Dear Rabbi,

I was wondering what actually happens to babies and people with special needs when they die. Also, what happens to those who don’t yet know right from wrong?

When, in G‑d’s eyes, are we truly responsible for our actions?



G‑d, the Creator of each individual, knows the abilities of each individual, and holds each accountable according to his or her capacity. The Sages say, “The Holy One does not come with undue demands of His creations.”1

In the words of Maimonides in his magnum opus on Jewish law:

The weighing of sins and merits is carried out according to the wisdom of the Knowing G‑d. He knows how to measure merits against sins.2

Certainly, children, as well as the mentally limited, cannot be considered “sinful” in any sense. We do not know why G‑d causes some people to be born with mental or physical illness which prevents them from living normal lives, or even living into adulthood.

The concept of reincarnation explains this. When a person (i.e., a soul) has accomplished what it has to in this world, there may be something it still needs to clear up, and a shortened or limited life may be what the soul needs to wrap up its work down here. It is definitely the case that, as the soul exists in heaven, there is no mental limitation, nor physical pain.

Similarly, if someone grew up without being educated to observe Jewish traditions, G‑d does not hold that person accountable for what he or she never knew. Once a person knows something, he or she should strive to observe it properly.

The age of responsibility for observing G‑d’s commandments is thirteen for a boy and twelve for a girl. Even so, it is said that the Heavenly Court does not punish a person younger than twenty years old.3

At the same time, anything wrong a person does has, on some minute spiritual level, an effect on the soul. For this reason, it is proper to prevent children from doing wrong even before they reach the age of responsibility; likewise, it is appropriate for an adult to spiritually repair wrongdoings done as a child.

Please see What Happens After We Die? from our Jewish Death and Mourning site.

Please let me know if this helps,

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Ask the Rabbi @ The Judaism