empty classroom school_311.
The beginning of the school year inevitably revives debates over appropriate
measures to maintain discipline within the classroom. Educators struggle to use
their limited resources to find the appropriate reaction that will help students
learn from their mistakes.
One common scenario of misbehavior is the use
of personal objects during inappropriate times or for improper activities (e.g.,
texting in class). While many teachers feel entitled to seize the property, it
remains disputable whether Halacha permits confiscating others’ property, even
on a temporary basis. If the object is dangerous (such as a knife), Halacha
mandates removing it for the sake of public safety (CM 427:8). Yet taking more
innocuous objects of entertainment (like an MP3 player) seemingly falls under
the rules of thievery.
The Talmud strictly prohibits any theft for the
exclusive purpose of inflicting anguish or discomfort upon the victim (BM 61b).
Many commentators understood this statement to ban appropriating property under
any circumstances, even if done in jest, for a temporary amount of time, or with
the genuine intent to provide restitution (Torah Temima Leviticus 19:11).
Maimonides explained that even though no monetary damage would be incurred, the
Torah nonetheless desired to prevent people from growing accustomed to taking
other people’s property (Geneiva 1:2).
Some authorities, however, have
justified confiscating property on various grounds. They noted that a few
commentators understood the Talmud to prohibit only long-term thievery for
non-monetary motivations, but not temporary confiscations (Shita Mekubetzet BM
61b). This might be particularly true if it remains on the teacher’s desk or
other places within the victim’s sight (Tehumin 8). Rabbi Yaakov Yeshaya Blau
further cited opinions that permit temporary confiscations when the theft is
done for the sake of fulfilling a mitzva, such as education (Pit’hei Hoshen Vol.
4). Some have further argued that once schools establish rules of punishment,
students (and their parents) accept those restrictions upon entering the
premises (Tehumin 19).
A different defense draws from an a fortiori
argument which contends that temporary confiscations are permissible since the
Talmud was willing to sanction the more severe physical punishment by teachers
or parents to chastise misbehavior (Mishna Halachot 4:284). While the analogy
between monetary law and battery remains disputable, it highlights the
historically controversial dispensation to strike children for educational
The notion of corporal punishment for educational purposes
finds it roots in the book of Proverbs, which warns, “He who spares the rod
hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to chastise him” (13:24).
Numerous ethical treatises, including the 15th-century Orhot Tzadikim (Seventh
Sha’ar), admonish parents to display this “tough love” to properly educate their
The Talmud goes so far as to exempt a father or teacher from
liability to tort damages should they accidentally cause harm to the child
Yet as Prof. Benjamin Shmueli has documented, classic
rabbinic sources imposed many qualifications to this practice. First, the
objective must be exclusively educational, with any other form of beating
considered strictly forbidden child abuse.
Consequently such punishment
is only allowed to preempt or immediately punish misbehavior, when it might have
a deterrent effect to prevent recurrence. It may not be used as retribution for
previous misdeeds (Even Shlomo 6:4). Toddlers who will not understand such
punishment may not be struck (Ralbag Proverbs 19:18), nor should older children
who might rebel or react negatively to such chastisement (Moed Katan 17a). In
fact, excommunications were imposed on those who struck their children at
inappropriate ages (R.
Akiva Eiger YD 240:20), while teachers who struck
their pupils too often or too harshly were removed from their positions (Makot
16b). Maimonides, furthermore, demanded that one may not strike in anger, and
prohibited using harsh instruments like whips or rods (Talmud Torah
Despite these restrictions, it remains clear that historically,
Jewish legal and ethical sources allowed for the educational striking of
children, a sentiment that continued to receive support in the 20th century
(Michtav Me-Eliyahu 3:360-1).
Yet most significantly, punishments were
understood to be dependent on the child and his or her temperament (Kitzur
Shulhan Aruch 143:18).
In the modern era, many scholars deemed corporal
punishment undesirable or a method of last resort. Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, for
example, asserted that the use of corporal punishment would weaken the moral
training of a child (Yesodot Hahinuch 2 p. 65). Rabbi Eliezer Papo asserted that
in eras in which youth rebel against imposition of authority, corporal
punishment is likely to be counterproductive (Pele Yoetz, Haka’a). Similar
reservations were expressed by rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD 4:30) and
Hayim David Halevi (Kitzur SA Makor Hayim 6:126:14). Perhaps the greatest
contemporary opponent to corporal punishment was Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who
contended that in our era, pleasant rebuke and patience are the best way to
educate children – a position I strongly support.The writer, online
editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org),
teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.JPostRabbi@yahoo.com
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