The doctrine of reward and punishment is central to Judaism throughout the ages; that man receives his just reward for his good deeds and just retribution for his transgressions is the very basis of the conception of both human and divine justice, and it is with the latter that this article deals. The doctrine of reward and punishment is incorporated in every classical enumeration of the fundamental principles of Judaism (see below, in philosophy). In the Bible the doctrine of reward and punishment – individual, national, and universal – is of this world. It is regarded as axiomatic that God rewards the righteous by granting them prosperity and well-being and punishes the wicked with destruction. It is the basis of the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11:13–21): adherence to God's commandments will bring "the rain of the land in its seasons"; disobedience will cause Him "to shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and the land will not yield her fruit." It is the subject of the two dire comminations in the Bible (Lev. 23 and Deut. 28). The reward of honoring one's parents will be "that your days may be long upon the earth which the Lord thy God giveth thee" (Ex. 20:12). The seeming prosperity of the wicked is fleeting; in the end he will be utterly destroyed (Ps. 92:8). Only in the drama of *Job is the doctrine of the suffering of the righteous examined, but even that book concludes with the banal and almost apathetic statement that the possessions which he had before the trial of his faith were doubled after he successfully passed that trial (cf. Job 1:2–3 with 42:12–13). Such agonizing cries as "why does the way of the wicked prosper" (Jer. 12:1) are made with the implication that they will receive their just retribution in the end.

The Talmud is equally insistent on the validity of the doctrine of reward and punishment, but the simple and even homely thesis of the Bible goes through various stages of refinement, finally reaching the view that in the end virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment. It should be emphasized, however, that these stages are not necessarily in chronological succession, and side by side with the refinement and spiritualization of the biblical doctrine there is ample evidence of the belief in reward and punishment in this world. It is even given an almost mathematical exactitude with the often reiterated belief in "measure for measure" (middah keneged middah): "all the measures [of punishment and reward] taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, are in accordance with the principle of measure for measure" (Sanh. 90a; cf. Sot. 8b); and "from the very creation of the world the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that by the measure with which a man measures is he measured" (Gen. R. 9:11). It finds its epigrammatic expression in the maxim of Hillel, "He saw a skull floating on the water and said 'Because thou didst drown someone, thou wast drowned and the end of him who drowned thee will be that he will be drowned'" (Avot 2:7). It was made a principle of the punishment meted out on various occasions. Such statements as "with boiling liquid they sinned, and with boiling liquid they were punished" (RH 12a) are almost standard in explaining the punishments meted out to sinners. In addition, there is a whole list of punishments which come in this world for specific transgressions: "for three things women die in childbirth" (Shab. 2:6), or "seven kinds of punishment come into the world for seven important transgressions," which are detailed (Avot 5:8).

Side by side with this approach, however, there was developed the nonmaterial concept of reward. It emerges with the dawn of the development of the Oral Law. Avot de-Rabbi Nathan ascribes the emergence of the two sects of the *Sadducees and the *Boethusians to two disciples of Antigonus of *Sokho, Zadok and Boethus, who interpreted the maxim of their master "Be not like servants who serve their master upon the condition of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master without the condition of receiving a reward" (Avot 1:3) to be a denial of the doctrine of reward. R. Tarfon's maxim, "faithful is thy employer to pay thee the reward of thy labor" (ibid. 2:15), continues "and know that the grant of reward unto the righteous will be in the time to come," but this addition is missing in most of the manuscripts, and appears to be a later addition in order to make the statements agree with the more spiritualized attitude which developed. That attitude is vividly connected with what is given as an actual incident. It gives as the reason for the apostasy of Elisha b. *Avuyah that a man once told his son to go up to the roof of the house on a ladder and bring down some nestlings. The son obeyed his father and took care to drive away the mother before removing them. He thus fulfilled the only two injunctions of the Bible of which it is explicitly stated that he who fulfills them will be vouchsafed long life – honoring parents (Ex. 20:12) and driving away the mother (Deut. 22:7). On his descent from the ladder he fell down and was killed. It was this apparent flagrant denial of the truth of the doctrine of reward and punishment as laid down in the Bible which caused Elisha's apostasy. The Talmud explains that had he interpreted these verses as did "his daughter's son" R. Jacob ben *Korshai, who explained that the words "that thy days may be prolonged" refer to "the world that is wholly long" and "that it may be well with thee" to "the world that is wholly good" (i.e., the world to come), he would not have gone astray. From that the doctrine is laid down that "there is no reward in this world for the fulfillment of precepts" (Hul. 142a). The spiritualization of the doctrine, that virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment, finds expression in the statement of Ben Azzai: "one good deed brings another in its train, and one sin another sin; for the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the wages of sin is sin" (Avot 4:2).

Among the problems which exercised the minds of the rabbis, and to which they found no satisfactory answer, was that of "the righteous who suffers and the wicked who prospers." Among the solutions proffered is one which makes reward and punishment partake of both this world and the next. The suffering of the righteous is his punishment on earth for the sins he has committed so that his reward in the next world for his righteousness may be complete, and vice versa (Lev. R. 27:1). With the gradual acceptance of the doctrine of reward and punishment belonging to the world to come, the idea was developed that this world is the place where one, so to speak, accumulates a credit or a debit balance of good or bad actions, the results of which one enjoys or suffers in the world to come (cf. Avot 4:22, Er. 22a), and material joys in this world are at the expense of eternal bliss, while suffering is compensated for by that bliss. To that there is a notable exception with regard to certain good deeds which bring both. It is in that sense that the first Mishnah of Pe'ah which in an elaborated form has become part of the daily prayers, is to be understood: "These are the things of which a man enjoys the fruit thereof in this world, while the stock remains for him in the world to come." The attitude of the Apocrypha to reward and punishment, particularly in transferring their implementation to the world to come, largely follows that of the Talmud. The views expressed in the Wisdom of *Solomon are representative of the general approach.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Although the positions taken by the medieval thinkers on retribution display great diversity, no two being exactly alike, they fall largely into two major categories, which may be termed traditional supernaturalism and philosophic naturalism.


The traditional supernatural theories of retribution, despite the philosophic context in which they appear, retain the basic beliefs regarding reward and punishment that are expressed in the talmudic literature. *Saadiah (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 4 and 5), whose exposition may be taken as representative of traditional supernaturalism, states the position this way: God exercises a miraculous and absolutely just providence over man. Thus He has revealed in the Torah the commandments man is to keep. Man is rewarded or punished in accordance with his obedience or disobedience of the Torah. His deeds are known to God and recorded by Him. Reward and punishment are meted out both in this world and the next. Still, the fact that a person suffers or prospers in this world is no necessary indication that he is righteous or wicked. There are reasons other than sinfulness for suffering in this world, as there are reasons for prospering other than virtue. A righteous person may suffer in this world as atonement for his few bad deeds so that, his punishment over, he can receive reward alone in the hereafter for his many good deeds. Even a person who has not sinned at all may suffer in this world, as, for example, a baby who sickens and dies, in order that his future reward may thereby be increased. This is known as "afflictions of love" (yissurin shel ahavah). On the other hand, a sinner might prosper in this world either to receive now whatever reward he merits so that he will receive only punishment in the afterlife; to increase his future punishment; or for the sake of some righteous person. Absolute retribution will be dispensed in the world to come, which will be preceded by the messianic age when the exiled of Israel are ingathered to Palestine, and the resurrection takes place. At the conclusion of the messianic age, this world will come to an end and the world to come will emerge. Here reward and punishment will be meted out to both the body and the soul in combination. The world to come will never end and similarly the reward or punishment of the individual will be eternal.

Included among the medieval philosophers who hold the traditional supernatural positions are David *Al-Mukammis; Judah *Halevi (Kuzari); Hillel b. *Samuel (Tagmulei ha-Nefesh); Ḥasdai *Crescas (Or Adonai); and Joseph *Albo (Sefer ha-Ikkarim). According to the latter two, reward and punishment are dogmas of Judaism. For Crescas, although reward and punishment is not a fundamental principle, it is one of the true beliefs the rejection of which constitutes heresy. Joseph Albo maintains, however, that reward and punishment is one of the three fundamental principles of Judaism.


Reward and punishment as conceived in philosophic naturalism differs from the view of traditional supernaturalism in essentially three points. These are that: retribution comes naturally rather than through a supernatural providence; it is primarily an intellectual process that in this life relates directly to the rational soul and only indirectly to the body; retribution in the hereafter concerns only the rational soul since there is no resurrection of the body. *Maimonides and Levi b. *Gershom (Milḥamot Adonai) are the two great exponents of a philosophic naturalistic theory of reward and punishment among the medieval Jewish philosophers. However, Maimonides' exposition of the position, which appears in the Guide of the Perplexed, is greatly obscured by his deliberate efforts to keep his philosophic religious beliefs from the uninformed masses. Gersonides' exposition, therefore, which is plainly stated, may be taken as representative of the position, although throughout his discussion his dependence upon Maimonides is apparent. Providence over man is exercised by nature. As the creator of nature, God is the ultimate ground of providence and, consequently, of retribution, but not the direct source. There are two basic forms of natural providence: general and special. General providence is extended to the entire human species. Its dispensation is determined by the positions and motions of the heavenly bodies which, in pursuing their natural courses, order the fortunes of human existence by their action upon the elemental qualities of the sublunar world. Special providence comes only to certain select individuals. It is attained by the person who has realized his intellect to the point where he possesses a highly actualized intellect called the acquired *intellect. This state of actualization is produced by the study of science and metaphysics. Traditional study of the Torah, and obedience to its ritual and ethical commandments are useful preliminaries, but science and metaphysics alone constitute the essential requirements for the attainment of the acquired intellect that brings one under the aegis of special providence. Those who do not achieve special providence cannot expect absolutely just retribution. General providence, dispensed as it is by nature, has for its end the general good of the entire species rather than the particular fortunes of an individual. Hence persons who appear to be righteous may suffer, while the seemingly wicked prosper. Nonetheless, for two reasons neither injustice nor imperfection can be attributed to God. First, nature provides the best possible order for the universe as a totality, and to remove it, therefore, because of the occasional evil it produces would be destructive for man rather than beneficial. Second, the person who has failed to realize his intellect is not truly good, and the misfortune he receives, therefore, is ultimately deserved. For the one who attains special providence there is reward in this world and in the afterlife. In this world, the reward is that he comes to possess a superior knowledge of natural causation and can, therefore, through the exercise of his free will, avoid the harm that is destined for him by the natural action of the heavenly bodies. Regarding the afterlife, the reward is immortality, for inasmuch as the one immortal part of man is the acquired intellect, only those who have actualized their intellects survive death. There is no resurrection of the body, and those whose destinies are governed by general providence suffer annihilation. Gersonides and Maimonides seem to differ on the nature of human immortality. Maimonides apparently takes the position that the acquired intellect becomes one with the active intellect and thereby loses its individual nature, whereas Gersonides is of the opinion that there is individual immortality and the individual thus retains his identity after death and continues to receive intellectual pleasure for all eternity. Among other Jewish thinkers who subscribed to the position of philosophic naturalism were Abraham ibn *Ezra and Abraham ibn *Daud (Emunah Ramah). Baḥya ibn *Paquda (Ḥovot ha-Levavot), who emphasizes intention and intellectual accomplishment for immortality and maintains that the soul is the immortal part of man, seems to take a position similar to philosophic naturalism, although he retains various traditional elements in his thought.

For Kabbalah see Eschatology.

[Alvin J. Reines]

Modern Jewish Thought

In modern Jewish thought the doctrine of reward and punishment has not played a major role but has been discussed insofar as it is a part of the network of ideas that link *providence, *redemption, and good and *evil. An attack upon the traditional conception of reward and punishment was that the doctrine provided the prime motivation for a Jew's obedience to the word of God. If a Jew fulfills the mitzvot only to reap the promised reward then the implication is that the difference between good and evil, which depends on internal motivation and conscious intent, is emptied of meaning. Jewish thinkers such as K. *Kohler, M. *Kaplan, and M. *Buber attempted to show that the classic doctrine of reward and punishment was not to be taken literally nor was it to be understood as applying to the individual, but rather to society as a whole. The concept of reward and punishment means that in the long run good deeds produce good results and evil deeds lead to a world of evil. Man's intention is thus important for the long-term "reward" of a good world. The harmony of intention with act makes goodness easier to transmit from one person to another, for the harmony is felt by the other and convinces him to accept the way of goodness. Once this choice is made evil can be redeemed.

A second aspect of dealing with the doctrine of reward and punishment is the discussion around the classic problem of the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.

The credibility of the doctrine that God rewards compliance and punishes rebellion was once again subjected to great strain as a result of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The phrase "after Auschwitz" became a theological code word for the question of whether it is still possible to believe in the election of Israel and the God Who acts in history, especially Jewish history, in view of the Holocaust.

Although conservative Christian theologians responded almost immediately after the Holocaust with their conviction that the awesome events expressed God's will, there was almost no response in Jewish theological circles until about 1966. With the exception of Martin Buber who wrote of an "eclipse of God" in reaction to the Holocaust, representative thinkers of the postwar period such as W. *Herberg, E. *Fackenheim, and A.J. *Heschel initially exhibited no special concern with the Holocaust as a crucial theological problem. In 1970 Fackenheim wrote of his initial response to the Holocaust: "I was at work on a theology which sought to show that nothing unprecedented could call into question the Jewish faith – that it was immune to all 'secular' events between Sinai and the Messianic days" (The Christian Century, May 6, 1970).

Richard L. Rubenstein in his work After Auschwitz (1966) stated categorically that he was no longer able to accept the credibility of the traditional belief in the existence of the biblical God Who elects Israel and acts decisively in history, because such a God would have to bear ultimate responsibility for Auschwitz. The Holocaust was unique among the onslaughts visited upon the Jewish people both in terms of its comprehensiveness and the technological thoroughness it presupposed. Since the camps witnessed the nearly total annihilation of the European Jewish community, especially that segment which was religiously most compliant, Rubenstein maintained that no divinely guided pedagogic purpose could be ascribed to the event. He rejected any theological response which might suggest that Hitler and the Nazis were unwitting agents of the Lord of history. The translation of the works of Eli *Wiesel into English gave the problem literary immediacy. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, maintained a Job-like posture of faith in his coming to grips with the catastrophe. Wiesel was joined by Fackenheim in the reaffirmation of the traditional God of their people in spite of the Holocaust. Fackenheim argued that to reject the traditional God was "to give Hitler the victory" (The Christian Century, May 6, 1970). Rubenstein responded that loyalty to the Jewish past did not involve uncritical acceptance of its perspectives and that a God who was even remotely involved in Auschwitz was a deity unworthy of Jewish faith.

[Richard L. Rubinstein]


Urbach, Ḥazal (1969), 384–92; K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918), 107–11, 298; A. Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God (1927), 181–96; G.F. Moore, Judaism, 2 (1927), 89ff. IN MEDIEVAL JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: Guttman, Philosophies, index, S.V. rewards, punishment; Husik, Philosophy, index; H. Blumberg, in: Wolfson Jubilee Volume, 1 (1965), 165–85. MODERN JEWISH THOUGHT: R.L. Rubenstein et al., in: D. Cutler (ed.), The Religious Situation: 1968 (1968), 39–111; E. Wiesel, Night (1960); idem, Legends of Our Time (1968); The Conditions of Jewish Belief, ed. by the editors of Commentary (1966); M. Buber, Eclipse of God (1952); A. Davies, Anti-Semitism and the Christian Mind; the Crisis of Conscience After Auschwitz (1969); E.L. Fackenheim, Quest for Past and Future (1968); idem, God's Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (1970); M. Friedman, To Deny Our Nothingness (1967); A.H. Friedlander, Out of the Whirlwind; A Reader of Holocaust Literature (1968); R.L. Rubenstein, The Religious Imagination (1967).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.