ZEKHUT AVOT (Ancestral merit). Zekhut avot is a Hebrew phrase that refers to the merits of the ancestors of Israel. Biblical teaching frequently presupposes that reward and punishment have a collective dimension. Many passages are directed to the people of Israel as a whole—for example, Deuteronomy 11:13–17. Some passages suggest that later generations benefit or suffer as a result of the actions of their ancestors, as in Exodus 20:5–6 and 34:7; Deuteronomy 7:8–10; and Lamentations 5:7. Other statements that deny or downplay transgenerational recompense, such as Ezekiel 14 and 18, balance these judgments. Later rabbinic and medieval interpretation tended to restrict the penal aspect, limiting it to grievous sins like idolatry and to cases in which the sons perpetuated the sins of their fathers. Examples include B.T. Makkot 24 and the commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra (1093–1167) and Naẖmanides on Exodus 20. Some biblical verses single out the particular benefit derived from the merit of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as in Leviticus 26: 42. Several rabbinic debates argued for and against the possibility that the attainments of later generations justified divine solicitude for their forebears.
The rabbinic concept of zekhut avot (merits of the fathers, with occasional mention of their wives) in the narrow sense of the term derives from the special standing of the original progenitors. Nonetheless, the term is occasionally applied to other Jewish figures such as the sons of Jacob, to Noah's merit in preserving humanity, or to any kind of inherited merit. Examples of the latter can be found in M Eduyot 2:9 and Maimonides' commentary. Some sources speak of the merit of descendants justifying the fathers; others disagree. To the extent that zekhut avot is construed narrowly, it is distinguished from universal philosophical concepts of divine justice; it belongs rather to concepts related to the idea of election. When zekhut avot is assimilated to natural mechanisms of collective or transgenerational deserving, it is more easily regarded as an application of general principles. In this framework one must also consider the negative impact of unworthy parents on their children's destiny.
Solomon Schechter's century-old dictum that "… the notion of imputed righteousness and imputed sin… have… never attained such significance in Jewish theology or in Jewish conscience as is generally assumed" remains true. (Schechter, 1909, p. 170) Consequently the rabbinic material has not generated a systematic theological consensus. In classic medieval Jewish philosophy, zekhut avot is not central to the major discussions of providence and theodicy. The explorations of exegetes, nonphilosophical theological thinkers, and modern academic scholars have shed light on aspects of the theme by adopting both synchronic and diachronic approaches.
Termination of Zekhut Avot
Several amoraim (third- and fourth-century interpreters of the Mishnah) claimed that zekhut avot no longer applies, although they differed as to the date in the First Temple period when it ceased to operate (B.T. Shab. 55a and Leviticus Rabba 36). These views limited appeal to the merits of the fathers; they are better suited to conceptions of zekhut avot rooted in the principle of election than to universal models of reward and punishment. Medieval commentators noted that the cessation of zekhut avot flies in the face of Jewish liturgy, which frequently cites Leviticus 26:42, especially in the selihot (penitential) service. Rabbi Jacob Tam, who was a twelfth-century French commentator, posited that while the merits of the fathers were depleted, the covenant with them (berit avot ) is irrevocable (Tosafot Shab. 55). He thus shifted a crucial employment of the concept from consideration of merit by itself to the abiding remembrance of divine promise.
Some scholars have detected an evolution in rabbinic thought regarding the specific merits of the patriarchs behind the concept of zekhut avot. Thus Urbach maintains that statements made after Bar Kokhba's revolt (132–135 ce), were more likely to anchor the zekhut in willingness to offer up one's life in obedience to God, in accordance with the increasing emphasis on martyrdom in the second century. At this stage the binding of Isaac described in Genesis 22 became the paradigm of zekhut avot. The liturgy described in the Talmud refers to the merit of the ashes of Isaac's virtual immolation; one passage, commenting on Isaiah 63:16, imagines Abraham and Jacob declining to intervene on behalf of Israel while Isaac alone offers his merit (B.T. Shab. 89b). Kasher likewise discerns a movement away from defining Abraham's merit as faith towards an emphasis on heroic action, a development interpreted as a reaction against the early Christian understanding of Genesis 15:6.
It has also been argued that different sources offer different accounts of the benefits of zekhut avot for the people of Israel. Goshen-Gottstein observes that biblical sources stress the value of patriarchal merit in the inheritance of the land of Israel. This theme, however, is downplayed in the rabbinic literature.
Zekhut Avot and Collective Responsibility
Rabbi Avraham Yitsḥaq Kook (1865–1935) developed an influential theory regarding the place of zekhut avot in Jewish theology. For Kook, zekhut avot finds its place within a metaphysical doctrine of social organisms. Inherited spiritual traits affect the Jewish people, as well as non-Jewish social entities and humanity as a whole. Negative traits also leave their imprint on later generations. Faithful to the rabbinic principle that "the measure of beneficence is greater than that of retribution," Kook maintained that the favorable impact far exceeds the negative (Yoma, 76a). With the Babylonian exile it was judged preferable to loosen the ties between the generations; this interpretative development is reflected in Ezekiel 18 and B.T. Makkot 24a.
An earlier Hasidic master, Rabbi Judah Alter of Gur (1847–1905), likewise reflected a metaphysical orientation presented from a social perspective. He insisted that even if one accepts the view that zekhut avot ended, the merit of the seventy grandchildren of Jacob who arrived in Egypt remains operative. That is because the passage of time weakens the Jewish people's connection to the forefathers, but not their connection to the more "accessible" merit of the intermediate generations.
Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York, 1909), Chapter 12 ("The Zachuth of the Fathers: Imputed Righteousness and Imputed Sin"), pp. 170–198, remains the best survey of rabbinic material on the topic of zekhut avot. See also A. Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinic Literature (London, 1920). Among recent scholars, see E. E. Urbach, The Sages (Jerusalem, 1975) 15:7, pp. 483–511; R. Kasher, "Miracles, Faith and Merit of the Fathers," (Hebrew) Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 5 (1986):15–23; A. Goshen, "The Covenant with the Fathers and the Inheritance of the Land—Between Biblical Theology and Rabbinic Thought," (Hebrew) Daat 35 (1995): 5–28; S. Carmy, "Merits of the Mothers" (Hebrew) Or haMizrah 5665 (Spring 2005). Rabbi Avraham Yitsḥaq Kook's major treatment of the topic can be found in his Iggerot Ha-Re'ayah, §379 (Jerusalem, 1943). It is available in English translation in T. Feldman, Rav A. Y. Kook: Selected Letters, pp. 141–161 (Ma'ahleh Adumim, Israel, 1986). For the Rabbi of Gur, see Sefat Emet, the sermon on Shemot 5645 (=1885) (Jerusalem, 1971).
Shalom Carmy (2005)