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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II


Jewish Views of the Corporal Punishment of Children

The readings for the two days of Rosh Hashanah both deal with Isaac, the first Jewish child. That such readings were chosen for this major holiday emphasizes the importance of children in Jewish life, not just for the parents of any particular child, but for the Jewish people as a whole. They are the future of the Jewish people, a fact which is given additional significance because Judaism is a religion which does not proselytize. According to the Talmud, every obligation which Jewish law places upon a father also falls on the community. Obligations regarding the care and rearing of children thus draw the Jewish community together, with all of us responsible for our collective children. We experienced this sense of shared responsibility for children in Israel, where strangers felt free to offer such unsolicited advice on child care as, “It’s cold outside today. That child should be wearing a sweater!”

The story of the binding of Isaac gives us just a glimpse of the relationship between Isaac and his father. From this fleeting picture, however, we perceive a relationship of mutual trust. Isaac doesn’t grumble over getting up early in the morning, or object to an unexplained three day journey, he questions nothing his father does, only asking, “...where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” and accepts his father’s enigmatic, “God will see to the sheep for his burnt offering, my son.”

On Abraham’s part there is no defensive anger toward his son. He feels no need to explain. Isaac’s relationship with his father seems to parallel Abraham’s relationship with God. הננִי, “Here I am,” ready to listen, to give to you my full focused attention.

The tradition interpretation of the meaning of this story is that it is to teach us that we, as Jews, should not practice human sacrifice, that ours is a god who will not demand this of us. God affirms this explicitly by putting Abraham to the test and then commanding him not to carry out the sacrifice. This was at a point in time, of course, when the sacrifice of children played an important part in the religious ceremonies of many other peoples.

The Caananites practiced child sacrifice, as did the citizens of Carthage, where modern excavations found the skulls of some 400 infants and children apparently sacrificed in a vain effort to stave off the fall of that city to Rome. The Greeks were well known for the practice of “exposing” deformed or unwanted infants, abandoning them in a lonely place to die of exposure to the elements or to be eaten by wild animals. In China, today, infanticide is practiced when a child of the “wrong” sex is born, as the state frowns upon a couple having more than one child, and some couples do not want to use up their allotted slot for a girl.

But, we, as Jews, go beyond just refraining from the sacrifice of children. We are, in fact, preoccupied with teaching them and are repeatedly commanded to do so—the first people in history who really cared about the education of children, seeing it as a major task of both parents and the community. Furthermore, we are given instructions about how to carry out the task of educating children. One of our major holidays, Passover, has as its primary focus the teaching of children. “And you shall tell it to your child on that day.” Tell it so well, in fact, that the child will feel as if he, personally, experienced the exodus from Egypt. On Pesach we are to teach our children with the warmth of family togetherness, good things to eat, special blessings, and interesting objects on the seder plate which will cause them to ask spontaneously the questions which are formalized in the traditional four questions. According to rabbinic opinion, you cannot fulfill the commandment to keep Passover unless you participate in teaching a child on that day.

In some parts of Eastern Europe it was traditional to begin teaching three-year-olds the Hebrew alphabet by forming the letter aleph in honey and letting them lick it off. Learning was meant to be sweet, a cultural value which continues to be reflected in the academic achievements of Jews today.

Last summer the papers carried stories about a religious commune in Michigan which calls itself the Black Hebrew Israelite Jews, also known as the House of Judah. A child of ten was murdered there as a result of “punishment” with a baseball bat. My eight-year-old son reads the papers, too, and asked me, “Do Jews really believe in beating children?”

His question renewed my own interest in why Jews don’t believe in beating children, as the fundamentalist Protestant sects which defend their use of corporal punishment on religious grounds cite passages from Proverbs, in our Bible, their Old Testament. I consulted an Orthodox rabbi (an old friend who is also a clinical psychologist), Don Brand, regarding the passages in Proverbs which seem, in translation, to justify the use of corporal punishment as a method of child rearing. Below is one of the oft-quoted passages used to defend corporal punishment in two versions, the King James translation used by Protestants and the rabbi’s translation and interpretation of the same passage.

“He that spareth his rod hateth his son but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” [Proverbs 13:24, King James translation]:

“Withhold the scepter [authority] and you hate your child.” [Rabbi’s translation]

He explained as follows: the word שבט, shavet, which the King James version translates as “rod” actually means authority, from the word “scepter,” which was the symbol of kingly authority. This word is always used in describing authority, i.e., the king. It also means “tribe,” the line of descent of authority. The passage, therefore, means that if you withhold authority; you hate your child, or, put more simply, you should teach your child to respect authority. It has nothing to do with hitting children. The scepter was not used as an object for hitting anyone.

He further explained that the Book of Proverbs is one which we don’t “learn out” from, meaning that it is not a book which we use in making Jewish law (they are only proverbs, after all). It is also important to recognize that this particular verse is never referred to at all in the Talmud because it is a philosophical comment, rather than a directive with specificity such as, “Teach the child according to his way,” which is a commandment.

“What do the rabbis say about the corporal punishment of children?” was my next question to Dr. Brand. He spread out more and more books of Gemara on the table and, looking up here and there, muttering to himself in Aramaic so that he would be absolutely sure he was not telling me anything in error, pieced together the following rules:

  1. Children can and should be punished, but this is differentiable from hitting which is approved of only under special circumstances.
  2. A child may be hit only while he is in the act of resolutely defining himself away from performing a mitzvah. This means more than just failing to perform a mitzvah, or even sinning. If he is separating himself from the common weal of religious existence, and to hit him is the only way you can fulfill your obligation to teach him, then you may do it, but in some sense, it represents failure on your part as a parent to have to go to this extreme.
  3. Therefore, you may not hit a child who is so young that he/she cannot understand the performance of a mitzvah.
  4. You may not hit a child big enough so that he/she is likely to hit you back! For a child to hit a parent is a sin; if a parent were to hit a child and the child hit him back, the parent would have been the cause of the child’s sin, thereby, himself, sinning.
  5. A child may be hit only with something small, certainly nothing large enough or hard enough to make a bruise or a welt. It has to be small enough and thin enough to break easily. A hand may not be used because it does not meet these criteria.

“What could be so small and thin?” I asked. Once again he looked it up. Arachna demasna was the Aramaic term. This is a reed or a sedge, a type of thick grass, not nearly so thick as a cattail, more the size of stalk of wheat, which grows in wet or swampy areas. It was used for shoelaces and breaks easily, so easily in fact, that one commentary gives the likelihood of their breaking as a reason for the kohanim not wearing shoes when they say the blessing over the people. If their shoelaces were to break this would distract them from concentrating on the blessing.

With all of the above restrictions, we are basically reduced to corporal punishment with a wet noodle! No wonder Jews have a low rate of child abuse! The question becomes, then, what can we do instead? Rabbi Brand gave the following as examples of passages in Proverbs which we can learn from, about Jewish ways of child rearing:

“Teach the child according to his way [path, needs], and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

“Hear the instruction of your father and forsake not the Torah of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8)

“Whom the Lord loves he corrects, even as a father the child in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:12)

“My child, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” (Proverbs 23:26)

Thus, if we read Proverbs correctly, we are left with principles which present-day psychology would recommend on the basis of both research and clinical experience. The way to rear a child so that he/she will not rise up and kill you (“Punish your child and he will let you live,” Proverbs 29:17) is through:

  1. Modeling. Behave in ways you are proud to have your child imitate. Avoid hypocrisy; practice what you preach.
  2. Direct instruction. Make clear your rules and expectations. Give explanations as to why some behavior is desirable and some is not, so that the child can generalize your values to new situations.
  3. Instruct at the child’s present level of understanding. Educational research tells us that teaching should be targeted to the “zone of proximal development,” the point at which the material is neither too hard nor too easy for the child. Instruction should also take into account the child’s emotional needs.
  4. Correct errors immediately. In this way, mistakes are not allowed to persist and become habits. Talking about non-current error is nagging and should be avoided.
  5. Differential reinforcement of desired and non-desired behavior. God is very big on this, by the way. Remember the Shema? “... and if you hearken diligently unto my commandments ... I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil ... and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you.”

God is our model for parenting. This point is frequently made in biblical writing. And for all of us who are only human, it is comforting to know that there are times when God gets furious and simply zaps the wicked. This gives us permission to blow up from time to time, but God is also sorry right away, and forgives his people. This too, is an important aspect of parenting which we should strive to emulate. “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, surpassingly patient and merciful.”

—Elizabeth A. Seagull
September 9, 1983





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