Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses a scenario where a husband affirms his wife’s vow with spiteful intention, while in his heart still intending to annul it. The phrase the Gemara uses is “להקניט” which I think we could fairly translate as “to engage in quarrel, or to provoke”. The best word might be “incite”, which does bear homophonic similarity, but I have not been able to find an etymological link.
The Rishonim describe the husband’s intentions with subtle differences and nuances. For example, Ran says it is to provoke her and cause her anguish, but the Mefaresh (aka what the Vilna Shas called“Rashi” on Nedarim, but is not) says he did it in order to teach her a lesson. That is, his motives were that she should not have a cavalier attitude toward vows, so he made it a little more difficult for her,and caused her a little more distress before ultimately annuling the vow.
This phrase “להקניט”, and this idea, is discussed in a similar way, regarding stealing an object from somebody else, with the intention to actually return it in Bava Metzi’a (61b):
ויקרא יט, יא) לא תגנובו דכתב רחמנא למה לי לכדתניא (שמות כ, יב) לא תגנוב על מנת למיקט לא תגנוב על מנת לשלם תשלומי כפל
The Gemara asks: Why do I need the prohibition: “You shall not steal” (Leviticus 19:11), that the Merciful One wrote? This is yet another prohibition against taking money by illegitimate means, and it could be derived from the other prohibitions mentioned previously. The Gemara answers that it is necessary for the Merciful One to write that prohibition for that which is taught in a baraita: “You shall not steal” applies in all circumstances, even if you do so only in order to aggravate the victim; “you shall not steal” applies in all circumstances, even if you do so in order to pay the double payment as a gift to the person from whom you stole.
In the actual text of the Gemara, no pure motivation is explained for the act of theft, and it would appear that it is merely out of spite or teasing. However, Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 4:8) states that this even applies when one steals an object that was left out in a neglectful manner, and the intention of the person who “stole” it was, to “teach him a lesson”. Even so, even when the motivations are pure, Midrash Tanchuma says it is still forbidden. This is similarly confirmed by Hagahos Rabbenu Peretz Sefer Hamitzvos Kattan 261.
This comes up in a responsum by Rav Henkin (Shu”t Bnei Banim II:47) regarding the permissibility of rebbeim and teachers to confiscate items that children are playing with in class. He makes a number of points:
- Based on the Tanchuma, practices such as teachers permanently confiscating objects ought to be forbidden. We clearly see that, even though in certain areas punishment is permitted for a constructive purpose, Midrash Tanchuma forbade theft for a constructive purpose.
- Even if the leadership of the school makes some kind of advance directive and condition, it must be accepted by the entire parent body and the student body. He compares this to what is stated in Shulkhan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 231:25, which discusses the forms of consent, necessary by workers guilds.
He also draws two additional distinctions:
- If the object itself is deemed harmful and forbidden in an absolute sense, it is permitted to take it away. This is because it is not to teach him a lesson alone, it is actually protecting him.
- If the object is interfering with his studies, it may be temporarily confiscated in order that he may engage in the studies. However, it must be promptly returned right after the lesson. (My father Z”L, whom we will quote later, used to say, “I will just hold this for bit for safekeeping, seeing as it is interfering with your learning.”) Additionally, it cannot be taken away as a punishment as this would fit into the prohibition of the Midrash Tanchuma. He gives an example of a child playing with a ball. If he is playing with the ball in the middle of class, it can be temporarily taken away. If he was playing with the ball before class, and now the teacher is angry at him because he came late to class, and he wants to take away the ball to “punish him“ and “teach him a lesson“, that is forbidden.
There is a Yeshiva that is famous for having a fish tank in its lobby, where confiscated cell phones are executed by means of drowning. I can sympathize with the staff of yeshiva, having had many struggles with enforcing an important boundary. However, is it really permitted to do such a thing? According to Rabbi Henkin, it certainly would be permitted to confiscate the phone, but it would have to be returned at the end of the day. Now, if it was an unfiltered smartphone, the other clause of Rabbi Henkin likely applies, as the object of danger is being removed from the child permanently. However, even so, I would imagine it depends if the phone belongs to the child or the parents. If the phone belongs to the parents, I don’t see how the yeshiva would have a right to take that phone away or destroy it; they should merely hand it over to the parents and sternly instruct them to keep the phone away from the child. Additionally, what if it was not a smart phone and it was just a flip phone, or it was a kosher phone that was strongly filtered? In that case again, the phone is not an absolute danger. In that case, according to Rabbi Henkin, in order, for that yeshiva to have that policy, all the students and parents would need to sign an agreement at the beginning of the year along with the tuition forms.
Up to now we have discussed the halakha. We also must consider the psychology and hashkafa of such a spiteful approach. Oftentimes, trying to “teach them a lesson“ comes across as nasty and aggressive. One could interpret the cell phone graveyard in the lobby as a rather mocking and spiteful gesture. On the other hand, perhaps the administration of the school rationalized the argument that it is along the sentiment of the verse in Devarim (17:3):
וְכׇל־הָעָ֖ם יִשְׁמְע֣וּ וְיִרָ֑אוּ וְלֹ֥א יְזִיד֖וּן עֽוֹד
all the people will hear and be afraid and will not act presumptuously again.
However, I can only tell you that my father Z”L, a renowned mechanech with a career spanning over 60 years, decried such practices to be abhorrent and counterproductive with children.