VIRTUE, ORIGINAL (Hebr. Zekut Abot, literally "merit of the Fathers"):

A term invented by S. Levy as a contrast to the expression "original sin," and designating the specifically Jewish concept of the influence of the virtue of ancestors upon descendants. The doctrine asserts that God visits the virtues of the fathers upon the children for His name's sake and as a mark of grace; but it would appear, on the other hand, that the principle applies only when the children continue the piety of their parents. The Biblical basis for the doctrine is to be found in the second commandment (Ex. xx. 5), which states that God shows mercy unto thousands of generations that love Him and keep His commandments, and in Ps. ciii. 17-18, "the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them." Thus Isaac was promised a blessing because Abraham had kept God's commandments (Gen. xxvi. 2-5); and the doctrine is also formulated in the first benediction of the "Shemoneh 'Esreh," which is technically known as the blessing of "Abot," or "the Fathers." The concept is intimately connected with the idea of the covenant with the Patriarchs, to which an appeal is made in Ex. xxxii. 13; Lev. xxvi. 42, 44, 45; and Deut. vii. 12, while an allusion to it is contained in the phrase "his great name's sake" (I Sam. xii. 22; comp. Ezek. xxxvi. 21, 23), which recalls the covenant. It thus forms part of the concept of the Chosen People.

Result of Grace.

If the covenant is still kept with descendants, though they be unworthy, this is the result of God's grace ("ḥesed"); and it is possible that the original form of the expression was "ḥesed Abot" (= "grace of the Fathers." The Targum, however, uses "zekut" to translate the biblical Hebrew "zedakah" (comp. Gen. xv. 6; Deut. ix. 5, 6). The injunction of the second commandment is explained by the Targum and the Talmud (Sanh. 27b) on the principle that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children only when they imitate the deeds of their parents (see Rashi and Ibn Ezra ad loc.). This doctrine underlies the Jewish conception of life, drawing its inspiration from an idealized past (comp. "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you," Isa. li. 2), and laying stress upon tradition and upon the ritual ceremonies intended to keep tradition alive. It is closely associated, moreover, with the idea of an organic or dynamic solidarity in Israel as a body existent through past, present, and future; and the principle that "all Jews are responsible one for another" is specifically connected in the Talmud with the idea of original virtue (Sanh. 27b; Shab. 39a; R. H. iii.).

Virtues to the Virtuous.

The doctrine under consideration is limited by the concept of the reward of virtue, which, according to Jewish teaching, is the opportunity of performing further virtuous acts. "The wages of virtue is virtue" (Ab. iv. 2), and "when the righteous do the will of God, they acquire strength and power to perform further acts of righteousness" (Yalḳ, Lam. 44). Special warning is given against depending upon original virtue, so that even one who is exceedingly righteous should not eat from (that is, depend upon) the merit of his fathers (Sanh. 81a). The passage Cant. i. 5: "I am black, but comely" is interpreted as meaning: Israel says: "I am black through my own works, but comely through the works of my fathers" (Cant. R. ad loc.; Ex. R. xxiii.), while "as a vine is supported by a prop, though made of dead wood, so Israel is supported by the merit of the Fathers, though it already sleeps in death." Original virtue is thus only an accessory. It would appear that the virtues of the fathers were believed to have acquired a right to a greater reward than could be given to them, and that this residue was therefore due to the children. Those who looked forward to an immediate reward were accordingly reproved, for if the Patriarchs had doneso there would have been no store of original virtue for their descendants (Lev. R. xxxvi.; Ex. R. xliv.). See Patriarchs.

Like the Patriarchs, the later saints were regarded as a source of original virtue for their descendants or for Israel, and in addition to Moses, Joshua, David, Hezekiah, and Ezra, Hillel, Johanan b. Zakkai, and Meïr are especially mentioned as storing up works which shall speak for their descendants (Lev. R. ii.). On the other hand, the original virtue of the Patriarchs was regarded by some as lasting only till the time of Hosea (Shab. 55a) or until the days of Hezekiah (Lev. R. xxxvi.), though it was still operative in keeping exiled Israel in existence up to the time of redemption (Gen. R. lxx.); and in the Targum Yerushalmi to Deut. xxviii. 15 God assures "the Fathers of the world" that their merit will never cease to be efficacious.

The doctrine of original virtue is only the theological side of the principle of heredity, with the consequences and responsibilities which this involves. The community of interest between parents and children is emphasized in a special Jewish manner which at times leads to the diametrically opposite concept of the influence of descendants upon ancestors; so that the penalty of death is said to have been inflicted upon Adam because of the sins of Nebuchadnezzar and Hiram (Gen. R. ix.). The extension of the concept of God's grace even to unrighteous children of righteous parents is, moreover, an attribution to the Supreme Being of the ordinary attitude of men toward the degenerate children of distinguished or pious parents. The influence of a store of merit collected for the use of succeeding generations is the theological aspect of the concept of progress and civilization, which is practically a store of ancestral merits.

  • S. Levy, The Doctrine of Original Virtue, in The Jewish Literary Annual, pp. 12-32, London, 1905;
  • Weber, Jüdische Theologie, 2d ed., pp. 292-297;
  • Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism, i. 34, ii. 289;
  • I. Abrahams, in J. Q. R. xvi. 586.
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