Genesis 23:1 says, “The life of Sarah was 100 years, 20 years and seven years.” Rashi there cites the Midrash Rabbah that the reason it says “100 years, 20 years and seven years” rather than “127 years” is to teach us to interpret each set of years individually. Rashi continues:

When she was 100 years old, she was like a 20-year-old regarding sin. Just as a 20-year-old is considered without sin because she is not subject to punishment, when she was 100 years old, she was equally without sin.

The point about those under 20 not being punished is also made in Talmud Shabbos (89b). There, in a discussion of how much a person might potentially sin in life, the Gemara asks how long a person lives. In doing the math, it gives 70 years as an average lifespan. It then says, “Subtract from this the first 20 years of a person’s life, for which one is not punished.” Rashi explains that we learn this from the generation that left Egypt and sinned in the wilderness. Numbers 14:29 tells us that it was only those 20 years of age and up who would die in the wilderness.

All this refers to the penalty of kareis, often translated to as “excision.” The exact details on kareis are sketchy but dying prematurely appears to be a part of it. Rambam on Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7:4) explains that if one commits a transgression deserving of kareis, he is not liable to punishment prior to the age of 20. (This is the same for both men and women.) [I assume that there must be some consequence because a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old, for example, are obligated in mitzvos. I can’t see them getting a free pass to eat on Yom Kippur, or eat chometz on Pesach, or to commit a variety of sexual offenses. So I assume that they still have aveiros (sins) for which to atone, they’re just not liable to kareis.]

The bottom age limit for kareis may be tied to the age at which those in the wilderness were punished but I have never seen an explanation for why that age is 20. I like to believe that, just as the age of bar and bas mitzvah is tied to the average age of puberty, the age of liability may be tied to another biological reality. Even though teens may be physically mature, the prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t finish developing until the early twenties. This is why teens tend to engage in risky behaviors. So it’s entirely possible that God doesn’t hold people as responsible for their actions before the age of 20 because teens are incapable of fully understanding the consequences of their actions.

Kareis doesn’t only have a minimum age at which “one is tried as an adult,” it also appears to have a “statute of limitations.” In Moed Katan (28a), the Talmud tells us that when Rav Yoseif reached the age of 60, he threw a party for the Sages to celebrate that he had passed the age for which one would be punished with kareis (i.e., that if he had been liable to kareis, he would have died by then). Abaye pointed out that people over 60 can also be liable for kareis; they just have their days shortened rather than their years (i.e., the punishment comes more quickly). Rav Yoseif replied that the milestone was nevertheless significant, since he was confident that he was not deserving of kareis up until this point.

Tosafos (Yevamos 2a) cite the Yerushalmi in Bikkurim that kareis is until 50 years of age (based on Numbers 4:18, 23). They say that it’s a different Divine punishment, misah b’yidei Shamayim (“death at the hands of Heaven”) that lasts until age 60, corresponding with those who died in the desert (in Numbers 14). Regardless of this difference of opinion, the basic premise remains the same: there reaches an age by which, if you haven’t been punished for youthful indiscretions, you can stop worrying about it.

This is not to say that people are not responsible for their actions at all until age 20. If a 15-year-old causes damage, he still has to pay for it. If an 18-year-old kills someone, he’s still subject to the death penalty. But for certain specific offenses, people are not liable until age 20 and, after a certain amount of time – either 50 or 60 – they no longer have to worry about the consequences of their youthful indiscretions.

To me, this seems like a pretty good model. Crimes are crimes and must be punished but bad taste and poor judgment are simply the perogative of youth. We all made bad choices as teens – if we didn’t, then we probably weren’t doing it right! Certain indiscretions should be written off as the poor judgment of “dumb kids” (which we all were) and, after a certain amount of maturity and life experience, are probably best being expunged from our records altogether.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

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