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Spare the Rod

by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


Library » Torah » Education | Subscribe | What is RSS?


The Debate
Modern society has long debated the merits of corporal punishment. Generations of children were raised with physical discipline, but current popular psychology argues against it. Today, the rod must be spared, even when children stubbornly refuse to comply, lest the children be spoiled.

What is the Jewish law with regard to this question? The Talmud teaches that teachers and parents may, on occasion, use corporal punishment to enforce discipline.1  However an interesting biblical episode seems to contradict this position.

Striking the Rock
Accompanying our ancestors in their journey through the desert was a miraculous well that provided drinking water. Upon their arrival to the Wilderness of Zin the well dried out and Moses turned to G-d for direction.

G-d instructed Moses to take his staff, gather the nation, and order the rock to yield water. Moses gathered the nation and spoke briefly to the rock but the water did not come forth. Moses then raised his rod, struck the rock and water gushed forth abundantly.2

Moses provided the water but failed the test. G-d instructed him to speak to the rock but Moses used his rod instead. For striking the rock, Moses was severely punished.3

Moses struck a rock and that was wrong because a rock-like student must never be struck
This story seems to support the modern contention, contradicting the above stated Talmudic dictum. Moses was punished for using the rod because force should never be an option where words might suffice.4

When the Heart is Closed
I would argue that the key lies in the object that Moses struck. Moses struck a rock and that was wrong because a rock-like student must never be struck.

What is a rock-like student?

When rock-like terminology is used in the Torah, it usually refers to the heart. The Torah says, “And I shall remove the heart of stone from within you.”5 A heart of stone is a closed heart. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of our history, had, in his youth, a heart that was closed to Torah.

In his youth, Rabbi Akiva refused to study Torah. One day, however, he observed a trickle of water that had, after many years, formed a depression in the rock face upon which it dripped. Rabbi Akiva reflected that if water-drops can erode a rock-like surface, then surely words of Torah can impact a heart of stone. Rabbi Akiva then entered the academy and became a scholar of great repute.6

If Rabbi Akiva were physically forced to attend the Rabbinical academy, would the words of Torah have penetrated his heart? Surely not! A closed heart speaks the language of the word, not the rod. It is immune to the rod. Our sages taught that words spoken from the heart always enter the heart to which they are spoken.

This is true of a student whose heart is closed but whose mind is open. What of the student whose mind is closed but whose heart is open? Words can enter a closed heart; but can words enter a closed mind?

When the Mind is Closed
Can words restrain a mother from rushing into a blazing inferno to find her missing child? No. Nothing short of physical restraint can impede her headlong rush. This is because she is, at that moment, controlled by her heart; her mind is closed to reason. Words of reason cannot enter a mind that is closed to reason.


  • 1. Babylonian Talmud Makot, 8a.; Maimonidies, Hilchots Rotzeach ch. 5; Hilchot Talmud Torah ch. 4.
  • 2. Numbers 20:1.
  • 3. Had he talked to the stone, the people would have taken note that even a stone that does not hear or see obeys the divine instruction. A fortiori a human being who does hear and see. Rashi Numbers 20:12.
  • 4. One might wonder why it was necessary to carry the rod if he was not to use it. The commentators offer many answers, but I would like to share a story. In the Memoirs of the former Lubavitcher Rebbe, a story is told of a teacher who was beloved to his students. This teacher never used the rod but he did hang a whip on the wall. Every time the students misbehaved, he would glance at the whip and the students would immediately take their cue. (R. Y.Y. Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, 1880-1950)
  • 5. Ezekiel 36:26.
  • 6. Avot D'R. Nattan, chapter 6.


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Mishli Shlomo

Posted by: Anonymous, Barrie, ON, Canada on Nov 18, 2005

It says in Mishli/Proverbs something about consenting to physical disipline of children, also doesn't it say somewhere in Devarim that lashes are used in corperal punishment? But I suppose there is a differnce between punishment and forcing andadult to study Torah, Mishli also says a gentle tongue breaks a bone. This gives me something to think about todah!


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.