Question: Is it correct that in the Heavenly court, an individual is not punished for all of the sins one committed before the age of twenty?
Answer: According to Torah law, every individual becomes accountable for his/her own actions when he/she reaches the age of Mitzvot (thirteen for boys and twelve for girls). One would be punished in the human Bet Din for one’s actions, sometimes with financial penalties and other times with lashes or even death, depending on one’s actions.
Thus, it seems that the same should apply in the Heavenly court, for it does not seem logical that the standards in the Heavenly court are lower than those in the earthly court.
Nevertheless, it is true that we find in the words of our Sages (for instance, in Shabbat 89b) that the Heavenly court does not punish one for one’s actions before the age of twenty.
Nevertheless, Hagaon Harav Yair Moshe Bachrach zt”l, author of the Responsa Chavot Yair, writes that this that one is not punished in Heaven for one’s actions before the age of twenty only applies to prohibitions not delineated explicitly by the Torah and only seems prohibited by means of logic. However, upon transgressing an explicit Torah prohibition, one is punished in the Heavenly court even before the age of twenty.
On the other hand, Maran Ha’Chida questions this position since it is quite clear from the words of the Gemara that one is not punished in the Heavenly under the age of twenty even for explicit Torah prohibitions and he explains that this is indeed the truth of the matter. The great Rishon Le’Zion, Hagaon Rabbeinu Yitzchak Yosef Shlit”a quotes the words of the Chacham Tzvi in his Sefer Shulchan Ha’Ma’arechet who answers the question posed by Maran Ha’Chida and he concludes that for transgressing an explicit Torah prohibition, the Heavenly court begins punishing an individual from the age of Mitzvot, even before the age of twenty.
Clearly, according to all opinions, there is no “free pass” for all sins one committed before the age of twenty, for the saintly Ari z”l provided his greatest disciple, Rabbeinu Chaim Vital zt”l, with a rectification process for “a sin” he had transgressed as a youngster. Thus, we see that one must rectify one’s actions, even those done before the age of Mitzvot and certainly those done after one reaches the age of Mitzvot but before the age of twenty. Similarly, the Gemara in Masechet Berachot states that Eli Ha’Kohen told Shmuel Ha’Navi when he was just a young lad that he was liable for death by the hands of Heaven for having ruled on a halachic matter before his teacher. This proves that even a youngster will eventually have to answer for all of his actions, even those performed in his youth. Indeed, the Rambam (Chapter 3 of Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah) rules that a child of nine years old who marries a maidservant designated for another man is liable to bring an Asham offering for his sin. We see clearly that even in this world, there are situations where even a child under the age of Bar Mitzvah may be punished.
The commentaries explain that the reason for this is because regarding Heavenly judgment, everything depends on one’s level of intellect, for if one is extremely wise and sharp, he will be held accountable for all of his actions, even those done in his youth. Indeed, the Tosafot quote Rabbeinu Yehuda Ha’Chassid who asks why Er and Onan (eldest sons of Yehuda) were punished with death by the hands of Heaven if they were under the age of twenty and one is not held accountable in Heaven until the age of twenty? The Tosafot answer that Heaven judges an individual based on his intellect and if the youngster is as wise as a twenty-year-old, he will be punished although he is under the age of twenty. Thus, since Shmuel Ha’Navi was extremely wise even as a young lad, he was held accountable for his actions as if he was twenty-year-old.
Summary: Although there are situations where one is not punished in the Heavenly court for sins one performed before the age of twenty, nevertheless, this is an “across the board” rule and it seems that regarding explicit Torah prohibitions, one is punished even before the age of twenty. Additionally, this is all contingent on the individual’s intellect, for if one is seen as one who is generally a responsible person, one will be judged in Heaven even if one was a youngster when one transgressed the sin.