From the Rav’s Desk: Are teenagers held liable for sins

  • Question: [Tuesday, 21st Adar 1, 5782]

I have heard many times that a person is not held liable for his sins and does not receive punishment until the age of 20? This would basically mean that all teenagers are not held liable for their actions. Is this true and how does it not contradict the fact that after the child is bar/bas mitzvah he becomes obligated in all Torah and mitzvah’s?



While there is a source for the above statement, it is not to be taken literally, and certainly once one has reached the age of Bar/Bas Mitzvah they are held liable for their actions and to receive punishment. Nonetheless, certain leniencies regarding punishment are recorded, as explained below.

Explanation: The Talmud relates that in the future, our forefathers will argue with God on the virtues of the Jewish people with saying that most of our life we do not sin, and in the calculation of proving this statement it states that those under age 20 are not held liable for punishment. Rashi there explains that this is derived from the fact that in the 40 year stay in the desert God did not punish those who were under age 20 to die while in the desert. Nonetheless, the Poskim explain that this is not to be understood literally, as certainly once a child has become bar/bas mitzvah he becomes liable for all mitzvah’s of the Torah. The following explanations have been given:

  • Some explain that the intent of the above statement is that they are not liable for the transgressions performed during the 40 year stay in the desert and only in regards to the special commands given them. Likewise, the above Talmudic statement is part of the allegorical parts of Torah and is not Halacha. [Chasam Sofer]
  • Others explain that it means that although prior to age 20 one does not receive punishments for his sins, nonetheless after age 20 he receives punishment for sins committed even prior to age 20. Likewise, even prior to age 20 the soul is judged in heaven for his sins if he passes away prior to age 20, and he is punished for such sins. [Chacham Tzevi]
  • Others explain that it simply means that he is not punished by a physical Beis Din until age 20 but is punished by God even prior to age 20. [Noda Beyehuda]
  • Others explain that prior to age 20 he is punished for all sins which are explicit in the Torah and is only exempt from punishment for those sins that are learned from logic. [Chavos Yair]
  • Others explain that he is only exempt from the punishment of Kareis, although is held liable for all other punishments of transgressing positive or negative commands. [Rav Poalim; Rambam]

Sources: Sources which bring above statement: Shabbos 89b; Yerushalmi Bikkurim 6b; Midrash Raba Bamidbar 18:4; Zohar Vayeira 118b, Hazinu 298:3; Rashi in Bereishis 23:1, and beginning of Ki Sisa; Sources who qualify it: Rambam Pirush Hamishnayos Sanhedrin 7:4; Chasam Sofer Y.D. 155; Pischeiy Teshuvah Y.D. 185:9; Chacham Tzevi 47 and 49; Noda Beyehuda Tinyana Y.D. 164; Chavos Yair 166 [end]; Rav Poalim 3 O.C. 37;Chida in Pesach Eiynayim Chagiga 15a; Maharitz Chayos on Shabbos ibid; Pardes Yosef beginning of Chayeh Sarah; Shearim Hametzuyanim Bhelacha

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