The Battered Jewish Child in Antiquity


Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan 52900 Israel

Although the concept of the battered child is relatively new, there is sufficient evidence that the phenomenon itself is deeply rooted in human history.

In the modern world, the Jewish family is sometimes presented as a prodigy, especially in the context of the growing rates of divorce in contemporary society. Though family violence seems to be nonexistent in Jewish history, in terms of the research it is actually terra incognita.

The present study explores this neglected area of Jewish social history by drawing on the biblical and talmudic literature as composed in the Land of Israel during some 1500 odd years.

These sources provide several examples of children who were subject to harsh disciplinary measures resulting in physical harm and even death.

These specific historical cases demonstrate the violent nature of childhood in Antiquity. Among the Jewish people, as among other peoples, children were beaten or even killed - a practice which gained the approval and encouragement of the social authorities. In fact, battered children were found in all social strata, from the lowliest child to the royal prince.

The Battered Jewish Child in Antiquity


Nowadays we hear a lot about child abuse and newspapers report these tragedies daily. Though this phenomenon was at least as widespread in the pre-modern world, it hardly received any attention in those days and certainly was no subject of concern. When battered children are the norm, child abuse is not considered a social evil. Clearly, treating the phenomenon of battered children as a problem is a corollary of the type and status of childhood in society.[1]

As a historical question, the validity of whole issue depends on one's own historiographical orientation: whether the writer/reader of history is concerned with the political world, or with the social realm. One may claim that political issues are much more interesting, and "who fought with whom?" is a better question that "what child was beaten and why?" In fact, one's own preference in reading newspapers - beginning with the front page or the inside ones - might be taken as an analogy to the question under study.

The issue of the battered child in antiquity, which is clearly part of social history, is but a reflection of the attitude of adults towards children and their concept of childhood in general.

Though the purpose of this study is to analyse the violence directed against Jewish children in particular, it must be placed in the wider context of child abuse. First, it should be observed that the study of childhood, not to speak of violence in the family, is quite recent. Any study of childhood might be seen as derived from Aries[2] though the realization that children were exploited, or otherwise mistreated, by adults for generations had been stated explicitly by others as well.[3]

That violence against children stands apart from other modes of violence is evident when considering its foundations. While dominance of one society over another is usually a "cultural" matter, the dominance of adults over children has "biological" grounds: the child's frailty and his dependence on his caretakers. Moreover, it has always been acknowledged that children need to be educated and until recently, this meant the exercise of any disciplinary measures deemed to be effective, including the use of whips, sticks and the like. Since the role of educating children has been relegated to parents and teachers alike, sometimes the borderline between disciplining a child in the course of formal education and doing so as part of family upbringing or socialization is very narrow. In any case, violence against children is obviously not only a chapter in human history, clearly a dark [and long] one but also a segment of behavioral psychology, a subtopic in the history of violence in general.

What has been said above about children in general applies to Jewish children as well.[4] True, the myth of the ideal Jewish family, according to which all Jews carry to perfection an exemplary model of family life, is as popular as ever, it goes without saying that myth is are myths and the attitudes of adults to children should not be defined by wishful thinking. Fortunately, Jewish scholars didn't wait for Aries, nor even for Radbill, to pursue this subject. As early as the beginning of this century they were aware of Jewish adults treating children violently.[5]

For historiographical reasons, the following discussion will introduce the sources in chronological order, beginning with the biblical texts and proceeding to post-biblical literature.

A. In the Bible

The law of the rebellious son (Deut. 21:18-21) provides the first example of parents beating their children:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them... Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones...

It follows that by the time the case comes to court, the disobedient son has already been warned and beaten by his parents. The beating occurs only after verbal means of persuasion failed to improve the child's conduct. Once the parents realize that the child persists in his wrongdoing, consistently disregarding their exhortations, they resort to beating. They beat him to teach him a lesson and perhaps even to save him from being executed later in life, when involvement in serious crimes is punishable by death. Thus the parents apply to the court (the elders) only as a last resort. Implicit in this biblical law is the notion that beating the child is a natural behavior, if not a necessity, since such punishment is meant for the child's own good (though he himself may not think so). [6]

This notion, as expressed in the wording of the casuistic law, finds its approval in the Wisdom Literature through various sayings. For example, we read in Proverbs: "Discipline your son while there is still hope; do not set your heart on his destruction" (19:18); and "He who spares the rod hates his son" (13:24); and "Do not withhold discipline from a child ; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with a rod you will save his life from Sheol" (23:13-14). That is to say, the basic premise held by the Biblical parent and educator is that it is better to beat a young child than to treat him leniently, for a strict upbringing at an early stage of his life will benefit him later.

Indeed, this advice is conveyed, once again, in the words of Ben Sira.30:1-2:

Whoever loves his son chasticed him often, that he may be a joy to him when he grows up. Whoever disciplines his son will benefit from him, and boast of him among his intimates.

Clearly there is nothing new here but a continuation of the educational philosophy of the Bible. As a matter of fact, the notion of discipline as one of the goals of education is shared by various schools dating from ancient times to these days.[7] Obviously, those who beat children were convinced that it was better to beat the child while he was still young, and even sometimes.to kill him, for otherwise he is likely to carry on with his misbehavior to the extent that he will be both feared and hated by his family.

To sum up, the law of the rebellious son expresses this principle, which is found in the Book of Proverbs and Ben-Sira which are part of Wisdom Literature. The parent who beats his disobedient child saves him from punishment in the world to come (or even from death) and improves future interfamily relationships.

B. In Talmudic literature

Obviously, biblical testimonies serve as the background for understanding the violent world of the child in the post-biblical era. However, Talmudic literature presents many more details than the biblical ones. This is because compared to biblical literature (which is partly elitist - at least as far as the Book of Proverbs is concerned), talmudic literature is much more popular and reflects the daily life of the people.

Talmudic literature provides several examples of the beating of children by the father, the mother, or the teacher for "educational" purposes. At times, these beating were so severe that the child was seriously hurt, or even died.

1 The father who beats and the teacher who rules

In t. B. Qam. 9:11 (ed. Lieberman p. 44) it is said:

A father who beats his son or a teacher who rules his pupil; everyone that has beaten and injured - are acquitted. However, if they injured unreasonably - they are found guilty.

In other words, the court must decide what amount of punishment is reasonable. Within these bounds, beating was permissible and a very likely occurrence for any child, while the father or teacher who exercised such discipline suffered no legal consequences. Furthermore, the linkage between the teacher and the father, as manifested in the above ruling, suggests that the right of the teacher to hit the child derived from the father's. When a father turned his son over to a teacher, he relied upon the teacher treat his son exactly as he himself did. This gave the teacher the license to use extreme measures of punishment.

2 The teacher-scribe that beats

In t. B. Qam. 9:31 (ed. Lieberman p. 49) it is said:

If he hit with the back of his hand, with paper, with a pinax, with untreated hides, with a tomus of bills under his possession - he should pay 400 zuz, not because the blow caused pain, but because it is a blow of humiliation, etc.

The various items mentioned in this text suggest that this ruling draws on every day life. The individual referred to is the scribe who functioned in Antiquity as a teacher that not only taught but also disciplined. In this case, he teaches at home (not in school) and acts out his anger by hitting the child with whatever happens to be at hand: paper (papyrus), pinax, skins, tomus (several bills glued together),[8] or any other scribal equipment. The sages oppose to the use of such objects instead of the strap, or something of this sort, on the grounds that such unconventional disciplinary measures humiliate the child rather than teach him a lesson. This is in line with modern views, which regard shaming as a violation of sound education, since it is psychologically harmful and counterproductive.

3 The teacher-scribe who beats

In t. Sukk. 2:6 (ed. Lieberman p. 263) it is said:

An example of a scribe that enters school and says: bring me a strap! who cares - one who is usually beaten.

That is to say, before the teacher-scribe enters the classroom he equips himself with a strap in order to beat one of the children for his present or past misbehaviour.[9]

4 The teacher-scribe who kills

In Sifre-Zuta on Num 35:21 (ed. Horovitz), p. 333 it is said:

Since it was said "the assailant shall be put to death" - is it (true) that all those who beat are put to death? (what about) a young boy who hits, or an idiot who hits, or one who teaches scribes, or one who teaches young boys, or one who hits according to court rule, or one who hits "out of love" (- should they be punished)? - it is written (Exod 21:14) "When a man schemes against another" (which means) except when it is unintentional, except when he is young, etc.

The wording of this halakhah suggests that the sage knew of real-life cases when a teacher of young children or a teacher of apprenticing scribes (adolescent boys) beat his pupils so cruelly that they died. There must have been similar cases when a father beat his son to death "out of love" (presumably, to educate him). All these killers are not punishable by death for their abusive conduct. It should be noted that a famous Rabbi (Rav, R. Rabba, who lived in Babylon in the 3rd century), rules that when a teacher of children wishes to hit a child, he should do so with the strap of his shoe so as to soften the blow.[10]

5 A father who kills unintentionally

In m. Mak. 2:3 the sages taught:

a father may go into exile because of his son, and a son may go into exile because of his father.

In other words, based on the biblical law (Num 35:9-34; Deut 19:1-13), the Mishnah rules that if a father killed his son unintentionally, he should go into exile. Presumably, this mishna purports to reject the opinion that the father should not be punished, whether because there is no one to avenge the child's blood, or because the beating was motivated by love and concern for the child.

6 The killing father - a family tragedy

In b. Hul. 94a appears this story:

It once happened that a man in a time of scarcity invited three guests to his house and he only had three eggs to set before them. When the child of the host entered, one of the guests took his portion and gave it to him, the second guest did likewise, and so did the third. When the father of the child came and saw him stuffing one [egg] in his mouth and holding two in his hands, he [in rage] knocked him to the ground so that he died. When the child's mother saw this she went up to the roof and threw herself down and died. He too went up to the roof and threw himself down and died.[11]

In this case, the harsh conditions of life led to tragedy. The effect of a natural disaster is compounded by an unfortunate accident. The father wants to teach his child manners (he should not have taken the cookies from the guests!) and while disciplining him, the child dies. The story continue with the suicide of the mother, immediately followed by that of the father, so that the whole family passed away in a short time. Struck by grief, (and perhaps even guilt feelings), the father found it unbearable to survive after the death of his child and his wife and therefore put an end to his life.[12]

7 A father who is pathologically violent

In the context of discussing King David's census of Israel and its detriment of consequences, the Midrash goes into the question of why the entire people of Israel had to suffer for the sin of one individual. Expounding on the verse that conveys the angel's intent to destroy Jerusalem (2 Sam 24:16), the sage makes the following analogy:

Whom did David resemble at that hour? to one who was beating his son who did not know the reason for the punishment.[13]

Presumably, this sage knew of such a case in real life, and assumed that his audience too was familiar with such cases of parents beating their children for no "good" reason. Concerning such pathological beating, one may claim (in accordance with an Arabic saying) that the father was justified in beating his child, for even though he himself knew of no good reason to do so, his child certainly did. Clearly, a society that handles educational problems with violence promotes the notion that violence is a sound educational method. Under these circumstances, one may take advantage of the contemporary educational system to set free his dark impulses.

8 The king who beats his children

Tractate Semahot 8:11 offers the following example:

Rabbi Akiba tells of a king who had four sons. One is struck and is silent, another is struck and is defiant, the third is struck and is suppliant, whereas the last says to his father "Chasten me"![14]

Evidently the sage and his audience knew quite well that not only did the common people beat their children, but so did the royal family. In other words, the example reveals a hushed-up truth: the king himself beats his children (so that this practice was not confined to the poor).

9 The king who kills his son

In Gen Rabba 28:6 (ed. Theodore-Albeck, p. 265) this case appears:

["men together with beasts" (Gen 6:7)] Rabbi Yudan said: [like] a king who gave his son to a pedagogue who led him to fall into bad ways. The king became angry with his son and killed him. Said the king "who led my son to fall into bad ways - this person, and now my son is dead and he is alive", this is "men together with beasts".

In short, the deeds of God, as recounted in Genesis, are explained by an example drawn from everyday life: the king whose anger drives him to kill his son (either with his own hands or through a court order). Since this example functions as an analogy, it stands to reason that the audience was familiar with such situations.

10 A queen that beats her son

Expounding on the verse "Words of Lemuel king of Massa that had been chastised by his mother" (Prov 31:1), Midrash Tanhuma (Exodus 1) says as follows:

This is the righteous Bat-Sheba who chastised Solomon her son as is written "The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught (literally: chastised) him" (Proverbs 31:1). Rabbi Yosi ben Hananya said: who is Massa whose mother chastised him? it teaches that Bat-Sheba bound (Solomon) to a pillar and hit him with a stick and chastised him, and what was she telling him?...[15]

Evidently, in the royal family, not only the king beats his children; so does the queen, as vividly described by the sage. Thus the children of the royal family were subject to the same punishment as those of the common people and were just as likely to die as a consequence thereof.

C. Social analysis

In the ancient conception of punishment, corporal punishment of wrongdoers was customary: putting to death, amputation and flogging. To the sinner himself, as well as to other potential sinners, the physical pain involved in such punishment demonstrated the consequences of misconduct in a clear-cut manner. Since in a patriarchal society, the "father of the family" was also the "lord of the family" (patria potestas), the perception of punishment as an educational tool gave license to every man to beat his own son (or any other member of his household) supposedly for his own good. Thus, social structure along with the perception of crime and punishment established the beating of children as a social norm.

The sources show that the beating of children by their caretakers was prevalent among all social strata. All children, from the royal prince down to the lowliest child, were subject to such harsh treatment. Furthermore, severe measures of punishment were not confined to the home. When the child was in school, he was likely to be beaten there too. By turning his child/son over to the teacher, the father empowered him with the authority to punish the child in his place.

These social-pyschological phenomena can be better understood when compared to the accepted form of behavior in the modern western world. In modern society, corporal punishment is forbidden by law, thus eliminating one of the major "reasons" for disciplining children at home by beating them. Besides, teachers are not allowed to hit their undisciplined pupils. That is to say, modern conceptions of raising children forbid corporal punishment under any circumstances though the law understands such cases if the beating is "educational".

In the aforementioned talmudic source (No. 1) it is said: "if they injured unreasonably, they are convicted guilty". This suggests that not all cases of child beating are "reasonable" - justifiable and even desirable. Thus, the father's authority to beat his child is kept within certain bounds.

Modern studies usually separate the beating of children from other forms of child abuse, such as sexual abuse, exploitation of child's work, selling one's daughter to prostitution, and so on.[16] Indeed, despite the need to consider the phenomenon of battered children within its broader context, this distinction seems to be valid in so far as ancient Jewish society is concerned. Significantly, ancient Jewish sources contain no tales of violence against children,[17] as opposed to European folk tales from much later times.[18] Perhaps this absence could be taken as a clue to the relatively low extent of "nondisciplinary" violence toward children in the Jewish world.


In Antiquity, beating children was an integral part of everyday life, accepted ubiquitous behavior displayed among Jews and non-Jews alike. Young children were subject to violent treatment by their parents purportedly for educational reasons. This violence is intrinsically connected to the social conditions of the given society, wherein violence permeated all areas of life (without the modern means to ease the suffering).

The ancient sources that point to this prevalent phenomenon are supported by medieval Jewish sources.[19] All the sources show that in ancient times the Jewish child, as any other child, was beaten by his parents and teachers. This fact should not be ignored when the whole issue of Jewish childhood in Antiquity is evaluated.[20]


[1] On Childhood in Antiquity, see: Karras M. and J. Wiesehvfer, Kindheit und Jugend in der Antike, Eine Bibliographie, Bonn: Habelt, 1981; Valerie French, 'Children in Antiquity', Haws, Joseph M. and N. Ray Hiner (eds.), Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide, New York: Greenwood, 1991, pp. 13-29.

[2] P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (translated by R. Baldick), New-York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

[3] On Violence against children, see: L. deMause, 'The Evolution of Childhood', Lloyd deMause (ed), The History of Childhood, New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974, pp. 1-73; Samuel X. Radbill, 'Children in a World of Violence: A History of Child Abuse', Ray E. Helfer and Ruth S. Kempe (eds.), The Battered Child,4 Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 3-22.

[4] M. Bar-Ilan, 'Childhood and its status in Biblical and Talmudic Societies', Bet-Mikra, 40/140 (1995), pp. 19-32 (Hebrew).

[5] Elizabeth Bellefontaine, 'Deuteronomy 21:18-21: Reviewing the Case of the Rebellious Son', Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 13 (1979), pp. 13-31; Don C. Benjamin, Deuteronomy and City Life, Lanham - New York - London: University Press of America, 1983, pp. 211-221.

[6] Patrick W. Skehan and Alexander A. Di Leilla, The Wisdom of ben Sira, A New Translation with Notes (The Anchor Bible), New York: Doubleday, 1987, p. 373.

[7] John J. Pilch, '"Beat His Ribs While He is Young" (Sir 30:12): A Window on the Mediterranean World', Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23 (1993), pp. 101-113; A. Lemaire, 'The Sage in School and Temple', John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue (eds.), The Sage in Israel and The Ancient Near East, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns 1990, pp. 165-181 (esp. 175).

[8] On the "tomus", see: S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962, p. 206 n. 30.

[9] See: M. Aberbach, Jewish Education in the days of the Mishna and Talmud, Jerusalem: Mass, 1983, pp. 236 ff. (Hebrew), for more cases like the one mentioned.

[10] b. B. Bat. 21a.

[11] I. Epstein (ed.), The Babylonian Talmud - Seder Kodashim, Hullin, London: The Soncino Press, 1948, II, pp. 528-529.

[12] It is clear that the suicide could be explained in several ways. See: E. Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. J. A. Spaulding & G. Simpson, London: Routledge& Paul, 1952.

[13] Midrash Samuel (ed. S. Buber), Krakow 1893, p. 138 (Hebrew); Yalqut Shimoni on 2 Samuel, remez 165, p. 744 (Hebrew).

[14] D. Zlotnick, The Tractate "Mourning" (Semahot), New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966, p. 61.

[15] See parallels in b. Sanh. 70b; Num Rabba 10; Midrash on Proverbs (ed. Buber), ch. 31.

[16] Keith R. Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History, New York - Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[17] The only exceptional story appears in 2 Kgs 2:23-25, where children that made mockery of an old and bald prophet were punished by being eaten by bears. Some modern scholars take this story as a 'grandma's fairy tale'.

[18] See: Dina Stern, Violence in a Charming World - a study in the violent character of the feminine legend for children, Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1986 (Hebrew). The sub-title suggests that these legends were told by women to children. Yet, legends on violence (including violence against children) could have been targeted at males, whether as story tellers or as listeners. See for example: N. Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, New York: Dell, 1982; Z. Shavit, 'The Concept of Childhood and Children's Tales', Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore, 4 (1983), pp. 93-124 (Hebrew).

[19] On punishing Jewish children in later era, see: I. Oron, 'Corporal Punishment in Children's Education', Or HaMizrah, 24 (1975), pp. 116-123 (Hebrew).

[20] I have been criticized by B. Roy (royber@accent.net) in the cyberspace and it seems to me his arguments deserve a response.

His first comment is that the term 'battered' implies a syndrome of mistreatment and 'it does not include the occasional use of justified corporal punishment' as he says. Well, it seems to me that my paper raises the question of 'justified corporal punishment' because what one thinks is 'justified' the other thinks is inappropriate and mistreatment. At any event, one case (# 7) shows a psychotic mistreatment of children which falls under the commentator's argument. By the way, if the phrase 'the Beaten child' is better in anyone's eyes he may 'find and replace' any 'battered' with 'beaten'.

In the second comment he said that I should have written on mistreatment of 'males' not of 'children' since all the cases are of males and not of females. All I can say is that the evidence as he puts it is true though one should take into account the fact that in the Middle East females are not counted. In my paper on infant mortality it was shown that females were not considered worth talking about though it doesn't imply that the girls were not alive. It is reasonable to assume that just as there were boys who were disobedient and were beaten for their misbehaviour, such was the case with girls (not necessarily with the same percentage). In sum, it is true that the evidence deals with males only, though the silnce of the females doesn't mean they were all like angels and were never beaten.

The third comment is the most important if not provocative. The commentator claims that I didn't discuss Jewish circumcision, that is a mutilation all Jewish parents have caused their sons for millenia. For an outsider this is another case of child abuse and all Jewish children are "beaten" (while the rest of the family celebrates). Well, all I can say is that if one regards it as 'battered' (or 'beaten'), it is done only once which shows that the whole issue should not be discussed under these terms (just as a modern child cries when immunized but that doesn't imply child abuse). At any event, this claim may be a test-case for the historian who doesn't work in a vacuum but rather in a specific culture.

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last updated: December 6, 1996 - January 1, 2003