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Will God help us because of our ancestors?
Many people have a rather remarkable belief called zechut avot, “merit of the ancestors.” They see it implied in verses such as Leviticus 26:42, which suggests to them that God will remember the Israelite ancestors and treat their descendants well because of the ancestors’ good behavior. “I will remember My covenant with Jacob, as well as My covenant with Isaac, and I will remember My covenant with Abraham.”
Needless to say, this and similar passages, could be understood differently. Leviticus 26 may be saying that God will remember the promise God made to the ancestors, without the added notion that God will benefit the descendants because their forefathers and foremothers acted well. Be this as it may, the belief by many in zechut avot raises several questions.
1. What is zechut avot, “ancestral merit”?
2. Should people rely on their ancestor’s merit rather than their own behavior?
3. Did all Jews in the past believe in ancestral merit?
4. How do some Jews show their belief in ancestral merit today?
5. If it worked in the past, does the merit of ancestors work today?
What is zechut avot?
The word zechut, “merit,” neutral in origin, came to be charged with marked theological significance in later Jewish theology. The belief arose that people’s good deeds are credited to their “account,” like putting money in the bank. The good deeds can be used/withdrawn by the individual or by others, by petition to God, in later periods when help is needed. In other words, when a person exhausted his or her own merits, that person may benefit from zechut avot, “merits of the ancestors.” The term “ancestors” is not restricted to the patriarchs, but refers to the good behavior of any ancestor.
This notion of the beneficial power of zechut is not in the Bible itself. Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:53, defines the usage of the term zechut in the Bible as “giving everyone his own due.” For example, when Daniel states in 6:23, “My God sent His angel and shut the mouths of the lions, and they did not wound me because merit was found for me before Him,” Daniel was not referring to the merit of his ancestors but his own.
But many people disagreed with Maimonides. They understood Daniel 6 literally. They relaxed, became passive and unconcerned about their behavior, and depended upon zechut to acquire aid that they did not deserve by relying on the virtue of their predecessors.
When did the belief first manifest itself?
Zechut was mentioned for the first time by the sage Shemaiah in the first century BCE. He claimed that God divided the Red Sea for the Israelites in the days of Moses because of the zechut of Abraham. His fellow religious leader Avtalyon objected to this new notion and insisted that it was the Israelites’ own merit that saved them.
The Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch called Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ninth or tenth century) has many midrashic supplements, and included the concept of zechut avot in about fifty verses. For example, zechut was used in the following situations according to this translator.
“Lot had sheep, cattle, and tents only through Abraham’s zechut” (Genesis 13:5). “The world was created solely because of the zechut of Abraham’s future good deeds” (Genesis 14:19).
“God will deliver Jews from their enemies on the account of Abraham’s zechut” (Genesis 15:11). “God listened to Ishmael’s cry for help and saved him from dying of thirst because of Abraham’s zechut” (Genesis 21:17). “Lavan’s well flowed for twenty years due to Jacob’s zechut and stopped flowing when Jacob left the country” (Genesis 31:22). “Potiphar’s household was blessed as payment for the zechut of Joseph who was the guardian over his household” (Genesis 39:5).
How do some people today show their belief in ancestral merit?
The most popular manifestation of this belief today is seen in the prayers that many Jews make at the graves of their parents. They pray that their parents will intercede for them with God. Many do so because they feel, albeit only unconsciously, that God will listen to their parents because of the merit of their good deeds, and that their parents’ past good deeds will profit them today.
Those who feel that one should rely only on their own behavior consider this practice wrong. They add that it reflects another mistaken notion, that we need someone else to intercede for us to God.
What is the current view of ancestral merit?
A number of rabbis disagreed with Maimonides who said that “ancestral merit” never existed and argued felt that zechut may have been effective in the past, but it has ceased to work. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, for example, argued that the merit of the patriarchs existed only until the time of the prophet Elijah. Abba bar Zavda stated that it stopped in the time of King Josiah. Rabbeinu Tam stated that whatever ancestral merit existed has been exhausted.
This may have been a diplomatic way that these sages took so as not to say that people who accepted the notion of zechut were involved in superstition, but what is clear is that they and other authorities were convinced that it does not exist today, and that reliance upon it is an abandonment of one’s own responsibility. 
Needless to say, as with all Jewish concepts, since there is no Jewish catechism, we find people that maintain that the concept continues to work today.
 This is a version of an essay I wrote in my “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary” published by Urim Press.
 See the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 27d; the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a; and Midrashim Leviticus Rabbah 36:5 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:8.