Our Gemara on Amud Aleph recounts an incident where a rebbe was removed from his position because he was “negligent.” Rashi explains, “he beat them more than necessary.” Rashi’s choice of words indicates that the problem was not that he hit the children, per se, but that he beat them too much. Let us discuss some modern and ancient Jewish and halakhic perspectives regarding corporal punishment of children.
While parents have been using corporal punishment as a way to discipline children for thousands of years, and there are still many who do so, there are parents, educators, and professionals who consider it unhealthy and inappropriate to punish children by hitting them. There are objections and concerns about using physical force with children, which over time have become increasingly incorporated into the norms and values of Jewish people who live in the modern world. Perhaps part of this is due to increased awareness and vigilance regarding child abuse response, reporting, and prevention, which has become accepted in nearly all Jewish sects and communities.
(It is important to note that corporal punishment is not necessarily child abuse. Even if one maintains that hitting children is an ineffective or inappropriate parenting practice, it still is not deemed abuse. According to a NYC guide for parents on child abuse, “Using corporal punishment is not necessarily neglect. If the punishment harms the child (causes pain, leaves a mark, etc), it could be considered excessive corporal punishment, which is neglect.”)
The most famous verses regarding corporal punishment of children are found in Mishle:
“One who holds back the rod hates his son” (13:24).
“Foolishness is bound to the heart of the lad, while the rod of reproof will keep him from it” (22:15).
“Do not withhold reproof from a lad, for if you hit him with the rod he will not die from it. If you hit him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol” (22:13-14).
“A rod of rebuke brings wisdom, but a lad left to his own devices humiliates his mother” (29:15).
The Mishna and Talmud also speak of corporal punishment, clearly accepting it as a norm if not even an ideal:
“Just as we find that the one who chops wood in the forest (as described by the verse as being liable for exile if he kills accidentally) enters freely on personal matters, so too all cases of accidental murder must be while tending to personal matters. This excludes one who hits his son or hits his student (to discipline him), which is a mitzvah” (Makos 8a).
The Talmud goes on to even suggest that based on the verse in Mishle 29:17, it is a mitzvah to hit the child even if he is compliant, presumably to teach him humility and assert parental authority (Ibid.)
However, Rav Moshe Feinstein interprets the Talmud differently. The Talmud was suggesting it is a mitzvah to hit a child who previously disobeyed and now is compliant, as that is still necessary to enforce future obedience. But it would not be a mitzvah to hit a child who has not been disobedient at all (Igros Moshe Y.D. 1:140. This response was fittingly written to Rav Feinstein’s son, Rav Dovid Feinstein).
Notwithstanding that it was accepted to discipline children via hitting them, Rambam warns:
“Whoever hits a Jewish person of good standing, whether he be a minor or an adult… in a quarrelsome manner violates a negative commandment” (Mishne Torah ChovelUmazik 5:1).
Rav Moshe Feinstein interprets the term “quarrelsome manner” (nitzayon) as hitting for a past misdeed. He explains that the purpose of hitting in the mitzvah of chinuch is to train future behavior, not to punish or avenge past deeds. This is an important distinction because now, according to this, the term corporal punishment in Judaism is actually a misnomer. It is no longer a punishment but rather an inducement or disciplinary action to affect future behavior and must be performed by a parent with that intention. If not, such action may violate a Torah prohibition against hitting a fellow Jew, as described by Maimonides above (Igros Moshe C.M. 6:3).
Rambam even warns against feeling anger when disciplining a child; instead, he must only appear angry to instill discipline while still remaining calm inside (Deos 2:7). Similarly, Rav Feinstein rules that in order to mete out corporal rebuke, the parent or teacher must be thoroughly convinced that it will be helpful and justified, and it must be done in a state of calm thoughtfulness, without any anger. Rav Feinstein compares it to an act of a rabbinical court, and therefore, it requires due process and valid evidence (Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:103).
There are opinions that, on the surface, seem to take a stricter and more punishing approach. For example, Orchos Tzadikim states:
“One must hit his son with the rod of rebuke, even with cruelty, because this kind of cruelty is actually merciful [on his soul]” (The Gate of Mercy, Gate 7).
While the Orchos Tzadikkim is not contradicting Rambam in actuality, as he could be referring to outward behavior and not inner mental states, one is still left with an overall impression of encouraging harsher responses than Rav Feinstein, Rambam, and some other sources we shall soon see.
There are other instances discussed in the Talmud in which hitting a child would be forbidden:
“It was taught in a beraisa, ‘Do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man (Vayikra 19:14).’ This verse refers to one who hits his big son (‘beno ha-godol’).” (Moed Kattan 17a).
The Talmud rules that since a “big” son might be induced to retaliate against his father’s violence toward him, the mere act of hitting him is forbidden because it is considered a provocation to sin.
While ordinarily the word “godol” in reference to a son means age 13, in this context, it is difficult to know. It could possibly mean an even older child because it is difficult to ascertain at what age the Talmud considered the child’s sense of self to be strong enough that we should fear retaliation against his father. However, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch rules:
“This aspect of being big (‘gadlus’) is not dependent on his age. Rather, it is determined based on the nature of each child, at whatever age there is a concern that he will defy and fight back… and this can be even younger than bar mitzvah age” (143:18. Similar sentiments are echoed by Rav Shlomo Wolbe in the first chapter of Zeriya Ubinyan Bechinuch).
There are poskim who spoke about child-rearing and made it clear that they were indeed following the guidance of modern psychologists. For example, Rav Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg responds to a question regarding a teenage boy who had a hobby that involved practices which were problematic halachically. He instructs the petitioner as follows:
“For pedagogical reasons, it is proper to abstain from control tactics with a child who is straying from the path. We already mentioned that the prohibition of hitting an older son in Moed Kattan (17a) is not just referring to hitting but any means of force that might bring about an opposite reaction. The modern pedagogical experts have already proven that forcing… evokes in the young man, who is at the age of adolescence, oppositional behavior and rebellion” (Responsa Seredei Eish 3:95).
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find Rav Eliyahu Dessler explicitly rejecting modern psychological concerns about the damage of corporal punishment as ideas alien to the Torah and condones hitting children as an important part of chinuch (Michtav M’Eliyahu vol. 3, p. 360).
There is a verse in the beginning of Melachim (I:1:16) that criticizes King David for not disciplining his son Adoniyah, which seems to indicate that a moderate, non-corporal approach was normative as well. The verse states, “And his father had not grieved him ever, saying to him, ‘Why have you done so?'” It would seem that King David was held accountable for not having given his son verbal rebuke, which indicates that had he done so, this may have been sufficient.
It appears that while we can find numerous Jewish sources that advocate corporal punishment, with varying degrees of harshness, enthusiasm, and zeal, there are also long-standing and authentic traditions that greatly mitigate, limit, and require moderation. These ideas do not seem to be merely secular, as we have quoted medieval sources as well.
In addition, there may not be one single Torah approach or a one-size-fits-all method. Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes:
“Concerning success in child-rearing, there is no general rule regarding how to act since it depends on the traits with which Hashem has graced the son or daughter. Sometimes it is good to go with firmness, and sometimes it’s better to go with gentleness and pleasantness; most of the time, it’s better with pleasantness and gentleness” (Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah, 3:76).
Similarly, Peleh Yoetz, while quite supportive of corporal punishment, also recognizes the need to tailor the approach to each child:
“Everything is in accordance with the understanding of the son, and, according to his age, [the father] should vary his interventions, sometimes with hitting, sometimes with admonishments, sometimes with hardness, sometimes with softness, sometimes with treats and gifts, sometimes with good things. Wisdom and understanding are required to descend into the sons’ inner selves” (Erech “Chinuch”).
In conclusion, the topic of corporal punishment in Jewish pedagogy is nuanced and multifaceted. While there are sources that advocate for the use of physical discipline, there are also voices that emphasize the importance of moderation, intentionality, and understanding the individual child’s needs. It is crucial to approach the subject with sensitivity, taking into account contemporary knowledge and the well-being of the child, while also respecting the diverse perspectives within Jewish tradition.