It’s about the Intention


How one rabbi learned as a child to distinguish between spanks for discipline and those out of cruelty.

by Rabbi Peretz Chein

In recalling my childhood, when I was occasionally disciplined by physical means, two incidents come to mind.

The first occurred when I was seven years old. Our school and other schools from the community traveled to the main Chabad synagogue for a large rally with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A few thousand children sat in rows of brown wooden pews in the cavernous sanctuary while the Rebbe dedicated his time, attention, and his talk towards the children.

I was sitting next to a classmate who shared with me that his father recently purchased an Atari video game console – the first video game console ever to come out. Needless to say, I was very excited and craved to play with this new toy. Together we decided that we would sneak out of the rally and escape to his home, which was within walking distance, to indulge ourselves in Atari.

Those blissful few hours, playing in an awestruck manner, passed in an instant. Walking the two blocks back to my home, I was floating on a cloud; that is, until I noticed my mother walking towards me, pushing my younger sister in a stroller, and for some reason she was not smiling like I was. Her stern look caused me to immediately fall off my cloud, wipe the smile off my face, and return to reality.

She had been walking the streets of our neighborhood looking for me. A short while earlier, my teacher worriedly called her and asked if I had returned home since I had disappeared from the rally. When she responded that I was not home, their worries compounded.

She was relieved to see me, but at the same time told me how worried she was and that what I did was very dangerous and I could have gotten hurt. She went on to tell me that when my father returned from work that evening, I would most likely get a spanking. I knew that I had earned it and braced myself for his return. That evening I got it.

That incident made it very clear to me that my actions have consequences. A seven-year-old leaving a supervised event could have encountered severe consequences. The spanking was a small price to pay for that life-long lesson.

The second incident was a few years later. I was eleven, and my sixth-grade teacher, a large, broad-shouldered man, was sitting behind his desk and called me to the front of the room to stand alongside him. He turned his chair and was now facing me, instead of the class. “You were making fun of Z [name of a classmate] when he was speaking in front of the class,” he accused. Z would stutter, and poking fun at him was particularly cruel.

I emphatically denied the accusation, but it was pointless. He insisted that I had teased my classmate. “You deserve to be slapped,” he continued. “However, I’ll make you an offer,” he said generously, “I’ll flip a coin, and if it’s heads, you’ll be spared, if it’s tails, you’ll get what is coming to you.”

He placed his heavy hand into his pocket and removed a quarter. He showed me both sides of the coin to confirm that it indeed had a heads, so there was a chance that I’d be spared. He clenched his muscular fingers into a fist, placed the coin atop his thumb and flicked it. Up went the coin and all the eyes in the room, including mine. Except my teacher’s. His eyes were locked on me as he landed a thunderous slap on the left side of my face. Then the coin landed.

These two incidents bring to mind Maimonides’ instructions on how to discipline a child. “A teacher may employ corporal punishment to cast fear upon [the students]. However, he should not beat them cruelly, like an enemy.” (Laws of Talmud Torah, Chapter 2, Halacha 2, Paragraph 2). The great sage recognizes the importance of instilling fear in a child as a means to prevent the youngster from doing something that will cause severe harm. All the while, though, he is acutely aware of the danger to the discipliner that pursues such a course, for they can become cruel as an enemy.

I acknowledge my father’s spanking, because it taught me at a young age not to be careless. My teacher, on the other hand, I resent.

The wise author of Proverbs writes, “He who holds back his rod hates his son, but he who loves him, disciplines him early.” (Proverbs 13:24) Discipline is a necessity in raising a child. King Solomon is aware, though, that it’s harder on the parent to administer it than perhaps the child who receives it. He counsels parents to draw on a deeper and farsighted love and have the strength to do what has the best long-term benefit for their child.

Simultaneously, our sages teach that parents must be certain that their discipline will be effective (Talmud Moed Kattan 17A); otherwise they are in danger of transgressing a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:14). For if their child rebels as a result of their rod, they are culpable in his revolt.

Parents and educators must be driven by love and guided by wisdom and humility to ensure that they fulfill their moral responsibility to their children and students.

About the Author

Rabbi Peretz Chein is cofounder, together with his wife Chanie, of the Chabad House at Brandeis, established in 2001. Born in Israel to Russian immigrant parents, Peretz also founded iLearn, an educational program attended by upwards of 100 students. He has run numerous marathons, inspiring students and alumni to join him; founded a tech startup that addresses the needs of event organizers; and was recognized for his organization’s fiscal transparency.

One Comment

  1. “That incident made it very clear to me that my actions have consequences.” There are many ways to teach this other than hitting or spanking. Yes, it left a big impression on you but for many children it could have caused hatred toward parents, or worse, to teach them not to get caught next time. The story about your rebbe is awful. He simply did not understand child development. The slap teaches nothing. Studies show that children who experience continual humiliation and shame in childhood grow into bullies or emotionally maladjusted adults. A two year old child who runs into the street may need to have a stern yell from parents or even a small swap on the behind. An eleven year old needs to learn from example, mentors, and words. The right words can have power to change someone’s life. Children who are hit by their rebbes are likely to leave Yiddishkeit when they grow up.

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