In Parashas Shemos we have our first encounter with Dasan and Aviram – two wicked men destined to become painful thorns in the sides of Israel. While quarreling with each another the two men were coming to blows, at which time Moshe Rabbeinu asked the aggressor (Shemos 2:13): “Why would you strike your friend?” Rashi explains: “Even though he hasn’t yet hit anyone, one who raises his hand is called a rasha (wicked).”
In the present article we will address the prohibition of assaulting others. When is it forbidden to hit others, and when is it permitted to do so? What is the prohibition against raising a hand against another? What is the halachah concerning hitting somebody, such as a child or disciple, for educational purposes?
We will seek to answer these questions by exploring the fundamentals of the prohibition against hitting others.
The Basic Prohibition
For certain transgressions, the Torah delineates a punishment of thirty-nine lashes. The pasuk states forty lashes, but this is interpreted by the Sages as meaning thirty-nine lashes – forty less one. The Torah adds that it is forbidden to add an extra blow: “Forty stripes may be given him, but not more – lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight” (Devarim 25:3).
The Gemara (Makkos 23a) cites a baraisa that derives a general prohibition against hitting others. This prohibition is ruled by the Rambam (Chovel 5:1): “It is forbidden for a person to cause injury, both to himself and to others. Furthermore, somebody who hits a decent (kasher) individual among Israel, whether a minor or an adult, whether man or woman, by way of quarrel – he transgresses a negative commandment, as it says, “…forty stripes and not more.” If the Torah warns us against hitting a convicted sinner, then all the more so for an innocent person.”
Following the Rambam, the halachah is ruled by the Tur and by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 420:1).
Stringency of the Prohibition
Elsewhere, the Rambam (Sanhedrin 16:12) writes that although striking another involves a Torah prohibition, the guilty party will not usually be punished by lashes. The reason for this is that under most circumstances, striking another will obligate the hitter to provide financial compensation to the victim. Where there is financial liability, no additional punishment is administered.
However, the exemption from punishment does not by any means detract from the severity of the prohibition. This severity is implied by the citation of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 58b) from Rabbi Chanina: “Somebody who slaps his fellow’s face is considered as though he slaps the face of the Shechinah.”
Indeed, the Gemara mentions a case in which Rav Huna cut off the hand of a person who had assaulted repeatedly. However, this extreme measure reflects a special and unconventional punishment, which was administered because of particular need. In general, the Torah does not require or recommend such punishments.
Other Halachic Ramifications
Because the aggressor transgresses a negative commandment, it follows that he is disqualified from edus. His testimony is disqualified, as for any rasha (see Mordechai, Sanhedrin 695, citing Raavan; Rema, Choshen Mishpat 34:4; Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 8:34).
The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 420:1) adds that based on a cherem kadmonim, somebody who hits others must not be counted as part of a minyan.
Another special stringency we find concerning a physically violent individual is recorded by the Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 182). The Chasam Sofer was asked to give his halachic opinion concerning somebody whose parents had died, and who had began to daven from the amud. This person was known as a violent individual (a baal egrof) who would use his physical strength to frighten and assault others. Should he be permitted to continue to daven from the amud?
The Chasam Sofer replies that in principle, somebody who behaves in this manner should not be permitted to daven from the amud, and the congregation should not answer Amen after his berachos. However, he writes that in practice this depends on the power of congregation to coerce him to change his ways.
Smiting the Wicked
The wording of the Rambam, as quoted above, makes specific mention of an adam kasher mi-yisrael, a kosher Jew within Israel. This wording implies that the prohibition against hitting others does not apply to hitting a wicked person.
The source for this halachah is a comparison between the prohibition against hitting and the prohibition against cursing others (Sanhedrin 85a). Just as the prohibition against cursing others applies only to somebody who “follows the custom of your nation,” as the wording of the verse implies (Shemos 22:27), so the prohibition against hitting others does not apply to somebody who does not follow Torah practice.
The Ran (Chiddushin, Sanhedrin 85a) writes that although there is no prohibition against smiting the wicked, the obligation to compensate them for damages caused does apply. The Yerei’im (217), however, writes that there is no liability for damages caused in smiting somebody wicked. The Kovetz Shiurim (Bava Kama 106) explains that according to this opinion, where there is no prohibition on smiting there is no liability for damages.
The Case of Wicked vs. Wicked
The issue of hitting a wicked person raises a question concerning the brawl between Dasan and Aviram mentioned at the outset of this article. On the words “Why would you strike your neighbor?” Rashi comments: “Your neighbor – a wicked person like yourself.”
If the victim of the assault was wicked, what was the objection of Moshe to the assaulter since there is no prohibition against smiting the wicked?
This question is raised by Shut Maharit (Vol. 2, Even Ha-Ezer no. 43), who explains that although an ordinary person may smite the wicked, it is forbidden for a wicked person to hit anyone, even another wicked person.
This principle is similar to the idea presented by the Chafetz Chayim (Shemiras Ha-Lashon in the name of the Semak 283 and others), whereby it is forbidden for somebody guilty of a particular offense to punish somebody else who transgressed the same offense. The rationale is that it is only permitted to hit a sinner in order to prevent him from sinning. Somebody who is himself guilty of the relevant sin may not act for this motive.
Note that today, it is entirely forbidden to hit anybody, wicked or righteous. Doing so is both a crime in secular law and wholly improper in the eyes of halachah.
It is worth citing the words of the Chazon Ish concerning a similar matter: “[In earlier generations] when divine direction was evident, including open miracles… and the righteous were under special guidance that was seen by everyone, and lawbreakers were clearly threatening basic societal values with their pursuit lust and licentiousness. Under those circumstances, destruction of the wicked was a clear rectification of the world…. But today… such action would not be repairing the breach but adding to the breach, since it would be perceived by them as destruction and violence, Heaven forbid… Rather, we must bring the distant closer with chains of love, and place them in radiant light to the extent we can” (Yoreh De’ah 2:16).
Hitting for Educational Purposes
The Rambam states clearly that the prohibition against hitting others applies only “by way of quarrel.” When a person hits another not out of hate, anger, or animosity, but out of a desire to educate and train, the prohibition does not apply.
Dwelling on the wording of the Rambam, who mentions hitting in a quarrel, Shut Divrei Yatziv (Orach Chaim 169, sec. 6) explains that the intention is to exclude a teacher who disciplines his disciple to educate him. He mentions a number of Rishonim who say this explicitly.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat Vol. 1, no. 3) also notes the principle, writing that the prohibition does not apply to somebody who wishes to prevent somebody from violating a transgression, or to a father who aims to educate his child, or to similar cases, since hitting in these cases is not “by way of quarrel.”
Although there is no prohibition against smiting in these instances, many leading educators stress that one should think (at least) twice before relying on the halachic permit to use physical force (see for instance Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Alei Shor, Vol. 2, pp. 260-261). Even though no formal prohibition applies, hitting is a last resort and it often has negative consequences. If the educational purpose can be achieved by other means, these are preferred.
When a parent hits his child, it must never be out of anger, and the act of chastising should itself reflect parental love and care (see Bava Basra 21b).
Many halachic authorities make a specific point prohibiting hitting one’s wife.
Maharam of Rotenberg (Prague, Vol. 4, no. 927, citing Rabbeinu Simcha of Spira) writes that it is forbidden for a person to hit his wife, and a person who does so regularly is forced to divorce her. He adds that beating one’s wife is more severe than hitting one’s fellow, because she is more vulnerable and more easily hurt than others: “His punishment is greater than one who smites his fellow, for she dwells alone and her tears are close at hand.”
Elsewhere (Krimona, Vol. 3, no. 291), Maharam writes that if the prohibition applies to hitting every Jew, it applies all the more strongly to a man’s wife, for a man has a special obligation to honor his wife.
Shut Binyamin Ze’ev (no. 88) even cites Rabbeinu Peretz that the Sages made a special enactment and decreed excommunication against those who hit their wives: “There are some among the daughters of Israel who cry for aid, yet their cries go unheard… therefore we have enacted with full force a decree and an excommunication… that no man shall beat his wife… and this shall not be done among Israel.”
Authorities discuss whether Beis Din merely excommunicate the husband, or whether he is also coerced into giving a Get – but certainly the matter is regarded with utmost sevevrity. Thus the Rema rules (Even HaEzer 154:4): “A man who beats his wife – it is a grave sin and parallel to hitting another. And if he does so regularly, Beis Din have the jurisdiction to make him suffer, to excommunicate him and to beat him with all force, and to adjure him that he will desist from doing so.” [Note that the question of actually forcing a man to divorce his wife, even under severe circumstances, is complex and is beyond the scope of this discussion.]
Raising a Hand against Another
Based on the passage of Dasan and Aviram mentioned at the outset, Chazal (Sanhedrin 58b) derive that not only is it forbidden to hit others, but even somebody who raises his hand against his fellow is considered a rasha (wicked).
This is ruled by the Rambam: “Even raising one’s hand against another Jew is forbidden, and one who does so, even without actually hitting the other person, is considered a wicked person.”
What is the nature of this prohibition? Does the prohibition refer only to somebody who raises his hand against his fellow with the full intention of striking him? Or does the prohibition apply even when a hand is raised in anger against another as a threat, without any intention to really hit him?
The Yad David (Sanhedrin, loc. cit.) implies that the former understanding is correct, and the same decision is cited by Re’acha Kamocha (Vol. 4, end of book) in the name of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The wording of the Yere’im (217) whereby a person must not “raise his hand upon his fellow to hit him” also seems to imply that the prohibition applies only to somebody who actually wishes to strike his fellow (the same expression is used by the Tur, Choshen Mishpat 420).
However, the wording of the Rambam in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (Negative Commandment 300) is, “They have warned us even from hinting at smiting, even if he does not hit.” The implication is that the prohibition of raising one’s hand against another applies even without any intention to actually hit. This is also implied by the Chinuch (595), who writes, “The Sages prevented us even from hinting at smiting.”
We have written previously about the specific prohibition against raising a hand against another, and will therefore not elaborate on the matter here.
- It is forbidden to hit others. Chazal see this prohibition as being extremely severe, though where damage is caused, the assaulter will be liable for the damage and not subject to further punishment.
- There is no theoretical prohibition against striking a wicked person, provided that the intention is to make him better his ways. However, some state that this does not apply to somebody who is himself wicked. Today there is certainly no permission to take the law into one’s hands and to strike those one perceives as wicked.
- The prohibition against hitting does not apply to educational contexts, such as a father hitting his son, a teacher hitting a disciple, or the administration of corporal punishment by Beis Din. This method should be employed as a last resort. It is likewise permitted to strike others in self-defense.
- It is forbidden even to raise one’s hand against another. According to some opinions this prohibition only applies to if the intention is to actually strike the victim. However, this qualification is not clear, and one should refrain from raising one’s hand against others as a threat, even when there is no intention to actually hit.