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Reward and Punishment

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.


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).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.