Welcome to session #11, which comes to you on the Eve of the Shavuoth holiday. The Bible calls Shavuoth, Chag Shavuoth (The Festival of Weeks); The Festival of Harvest; and the Day of First Fruits. Shavuoth, one of the three "Pilgrim festivals" (regalim), is the climax of the "Sefirat haOmer" (counting of seven complete weeks), from the second day of Pesach to the day after the seventh week when a "new meal-offering" was to be offered in the Temple.

Yet, of all these descriptions in the Bible, the holiday is best known by all Jews as "zman matan Torateinu", the time of the giving of our Torah! The Talmud states that the Ten Commandments were spoken by the Almighty on the sixth day of Sivan. It is, in essence is the commemoration of the imposition of self discipline by the Jewish people in their acceptance of the Bible with its commandments which encompass all of life. The Midrash tells us that before giving the Torah to the Jewish people, the Almighty offered it to the other nations of the world, however, none would accept it because it meant the adherence to the discipline of the commandments. The people of Israel accepted the commandments without question by declaring " Naase V'Nishma"! - We will do and we will understand….The people of Israel imposed upon themselves a life-style of Torah discipline.

Following our discussions of early childhood education in sessions 9 and 10, we are ready to embark on the timely session on the Biblical perspective on "Discipline".



Parental discipline seeks to limit and restrict the influence of factors in the environment, and is intended to teach children responsibility, self-control, and the ability to defer the need for self-satisfaction. In this sense it has a dual role in the Biblical perspective, and hence, in Judaism. On one hand, it is a means of instruction; on the other, it is punishment for wrongdoing. Judaism provides humanistic guidelines for both of these applications of discipline. It emphasizes that disciplinary measures should always be carried out in such a manner as to convey the message that the agent (whether parent or teacher) has the child's welfare and well-being in mind. Jewish law and literature insist that disciplinary measures must be accompanied by expressions of warmth and love, as is shown by the following passage from the Talmud: " A child, discipline him with the left hand and draw him closer with the right hand."(Sotah 47a) The same concept applies in the relationship between the Almighty and man; "For he whom the Lord loves, He admonishes like a father who appeases his son." (Proverbs 3:12) Rashi comments on the second part of this verse that the Lord is compared to a father who strikes his son with a rod in order to correct his misbehavior, then soothes and appeases him by speaking words of affection.

Although the Almighty punishes disloyalty to divine teachings, it is always made clear that the people of Israel are as dear to Him as a child to a father and that He will never abandon His people. The following passage aptly points out this parallel:

"Is not Ephraim a dear son unto Me? or a child that I dandle? For whenever I speak of him, I do earnestly remember him again; therefore are My inward parts moved for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord." (Jeremiah 31:19).

The people of Israel are compared to a dear son of the Lord. Although this son is being disciplined for wrongdoing, the fatherly love brings with it feelings of compassion and mercy.


The crucial role of discipline in child-rearing is brought to light in the story of David and Absalom. "Because David did not rebuke his son Absalom, and did not chastise him, Absalom turned to an evil culture . . . causing him no end of severe troubles." (Exodus Rabbah 1:1) Furthermore, Adonijah initiated a rebellion against David, his father, and wanted to reign in his place, because his father had never stopped to reprimand him for bad behavior and say, "Why did you do such a things?" ( I Kings 1:6) Similarly, Elie, the priest did not discipline his sons and thus brought about a tragedy for himself and his family. (Samuel 2:23, 3:13)

In light of all this, the parent is advised: "Chastise thy son, for there is hope; and let not thy soul spare him for his crying?" (Proverbs 19:18) Furthermore we find the advice in Proverbs (29:17): "Correct thy son and he will procure thee rest; yea, he will give delight unto thy soul." Another passage in Proverbs adds another dimension to this advice: " A wise son [becometh so] by the correction of his father; but a scorner hearkeneth not to rebuke." (Proverbs 13:1)

Thus, discipline, when applied in the spirit of the Bible, benefits both the parent and the child.The father will delight in his offspring and the child will grow to be wise and learned. The benefit to the child is further stressed in this passage: "The rod and reproof impart wisdom; but a lad abandoned to himself bringeth shame on his mother." (Proverbs 29:15) Rashi comments that

this refers to the case of Ishmael, who brought about his mother's banishment from her home as a result of his misbehavior.
From Ben Sira we learn: "He who loves his son will consistently use his rod, so that he may rejoice in the end." (Ben Sira 1:1) Although the phrase "to use the rod" appears often in statements on parental and classroom discipline, it is not to be applied literally as we will learn further in the session. Before considering the methods of discipline prescribed in the Biblical perspective, it is necessary to stipulate when a child should be disciplined according to Biblical law (Halakhah) and by whom.


The first biblical reference to parental discipline appears in the Book of Deuteronomy:

"If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, who hearkeneth not to the voice of his mother, and they chastise him, and he will not hearken unto them; then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of the city, "This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard." And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; and thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and be afraid." (Deut. 21: 18-21)

According to his passage, parents are authorized to punish their child for wrongdoing. As we see, it is the parents who must bring their son to the elders and testify that he is rebellious and stubborn, thus bringing about his punishment. Since the law of the rebellious son was hedged with so many conditions that there never was and never will be an actual case of stoning a rebellious son, the passage has been cited by talmudic jurists for its educational and deterrent purposes only.

Nachmanides comments on this text that according to the opinion of the rabbis, the passage regarding the rebellious son does not apply to young children, because they are exempt from all punishments in the Torah (Bible) and from fulfillment of the mitzvot (commandments). However, as soon as a youngster has two hairs (i.e., matures), he/she is liable to punishment for two sins (shaming his parents and rebellion).

The Ralbag, commenting on the verse, "Correct thy son and he will provide thee rest," (Proverbs 29:17) says that the advice is directed to the parent of a young child. Ben Sira states: "Bend his head in his youth and strike his buttocks when he is young." (Ben Sira 13) Maimonides stipulates that "It is worthy for the bet din (court) to strike the children according to a child's strength-as punishment for theft, so that they do not accustom themselves to it." (Rambam, Hilkhot Geneivah 1:10) This is an extraordinary case in which the bet din carries out punishment against a young child with the aim of preventing further delinquency. Maimonides teaches us here that in cases of delinquency, it is the bet-din which executes punishment against children-even young children.

Thus, Judaism attributes great importance to preventative discipline, which should begin at an early age. As the child matures, the parent must suit disciplinary measures to his or her needs and stage of development. This is implied in the biblical passage: "You shall not place a stumbling-block before the blind."(Leviticus, 19:14) We find in the Responsa literature that this passage concerns one who strikes a grown child. Rashi explains that an older child who is hit may strike back and is thus incited to violate the injunction against striking a parent. Because of this, Jewish law forbids administering physical punishment to a grown child (a girl over twelve or a boy over thirteen) or to a younger child who is mature (shows two hairs). In the Responsa of Benjamin Ze'ev, the author cites Rabbenu Jonah as explaining that one should not strike a grown child, for this causes the youngster to sin with his tongue and curse his father (Responsa Binyamin Zeev 407:1,5) Similarly, M aimonides states that the courts ban a father who strikes a mature child. (Hilchot Teshuva).

In the talmudic period, it was considered the father's duty or mitzvah (not prerogative) to discipline his child. Similarly, it is a "mitzvah" for a teacher to discipline his/her pupil. Rabbah, one of the greatest sages in Babylon, who was active in the field of education, expresses the opinion that the father must relate to his son with a strong hand even if the son wants to learn-for it is written in Proverbs: "Correct thy son and he will procure thee rest; yea, he will give delight unto thy soul."(Proverbs 29:17)

It seems from the commentators that this is intended more as an argumentative point than actual instruction for application. Indeed, we find that Rabbi Judah and Rav warn: "Parents should not impose too much fright in the home, for in the end the parent is led to commit three sins: adultery, murder, or desecration of the Sabbath."(Gittin 6b)

We find that even in the study of the Torah (Bible) the people of Israel are required to adhere to disciplinary measures: "When a person teaches his son Torah, he must do so with trepidation." (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 386)

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein noted that students may punished for specific acts of wrongdoing but not for something which is suspected. The statement in Makkot that it is permissible to punish a child even though he is perfect (i.e., knows how to learn and does learn) applies to a student who has the ability to learn more and does not do so because he is lazy. Thus, if a student who learns well misses something in his studies, this is considered laziness and is worthy of punishment. It is up to the teacher to decide when to punish him, for he is the expert and may judge. If a teacher suspects one of his students of misbehavior, he must chastise him, saying things that bring him closer the Torah (Bible); when the teacher knows without a doubt that the pupil has misbehaved, he/she is permitted to punish him calmly and without anger.


The issue of disciplinary methods has always been controversial. Indeed, we find many references to using the "rod" with children, as in the following passage:

"Withhold not from a lad correction, for if thou beat him with the rod he will not die. Thou wilt indeed beat him with the rod, but thou wilt deliver his soul from perdition."(Proverbs 23:13)

We know that in some cases this was taken literally, with occasional dire consequences, as in the story of the son of Georgias of Lod, who threw himself into a well out of fright when his father threatened to punish him for running away from school. A similar story is told of a boy in Bnei-Brak who broke the Sabbath goblet. (Semachot 2:4) It seems, however, that to "use the rod" is meant to be figurative and demonstrative rather than literal.

Again in Proverbs, we find the advice: "Chasten your son, for there is hope, but set not your heart on his destruction." (Proverbs 19:18) A clear statement in the Talmud serves as the basis for the means of discipline (punishment) according to Judaism:

"Rav said to Rav Samuel bar Shilat: If you hit a child, strike him only with a shoestring."(Bava Batra 21a)

Rashi comments that this means the child should be punished with a light stroke which does not harm him. Thus, the Biblical perspective on discipline advocates restrained physical punishment. Maimonides concludes that a teacher may hit a pupil in order to discipline him, but he should not strike him harshly as he would an enemy. Therefore, the teacher must not strike pupils with a stick or a whip but with a small string.(Maimonides, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:2)

Another fundamental principle in the Judaic conception of discipline is that punishment must be immediate in order to be effective. The Code of Jewish law determines:

"Do not threaten a child that he will be hit later, if you see him doing a wrong deed, strike him immediately or be completely silent." (Kitzur Shulkhan Aruklh 165:7)

In this manner, the punishment is clearly linked to the child's misbehavior. This method also prevents the child from developing anxiety as a result of fearing the punishment over a period of time. As such, it also maintains the child's sense of dignity and self-respect. Thus, it corresponds to the principle stated above that discipline should be followed by a show of love and warmth, enabling the child to understand that the punishment is not directed against him but rather at his wrongdoing.

In all cases, discipline must be followed by a communication of love for the child according to the passage : "Be it ever your way to thrust off with your left hand and draw to you with the right hand " (Sotah 47a)

The Judaic conception of discipline is humanistic and advocates individualized means of action to instill obedience and prevent delinquency. We have seen in the Responsa of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, that teachers and fathers are advised to discipline children in accordance with their individual temperaments and strength. This view originates in the following passage: "Teach each lad in accordance with his course." Proverbs 22:6)

Another method of educational discipline described in the Talmud matches the contemporary concept of "reinforcement", although it precedes modern child psychology by several generations…. An interesting anecdote on this aspect of discipline is related as follows:

Rav came to a place and decreed a fast-day [because of drought]. The rains did not come. A public servant came before him and said, "Let the wind blow," and the wind blew. He said, "Let the rain fall," and the rain fell. Rav said to him, "What is your profession?" The man answered, "I teach young children, and I teach the poor as well as the wealthy; and whoever cannot pay tuition-I do not take anything from him. And I have a pool of fish, and whoever does not wish to learn, I entice him (by drawing his attention to the fish), and I appease him, until he comes willingly to learn." (Taanit 24a)

The method of positive reinforcement-or training by reward-was utilized in the period of the Talmud. Indeed, this method is highly recommended, as is evident from the preceding tale, which relates the teacher's special attributes in practicing educational discipline through positive reinforcement.

We have seen that the methods utilized to discipline young children include restrained physical punishment and positive or negative reinforcement. We have also seen that it is forbidden to administer physical punishment to a grown child. What method, then, should be used to discipline adolescents, who are in the prime stage of rebellion and restlessness? The following passage offers wise advice on this matter:

"A rebuke enters deeper into a person of understanding than a hundred stripes a fool."(Proverbs 17:10)

In addition, a clear strategy of educational discipline is indicated in the Responsa of Rabbi Yechiel Jacob Weinberg. Rabbi Weinberg was asked about a sixteen-year-old yeshiva student who was enthralled with gambling and had become friendly with a group of hoodlums. Despite his bad tendencies, the boy continued to adhere to the mitzvot. The worried parents wanted to know whether it was worthwhile for the father to forbid the son to use the equipment he had purchased in order to gamble by compelling him not to do so. Rabbi Weinberg replied that for educational reasons it is necessary to abstain from using forceful measures against a son who has veered from the righteous path. The prohibition on using physical punishment on a grown son does not apply only to the use of force; it relates to any forceful means used to bring about the opposite results. Therefore, he advised the parents to find another pastime for the boy or to send him to Israel to learn in a yeshiva, suggesting that upon his return the boy might no longer be interested in gambling.(Responsa Seridei Esh 3:95)


Discipline occupies a central role in the Biblical perspective on child-rearing. It is a means of education and a source of authority to provide punishment for wrongdoing. The classic biblical case of the rebellious son illustrates the parent's duty to punish his/her child for wrongdoing. In the talmudic period, it was considered a mitzvah for a parent to discipline his child and for a teacher to discipline his student. The many references to discipline through the use of the "rod" are not to be taken literally, for the rabbis instructed that a child should be hit only with a shoestring (i.e., restrained physical punishment). Punishment for wrongdoing should be immediate if it is to be effective, and the parents should not threaten the child if they do not intend to carry out the punishment immediately, as this may cause the child anxiety.

Methods of punishment may not be arbitrary. The parent and teacher must suit his disciplinary measures to the nature and strength of the individual child. Punishment should always be followed by a demonstration of warmth, love and acceptance.

Whenever possible, preventative discipline and enticements should be utilized as a means of reinforcement to educate children and ward off misbehavior. Behavior modification rebuke should be used in disciplining adolescents, for it is forbidden to use physical punishment with an older child.


Analyze and discuss your own methods of discipline. Consider the methods of discipline being applied in the educational frameworks in your community. Do they adhere to the Biblical perspectives on discipline? What can you do to make sure that they do?

Check out some of the current best sellers on "Children and Discipline" (Some good internet sources are amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and bookstore.mcgraw-hill.com). How does the advice offered by contemporary child development experts compare with the Biblical perspective on discipline?




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28 Aug 2005 / 23 Av 5765 0