Disciplining Children

Disciplining Children


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom


Parshat Eikev – פרשת עקב

July 31, 2021 – כב אב תשפא

This essay is sponsored by Harriet & David Rudnick, Arnie & Ellen Bernstein, and Stanley & Vivian Bernstein in memory of Jules Bernstein Z”L; by Moshe & Chavie Wilner in memory of Necha bat Rav Chaim Ury HaLevi Z”L; and by Suzy Levin in memory of Shira bat Aryeh Leib v’Rachel Z”L.

Disciplining Children

  In his waning days, Moses reminded the Israelites of the practical hardships they had experienced during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Moses asserted that God had imposed upon His people affliction, hunger, and reliance on manna in order to test their fealty to the commandments and to the covenant. He compared God’s harsh treatment of the Israelites to the treatment a father metes out to his son when trying to guide him. “And thou shalt consider in thy heart that, as a man chastens his, so the Lord thy God chastens thee (Deuteronomy 8:5).” Moses thus hoped that the Israelites would understand and appreciate the pedagogical purpose served by the prior generation’s suffering.   The Pentateuch does not clarify how a father should chasten his son, and none of the Israelite heroes is recorded as having disciplined their children. The Midrash takes notes of this phenomenon and finds fault with several Biblical worthies (Exodus Rabbah 1:1). Abraham failed to discipline Ishmael, who, according to Aggadic lore, strayed from the righteous path and committed a series of grievous sins. Isaac had a special affinity for Esau (Genesis 25:28) and failed to discipline him when he veered toward a life of criminality. David failed to chastise his sons Absalom and Adonijah, both of whom attempted to place themselves on the throne in their father’s lifetime. Scripture concedes that Adonijah’s royal pretensions were made possible because David refused to aggrieve him by questioning his political posturing (I Kings 1:6).   Proverbs repeatedly addresses the subject of disciplining children. Borrowing from Deuteronomy 8:5, the author of Proverbs, too, draws a comparison between the methods of chastening employed by God and by fathers: “For whom the Lord loves, he rebukes, as a father the son he favors (Proverbs 3:12).” More prone to internal contradictions than any other Biblical book (with the possible exception of Ecclesiastes), Proverbs adopts a favorable view of corporal punishment as a means of improving a child’s conduct. The Biblical source for the English epigram “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him early (13:24).” Similarly, “If folly settles in the heart of a lad, the rod of discipline will remove it (22:15).” Proverbs also cites family honor and the need to prevent a shameful episode as reasons to use both words and physical force in disciplining a minor. “Rod and reproof produce wisdom, but a lad out of control is a disgrace to his mother (29:15).” Lest one fear that an overly zealous lashing will prove fatal for the child, Proverbs offers word of reassurance: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod he will not die (23:13).” Moreover, the next verse claims that whipping the child is effective in preserving and sustaining life. “Beat him with a rod and you will save him from the grave (23:14).” Commentators are divided on whether to interpret the verse literally or whether it is a figurative expression not relating to death itself but a hellish afterlife. The Midrash cites Proverbs 23 as proof that whippings are to be cherished because by submitting to them one becomes beloved in the eyes of the Heavenly Father (Midrash Tannaim Deuteronomy 25:3).   Yet even Proverbs recognizes that there are limits to the effectiveness of corporal punishment. “A rebuke works on an intelligent man more than one hundred blows on a fool (Proverbs 17:10).” Moreover, parents must be careful not to employ such methods of discipline while they are consumed with malicious rage. “Discipline your son while there is hope, but do not set your heart on his destruction (19:18).” Rashi and Metzudat David explain the verse to mean that a parent cannot bludgeon a child to death over the minor’s bad behavior. This guidance seems to be at odds with the Scriptural notion of executing a rebellious child (Deuteronomy 21:21), although it must also be acknowledged that the majority view of the sages is that the “rebellious son” law was, in fact, never implemented (Tosefta Sanhedrin 11:6).   While rabbinic Judaism recognized the legitimacy of corporal punishment generally, and its implementation in the education of minors specifically, the sages often remarked that a light-handed approach was preferable. The Scriptural basis for this concern about overusing the whip is that “He may be given up to forty lashes, but not more, lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother be degraded before your eyes (Deuteronomy 25:3).” In that spirit, Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that one should push away a child with the left (weaker) hand and bring him near with the right (stronger) hand (Sotah 47a).   The sages banned the disciplinary tactic of scaring a child with the promise of a future pummeling for a past offense. In the Minor Tractates, two tragic stories are recounted: a) The son of Gorgias of Lydda ran away from school. Gorgias threatened to punish the child, who, in a state of panic, proceeded to commit suicide in a pit. b) A child in Bene Brak accidentally broke a bottle on the Sabbath. His father threatened to punish him, so he ran away and committed suicide. Despite the prohibition on offering funerary rites to suicides, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba, respectively, ruled in these cases that the children should been afforded proper burial. The sages learned from these stories that a parent must either immediately impose physical punishment or say nothing at all about it (Semachot 2:4-5).   The sages worried about parents’ creating an overly frightful and menacing home environment. They blamed extreme household dread for the thousands of lives lost in the “Concubine of Gibeah” incident (Gittin 6b). The Mishnah instructs the head of the household to say three things shortly before the onset of the Sabbath: a) Have you tithed the produce? b) Have you prepared the Eruv? c) Kindle the Sabbath light (Mishnah Shabbat 2:7). The Gemara stresses that these pre-Sabbath statements must be said gently. Barking orders fosters an environment of unhealthy fear and increases the possibility of a ritual infraction as members of the household will surreptitiously violate the Sabbath in order that they not be accused of slacking.   The Talmud recommends that shoelaces should be used for lashing a child (Baba Bathra 21a). Rashi explained that a soft item is used so that the child will not be harmed. Rambam banned the use of rods or sticks, permitting only a small strap. He emphasized that the whipping must not be cruel in nature and may not be conducted in the manner one would strike an enemy (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:2). These limits on the prerogatives of teachers and parents regarding striking a child are codified in Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 245:10).   Rabbinic literature addresses the appropriate age range for disciplinary measures. At Usha, the Tannaim enacted guidelines for dealing with a child who refuses to study Torah. Until he reaches the age of twelve, gentle encouragement is the proper course of action. From age twelve and up, more aggressive methods are acceptable (Ketubot 50a). Rashi understood those aggressive methods to include lashing and withholding food. As for misbehaving small children, the Rishonim note that corporal punishment should not be employed if the child is too young to understand why he is being hit. Sefer Hasidim applies this concept to a toddler who urinates or defecates on Jewish books (section 919). It is also problematic to hit a child who is too old and might be inclined to strike back (Moed Katan 17a). Striking a parent is a capital crime (Exodus 21:15). For a parent to provoke the child by throwing the first punch is a violation of the requirement not to place a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14). The halakhists offer differing opinions about what age is considered “grown up” for these purposes. Shulhan Arukh considered that age to be 22 or 24 (Yoreh Deah 240:20). Pitchei Teshuvh 240:17 posits that a married man, even if still a teenager, is considered a grown up with regard to confrontational situations with his father. Kitzur Shulhan Arukh suggests that there is no specific age at which this rule takes effect. Rather, each child has to be assessed individually regarding the likelihood that he will respond violently to disciplinary measures (Kitzur 143:18).   In modern times, fortunately, corporal punishment of children has been rejected by many cultures and outlawed in many jurisdictions. The trend away from spanking is noticeable in the halakhic writings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He believed that children are better served by kindness, not ferocity. He posited that the less frequently parents resort to physical force the more likely their children will comply in those rare instances when force is used (Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:76). Rabbi Feinstein clarified that it is sinful to strike anyone, even a child in a disciplinary situation, with a wooden stick. He further warned that even when a parent strikes a child with a leather strap, the blow must not be cruel or injurious (4:30). Rabbi Feinstein was once asked whether it was permissible for a couple to use contraception in light of their earlier struggles disciplining their older children and the husband’s penchant for smacking the rowdy kids. Rabbi Feinstein responded bluntly that spanking children serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose and that the father did so because of his own mental disorder (Iggerot Moshe Even Ha-Ezer 4:68).   Even in the most parochial sectors of the Jewish world, attitudes about corporal punishment qua pedagogical tool are changing. In the fictional account, Shulem Shtisel loses his job after being caught on video slapping a disrespectful student. Shulem appealed to the yeshiva’s lay leadership by noting that all of them had been slapped at one point or another by a teacher and that it was considered socially acceptable. The response to Shulem was that times had changed. And they have, for the better.   Raising well-behaved children is no simple task. The tools at our disposal seem to be fewer than ever before while the challenges are greater. Still, the younger generation must be set on the proper path. Just as God was able to chasten the Israelites in the wilderness, so must contemporary parents find the right mix of words to steer their progeny toward living lives of righteousness.