“Fairness” of Collective Punishment


I have always been confused about the concept of punishing the people as a group for the sins of some. Indeed everyone did not sin, yet “the people of Israel” must endure punishment for the transgressions of some. I have been taught each of us must bear the responsibility for our actions. I don’t recall being taught that I am responsible for the actions of others, even people I do not know nor have ever met. Yet, it seems that whenever there is a terrible event, wars, exiles, the holocaust, etc., it is because we are all being punished for the transgressions of some. I need a better explanation than a cryptic quotation from the Torah or Talmud. I would like very much to have a more complete explanation.



  1. If each person were “an island” then there would be no answer to your question. If each person was responsible only for himself and his actions then it would be terribly unfair to punish anyone for the actions of others. However, we are Jews, and Jews are not only individuals, we are also a part of a greater concept called the Chosen Nation.

    Our Sages state in Tractate Shavuot 39a that “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh l’Zeh” – that we are all guarantors one for the other. Why is that? Because the Jewish Nation is not a nation that is comprised of individuals. Rather, the Jewish Nation is the totality of all who belong to it. This means that my actions have a direct impact not just on me but on the entire Jewish Nation – both for the good and for the bad. That, in turns, means that when a person behaves that is contrary to the way that God has defined for us, it has a detrimental effect on everyone. The opposite is just as true. A person who does the Will the God has an impact on those around him, and they, in turn, can spiritually elevate those closest to him (either in physical or emotional proximity). The impact can be subliminal, but it is passed on and on.

    I always explain this concept to my students by telling them the Jewish People can be likened to a pearl necklace. Each member is a pearl and we are all attached via the Torah. When one of the pearls is lifted upwards (i.e. when a Jew does a Mitzva) the entire necklace is drawn up together with it. The opposite is also true, and when a pearl is drawn downwards (i.e. when a Jew transgresses) the necklace is pulled in the same direction.

    Sometimes the actions of the Jewish Nation as a whole are not as they are supposed to be, which is the cause of a Divine reaction that is felt throughout the entire Nation. It is felt by the righteous and the wicked alike, together with everyone else in between, because “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh l’Zeh”.

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team