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Wifebeating in Jewish Tradition

by Naomi Graetz

In Brief

The most useful source to study wifebeating is responsa literature, which includese a variety of attitudes towards the phenomenon. While some sources declare wifebeating unlawful, others justify it under certain circumstances. Some Ashkenazi rabbis considered battering as grounds for forcing a man to give a get. In fifteenth-century Europe, more rabbis approved of wifebeating for the purpose of education. Some rabbis unconditionally condemn wifebeaters and force them to divorce their wives, but they are a minority. Most are intimidated by the halakhic problems of mamzerut. Contemporarily, almost no rabbinic authorities justify wifebeating for the purpose of education, but many still do not allow a forced divorce to free the victim.


Wifebeating is found in all cultures, because women’s status is usually lower than men’s and wives are expected to perform specific tasks to serve their husbands. In some societies, men have the right to beat wives who do not do their tasks or who are disrespectful to them. Physical abuse is found more often in those cultures where men have control over divorce and where the husband’s family controls a widow’s remarriage. Analysis of sex-role and gender theories describe the patriarchal nature of society and its concomitant culture of violence. Societies’ approval of violence legitimizes what is popularly called “domestic violence,” and these attitudes are transmitted from generation to generation, thus creating a tradition in which violence leads to more violence. In the early 1970s, Richard J. Gelles and Murray R. Straus coined the term “the marriage license as a hitting license” to describe the acceptance of wifebeating by society.

In biblical times, it is clear that acts of sexual assault and abuse against women were of concern only because they were a violation of male property rights. The Bible delineated the marriage relationship by calling the husband ba’al, which implies both ownership and lordship (Ex. 21:28). The woman is property, whose ownership is transferred to the husband upon marriage. In the case of a divorce, the husband renounces his right to his (sexual) use of the property. If the husband’s property is damaged, compensation is paid to him. He is not only the owner of his wife, he is also the owner of her pregnancy (Ex. 21:22). All of this may have contributed to an attitude that there was nothing wrong with physically abusing women. Although the word מכה (strike, blow, hit, beat) appears in the Bible, it is not associated with wifebeating until the Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud.

In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, there is no reference to battered women as a class. The Talmud does not overtly discuss wifebeating as a separate category of corporeal damage. There is one major allusion to wife beating in the Talmud, which is couched in a discussion about the unlearned lower class, the am ha-arez (lit. “people of the land”). “It was taught, R. Meir used to say: Whoever marries his daughter to an am ha-arez is as though he bound and laid her before a lion: just as a lion tears [his prey] and devours it and has no shame, so an am ha-arez strikes [hits/beats] and cohabits and has no shame(B. Pesahim 49b).

Much of the discussion around beating of wives as “punishment” occurs in the context of the grounds for a divorce. Immodest behavior deemed worthy of punishment includes “going out with uncovered head, spinning wool with uncovered arms in the street, conversing with every man.” The list of women deemed worthy of being divorced without receiving their Marriage document (in Aramaic) dictating husband's personal and financial obligations to his wife.ketubbah, (“divorce compensation”), include the following case as well: “Abba Saul said: Also that of a wife who curses her husband’s parents in his presence [and in his children’s presence]. R. Tarfon said: also one who screams. And who is regarded a screamer? A woman whose voice can be heard by her neighbors when she speaks inside her house” (B. Ketubbot 72a). Although beating is not allowed or even suggested in the case of the screamer, the woman who curses is in later texts repeatedly used as an example where beating is seen as a justified means to an end.

Responsa Literature

The most useful source to study wifebeating is Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.responsa literature. There are a variety of attitudes found in the responsa literature towards wifebeating. While there are sources in this literature that declare wifebeating unlawful, there are others that justify it under certain circumstances. Gratuitous wifebeating, striking a wife without a reason, is unlawful and forbidden by all. Rabbinic sources are in general agreement about the beating of “good wives” who do not deserve beating. However, the attitude of rabbinic sources toward “bad wives” (who do not behave the way good women should) is ambivalent, and wifebeating is occasionally sanctioned if it is for the purpose of chastisement or education.

A bad wife is one who does not perform the duties required of her by Jewish law, who behaves immodestly, or who curses her parents, husband, or in-laws. Rabbis regularly advise men to restrict their wives to the home and be responsible for educating them. Thus the husband, who “owns” his wife, is given a great amount of latitude in educating her. In this view it is permissible and acceptable to beat one’s wife in order to keep her in line. The rabbis who justify beating see it as part of the overall “duties” of a husband to chastise his wife for educational purposes.

David Grossman and Solomon B. Goitein pointed to the influence of the Muslim surroundings on the Head of the Torah academies of Sura and Pumbedita in 6th to 11th c. Babylonia.Geonim and later on during the Golden Period of Spanish Jewry in Muslim Spain. Talmudic academies flourished in Iraq (Babylon), where Islamic jurisprudence developed in the eighth to ninth centuries. By the time of Mohammed (570–633), the redaction of the Talmud was near completion. Both systems viewed women as enablers and in both societies women were supposed to stay at home.

In the Koran, a husband is encouraged to beat his wife if he thinks she is not acting modestly or is not obeying him: “Men shall have the pre-eminence over women … but those whose perverseness ye shall be apprehensive of, rebuke; and remove them into separate apartments, and chastise them. But if they shall be obedient unto you, seek not an occasion of quarrel against them: for God is high and great” (Chapter 4, Sipara V, verse 33). “And if ye fear a breach between the husband and wife, send a judge out of his family, and a judge out of her family: if they shall desire a reconciliation, God will cause them to agree; for God is knowing and wise” (verse 34).

Abd al-Qadir (1077/8–1166, Iran), in his commentary on the passage, “Those whose perverseness,” from the Koran quoted above, makes it clear that: Recreant wives are to be punished in three degrees: (1) They are to be rebuked, (2) if they remain rebellious, they are to be assigned separate apartments, and so be banished from bed; and (3) they are to be beaten, but not so as to cause any permanent injury (commentary on Sipara V, verse 33, p. 83). It is clear that the Muslims too made a distinction between the good and the bad wife, the latter to be punished if necessary.

There are sources which make it clear that a husband has no right to beat his wife as one beats a prisoner. Also when one beats a wife, one should take care not to hit her on the face, avoid brutality, and not injure her permanently. In Islam, there are many kinds of divorce and a woman can initiate divorce if she is willing to lose her assets. There are diverging opinions on whether a husband can be forced to divorce his wife depending on the different streams of Islam.

Early Responses

In Babylon, during the post-Talmudic Geonic period, Zemah ben Paltoi, Gaon of Pumbedita (872–890), “calls upon a man to flog his wife if she is guilty of assault.” Rabbi Yehudai b. Nahman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–761) writes that: “…when her husband enters the house, she must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave” (Ozar ha-Ge’onim, Ketubbot 169–170). The ninth-century Gaon of Sura, Sar Shalom b. Boaz (d. c. 859 or 864), distinguishes between an assault on a woman by her husband and an assault on her by a stranger. The Gaon of Sura’s opinion was that the husband’s assault on his wife was less severe, since the husband has authority over his wife (Ozar ha-Ge’onim, Bava Kamma, 62:198).

In Muslim Spain, R. Samuel ha-Nagid (936–1056) was one of the first sages to advise the husband to beat his dominating wife so that she stay in her place. His attitude toward the domineering woman is that she can be hit in order to educate her. He writes in his book Ben Mishlei: “Hit your wife without hesitation if she attempts to dominate you like a man and raises her head [too high]. Don’t, my son, don’t you be your wife’s wife, while your wife will be her husband’s husband!” Underlying his words is that the ideal woman is one who is subservient; the bad woman is one who is disputatious.

In the following period, known as that of the “Rabbinic authorities/halakhic decisors/ biblical commentators of the mid-11th to mid-15th c.. The period of the rishonim followed that of the geonim and preceded that of the aharonim.Rishonim,” Moses ben Maimon (Rambam), b. Spain, 1138Maimonides (1135–1204) recommends in his Code, the Mishneh Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah, that beating a bad wife is an acceptable form of discipline: “A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” (Isshut 21:10). Some rabbis, such as Shem Tov b. Abraham ibn Gaon (d. Safed, 1312), in his commentary Migdal Oz on Maimonides, understand the referent to be the rabbinic court (beit din), since the word “force” (kofin) is in the plural, rather than the singular. However, most commentators concur that Maimonides means that it is the “husband” who can force her. R. Vidal Yom Tov of Tolosa, the well-known fourteenth-century interpreter of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, writes in the Maggid Mishneh that “Nahmanides wrote that we force her with a stick and it is also the view of Rabbenu (i.e., Maimonides) and the major rabbis.” It should be noted that Maimonides was most liberal in grounds for divorce, allowing sexual incompatibility, “me’is alai” (lit. “He is repulsive to me”) as grounds (cf. also Ket. 63b).

An example of a rabbi who understood that Maimonides’s words justified beating one’s wife for a “good” cause was R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (c. 1200–1263), who accepted the idea that a husband may beat his wife if she transgresses: “A man must not beat his neighbor. ... The man who beats his neighbor transgresses two negative precepts...And so it is with the man who beats his wife. He transgresses two negative precepts, if he did not hit her in order to reprove her for some transgression [emphasis mine] (Iggeret Teshuvah, Constantinople, 1548). Thus R. Jonah distinguishes between wife assault and stranger assault. One can only assault one’s wife if justified, but one can never assault one’s female neighbor.

Yom Tov Assis makes it clear that wife-beating was widespread among Spanish Jews and sees it as a part of the general trend of violence in Hispano-Jewish society. In this society, according to R. Judah, son of R. Asher (Toledo, 1270–1349) the husband is the lord and master and the wife fears her husband and the husband rules in his home and the wife does not contradict him (Zikhron Yehudah 78). In the responsa of R. Solomon b. Abraham Adret (Rashba, 1235–1310), we have examples of husbands who occasionally and/or habitually use force. There are not too many examples of husbands being brought to court for beating a wife in a moment of anger. However, there are many cases in Rashba’s responsa of wives who considered the rabbis as allies against violent husbands (Adret, V 264; VII, 477; VIII, 102; IV, 113).

Christian Impact

Frances and Joseph Gies, G. G. Coulton, Shulamith Shahar, Erika Uitz, and Heath Dillard have all pointed to the fact that in the Christian-dominated areas, the overall context is misogynist and patriarchal. In many Christian European countries, legislation established women as chattel, to be protected, chastised, and controlled. Men were empowered to rule and punish their wives. The Christian Church advocated male dominance and displayed misogyny. There is a theological heritage of patriarchal beliefs that compare woman’s relationship to man with that of man’s relationship to God. Thus, many clerics recommend that a wife submit to a husband’s rule regardless of the amount of abuse she receives. A fifteenth-century Sienese church publication, “Rules of Marriage” (Cherubino de Siena, Regole della vita matrimoniale, Bologna, 1888), which was endorsed by the Catholic church, instructed men to “…scold her sharply, bully and terrify her. And if this still doesn’t work ... take up a stick and beat her soundly … not in rage, but out of charity and concern for her soul. …” Dillard writes that wife beating, permitted in canon law, was not altogether unknown and possibly even recommended. She describes how in the Leonese town of Benavente (Spain), and other communities that adopted its customs in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a husband was granted immunity when, by chance, his wife died after he had thrashed her. The assumption was that he was beating her for educational and correctional purposes.

Although it is not clear to what extent Christian teaching influenced Jewish communities, G. G. Coulton compares the decision of Rabbi Perez b. Elijah of Corbeil (thirteenth century) with the pronouncement of the Dominican Nicolaus de Byard (French friar, famous preacher and moral theologian, d. 1261) of exactly this same period. “A man may chastise his wife and beat her (verberare) for her correction; for she is of his household, and therefore the Lord may chastise his own, as it is written in Gratian’s Decretum (Bologna, 1140 c.e.).” He also quotes the Corpus Juris Canonici (Decretum Gratiani Causa 33, question 5, chapters 11, 13, 15 and 19. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A. Friedberg, Leipzig 1879–1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 1254–1256) to show that “woman was not made in God’s image” and therefore it is natural for her to serve her husband. The husband is the head of the wife, the man’s head is Christ.”

Coulton implies that the Jews were not like this because they are an older Jewish civilization unlike the comparatively recent feudal lords whose fathers had just recently broken off from the Roman Empire. Coulton was extensively quoted by later Jewish apologists to show that Jewish clerics do not allow wifebeaters to go unpunished. Many of these very stern, anti-wifebeating responses date from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries among the Jews of Ashkenaz in Germany and France. Here we have a clear attitude that rejects the beating of wives without any qualifications.

This may explain why R. Perez b. Elijah became an advocate on the issue of wifebeating. He felt that cases of maltreatment of wives by husbands that came before the Ashkenazi rabbis were not taken seriously enough. So he proposed a Regulation supplementing the laws of the Torah enacted by a halakhic authority.takkanah (regulation enacted by The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic scholars supplementing the Talmudic halakhah) on the subject of wifebeating. He considered “one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger” and “therefore decreed that any Jew may be compelled on application of his wife or one of her near relatives to undertake by a Ban; excommunication (generally applied by rabbinic authorities for disciplinary purposes).herem not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty so as to disgrace her, for that is against Jewish practice.” If the husband refuses to obey, the Court will “assign her maintenance according to her station and according to the custom of the place where she dwells. They shall fix her alimony as though her husband were away on a distant journey.” It is not clear whether this takkanah ever received serious consideration.

Grounds for a Forced Divorce

Some Ashkenazi rabbis considered battering as grounds for forcing a man to give a Writ of (religious) divorceget. Rabbi Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (Maharam, c.1215–1293) writes that “A Jew must honor his wife more than he honors himself. If one strikes one’s wife, one should be punished more severely than for striking another person. For one is enjoined to honor one’s wife but is not enjoined to honor the other person. ... If he persists in striking her, he should be excommunicated, lashed, and suffer the severest punishments, even to the extent of amputating his arm. If his wife is willing to accept a divorce, he must divorce her and pay her the ketubbah (Even ha-Ezer #297). He says that a woman who is hit by her husband is entitled to an immediate divorce and to receive the money owed her in her marriage settlement. His advice to cut off the hand of a habitual beater of his fellow echoes the law in Deut. 25:11–12, where the unusual punishment of cutting off a hand is applied to a woman who tries to save her husband in a way that shames the beater.

To justify his opinion, R. Meir uses biblical and talmudic material to legitimize his views. At the end of this responsum he discusses the legal precedents for this decision in the Talmud (B. Gittin 88b). Thus he concludes that “even in the case where she was willing to accept [occasional beatings], she cannot accept beatings without an end in sight.” He points to the fact that a fist has the potential to kill and that if peace is impossible, the rabbis should try to convince him to divorce her of “his own free will,” but if that proves impossible, force him to divorce her (as is allowed by law [ka-torah]).

This responsum is found in a collection of R. Meir’s responsa and in his copy of a responsum by R. Simhah b. Samuel of Speyer (d. 1225–1230). By freely copying it in its entirety, it is clear that R. Meir endorses R. Simhah’s opinions. R. Simhah, using an aggadic approach, wrote that a man has to honor his wife more than himself and that is why his wife—and not his fellow man—should be his greater concern. R. Simhah stresses her status as wife rather than simply as another individual. His argument is that, like Eve, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), she was given for living, not for suffering. She trusts him and thus it is worse if he hits her than if he hits a stranger.

R. Simhah lists all the possible sanctions. If these are of no avail, he takes the daring leap and not only allows a compelled divorce but allows one that is forced on the husband by gentile authorities. It is rare that rabbis tolerate forcing a man to divorce his wife and it is even rarer that they suggested that the non-Jewish community adjudicate their internal affairs. He is one of the few rabbis who authorized a compelled divorce as a sanction. Many Ashkenazi rabbis quote his opinions with approval. However, they were overturned by most rabbis in later generations, starting with R. Israel b. Petahiah Isserlein (1390–1460) and R. David b. Solomon Ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz, 1479–1573). In his responsum, Radbaz wrote that Simhah “exaggerated on the measures to be taken when writing that [the wifebeater] should be forced by non-Jews (akum) to divorce his wife ... because [if she remarries] this could result in the offspring [of the illegal marriage, according to Radbaz] being declared illegitimate (Lit. "bastard." Offspring of a relationship forbidden in the Torah, e.g., between a married woman and a man other than her husband or by incest.mamzer)” (part 4, 157).

Included among the many rabbis who totally oppose the husband’s “right” to punish his wife and consider wifebeating as grounds for divorce is the North African Rabbi Simeon b. Zemah Duran (Rashbez, 1361–1444) who disagrees with R. Isaac Alfasi (Rif). “Even though the Rif wrote that even if the husband says ‘I will not provide for her,’ he does not have to divorce her and give the ketubbah to her [I think otherwise]”. Rashbez shows that one can interpret the husband’s unwillingness to provide for her as grounds for forcing a divorce and shows that it is better to live in a house where there is love than one in which there is hate. He comments, “What good is there for a woman whose husband causes her sorrow by daily fights?” And he goes on to show that there are precedents which allow us to force the husband to divorce her and, if he starves her, obviously this should be the case. He writes that the difference between forcing him to divorce her and advising him to divorce her is not that great. If he agrees to divorce her of his own free will, so be it. But if he does not, we force him. He argues “that the rabbinic judge who forces a woman who rebelled to go back to her [abusive] husband is following the law of the Ishmaelites and should be excommunicated. ...” (Simeon ben Zemah, Sefer ha-Tashbez, Part 2, 8).

Unconditional Rejection of Wifebeating

A major source of medieval responsa that reject wifebeating unconditionally is Binyamin Ze’ev b. Mattathias of Arta, Greece (rabbi of the Corfu congregation in the sixteenth century). He quotes the entire responsum of R. Simhah (attributed above as being R. Meir’s) to support his own point of view. Binyamin Ze’ev recognizes that the perpetrator agrees in the end to divorce her “of his own free will” (ad she-yomar rozeh ani) as a result of the force of the court. But he interprets this to mean that, by his saying “It is my will,” his free consent is assumed at that point. Binyamin Ze’ev quotes several sages (Samuel of Evreux, first half of thirteenth century, talmudist and tosafist of Normandy; Elijah ben Judah of Paris, first half of the twelfth century, French talmudist, commentator, and halakhist; and Meshullam ben Nathan of Melun, twelfth century, talmudist in northern France) who were in favor of denying all the privileges of the community to the perpetrator who refused to give his wife a divorce. This would include denying his right to circumcise and educate his son and even the right to be interred (in a Jewish cemetery). Binyamin Ze’ev does not view these extraordinary means as coercion—they are to be considered as aids to help the husband to do what is right.

He also was in favor of the herem suggested by Perez (see above) and quotes his entire takkanah. Binyamin Ze’ev’s views are considered to be controversial and certainly unusual for the sixteenth century. Most rabbis base themselves on the Codification of basic Jewish Oral Law; edited and arranged by R. Judah ha-Nasi c. 200 C.E.Mishnah, which says that, when a woman knows prior to her marriage that something is wrong with her husband, she is more or less held captive in the marriage. He writes, however: “If we cannot find another solution for the situation, we compel him to divorce her and give her the marriage settlement payment even if she had accepted the situation knowingly” (Responsa #88). But even Binyamin Ze’ev is aware of the dangers of a forced divorce and so himself hedges at the end of his very long responsum.

Wifebeating as an Educational Tool and as Punishment

In fifteenth-century Europe we find more rabbis who approve of wifebeating for the purpose of education. This approach is illustrated in the collected responsa of Israel Isserlein (Austria, c. 1390–1460). In answer to the question, “Can a man who hears his wife cursing and saying bad things about her mother and father reprove her for this several times? If this does not work, can he then beat her in order to ensure that she does not do this any more?” He answers: “Even though Mordecai [b. Hillel] and R. Simhah wrote that he who beats his wife transgresses the negative precept “not to excess” (pen yosif, Deut. 25:3), and is dealt with very harshly, I disagree with this strict interpretation. I base my interpretation on R. Nahman [ben Jacob, d. c. 320 c.e., Babylonian Lit. (Aramaic) "spokesman." Scholars active during the period from the completion of the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.) until the completion of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (end of the fourth and fifth centuries respectively), who were active primarily in the interpretation of the Mishnah. In the chain of tradition they follow the tanna'im and precede the savora'im.amora] writing in the name of R. Isaac [one of the earliest known Babylonian tannaim, middle of the second century] who wrote that it was permissible to beat a Canaanite slave woman in one’s possession in order to prevent her from transgressing. He of course should not overdo it or else she would be freed. Anyone who is responsible for educating someone under him, and sees that person transgressing, can beat that person to prevent the transgression. He does not have to be brought to court” (Isserlein, Terumat ha-Deshen, Responsum #218).

R. Joseph b. Ephraim Caro’s (1488–1575) views on wifebeating are not consistent in his works. In Kesef Mishneh (Caro’s commentary on Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah), Caro seems to agree with Maimonides that the wife’s duties are so important that a husband may beat her if she refuses to perform them. However, in Beit Yosef: Even ha-Ezer 74:7–12, Caro refers to R. Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi (Sha’arei ha-Teshuvah) who writes that anyone who beats his wife transgresses two negative commandments. Caro suggests excommunicating the perpetrator so that he not transgress the laws of the Torah and that chastising him is too mild a penalty. To support this position he cites R. Simhah of Speyer and agrees with his predecessor that if the husband is a habitual wifebeater, and bruises her (hovel), the court can even cut off his hand. Thus, in BY 74, Caro makes clear that the wife who flees her abusive husband is not a rebellious wife and the husband must either honor her more than himself or divorce her and pay her the money from her marriage contract. It appears, from the sources he cites here that Caro is totally opposed to wifebeating—for any reason. Yet in Beit Yosef (BY 154) Caro quotes R. Simhah’s responsum in its entirety, which favors forcing the husband who beats his wife to give her a divorce—even through recourse to the civil courts and writes at the end of this source: “One cannot rely on the writings of R. Simhah and others to force the husband to divorce his wife because none of them rely on the famous decisors (poskim).”

His views are further complicated by R. Moses ben Israel Isserles (Rema, 1525 or 1530–1572), the glossator of the Shulhan Arukh. He rules that, although unwarranted wifebeating justifies compelling a husband to divorce his wife “if she is the cause of it, for example, if she curses him or denigrates his father and mother and he scolds her calmly first and it does not help, then it is obvious that he is permitted to beat her and castigate her. And if it is not known who is the cause, the husband is not considered a reliable source when he says that she is the cause and portrays her as a harlot, for all women are presumed to be law-abiding” (Darkei Moshe, Tur, Even ha-Ezer 154:15).

In two glosses to Caro’s Shulhan Arukh, (EH 80:15 and EH 154:3), Isserles relates to whether wifebeating is ever justified as a form of punishment. In EH 154:3, which is a discussion of whether one can force a recalcitrant husband (who also beats his wife) to give her a divorce, Isserles returns again to the issue of the wife as cause of the beating: “If she curses him without reason, or puts down his father or mother and he reproves her with words and she does not listen to him, some say that it is permissible to beat her. Some say that it is forbidden even to beat a bad wife, but the first opinion is the correct one.” What this means is that, although Isserles has two choices, he chooses to follow the first opinion, that it is permissible to beat a “bad” wife. Further on in this gloss, Isserles writes that “if she curses him with no reason, he divorces her without paying her the money stipulated in the marriage contract.”

In his commentary on the Talmud, R. Solomon ben Jehiel Luria (Poland, c. 1510–1574) refers to Maimonides and Isserlein in a discussion about punishing a “bad” wife. Luria goes further than Isserlein did in Terumat ha-Deshen #218, when he writes: “A man may hit his wife when she curses her father and mother, because she transgresses the law. ... There is no need to bring her to the court, as is so in the case of the Jewish slave. And he can beat her for other reasons as well—whenever she transgresses the laws of the Torah. He can beat her until she dies [until her soul departs—ad she-teze nafshah], even for transgressing a minor negative prohibition. Of course, he shouldn’t hasten to beat her. He should warn her first. He can only beat her if she doesn’t heed his warning” (Yam shel Shelomo, Bava Kamma, Third Chapter, 20b #9).

Other Responses

Most responses in this period are not as extreme as that. They seem to acknowledge that wifebeating is wrong, yet they avoid releasing the woman from the bad marriage. These evasive positions vis-à-vis relief for a beaten wife are part of halakhah and rest on the husband’s dominant position in marriage. Even in the eighth century, R. Hananiah, a Babylonian Gaon, wrote that, although the husband should not beat his wife, the monetary compensation due to his wife belonged to him, so there was no real point of giving her compensation. The husband vowed not to habitually beat her and in doing this, fulfilled his duty (yaza yedei hovato). She, in turn, was told to listen to him, forgive him, pacify him, and make peace with him (Geonic responsa Sha’arei Zedek Part 4, 13).

Rabbi Yom Tov ben Moshe Zahalon (Safed, 1559–1619 or 1620) writes sympathetically about an abused woman who has taken refuge in her father’s home. Although he wants to help this battered wife, he is caught in the controversy between Maimonides and Nahmanides on the issue of a forced divorce. The latter opposes Maimonides’s liberal interpretation and writes that “one can never force a husband to divorce his wife” (#138). R. Yom Tov’s compromise is to force him to give her the ketubbah money so she will not be destitute (#229), but he does not force him to divorce his wife.

In other responsa of the modern period, the following rabbis uphold the primacy of the halakhic constraints of not forcing a husband to give a get to his wife: Jacob ben Joseph Reischer (Austria, Germany c.1670–1733), David Pipano (Greece and Bulgaria, 1851–1925), Moses Sofer (Pressburg, 1763–1839), Gabriel Adler ha-Cohen of Oberdorf (c. 1800–1870, brother of Nathan Marcus Adler, 1803–1890, chief rabbi of England), and Ovadiah Yosef. These rabbis base their opinions on the illegality of a coerced divorce and their very pro-marriage agenda. In the words of Hatam Sofer, we do not force a man to divorce the wife he is beating because “it is better to live as a couple (tan du) than to dwell alone (armalu)” (Responsum, part four, Even ha-Ezer 2). On the other hand, Adler’s responsum on “the law concerning the rebellious wife” which appears in the Orthodox publication Shomer Zion ha-Ne’eman (Volume 6, nos. 219 and continued in 220, 1856) raises the question of the wife who refuses to allow her abusive husband to give her a get and concludes that “the woman does not have the power to anchor him forever.” Jews, unlike Christians, are not allowed to separate. If his wife leaves him for at least a year she must be forced to divorce.

In the modern period the following sages follow the liberal rabbinical precedents based on the French and German rabbis of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: R. Shlomo b. Abraham ha- Priests; descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who were given the right and obligation to perform the Temple services.Kohen (Yugoslavia, 1520–1601), R. Hayyim ben Jacob Palaggi (Turkey, 1788–1869), R. Avraham Jacob Paperna (Poland, 1840–1919), Eliezer Shem Tov Papo (Sarajevo, c. 1824), Raphael Aaron Ben Simeon (Cairo, 1848–1928), R. Isaac Herzog (Dublin and Israel, 1888–1959), R. Eliezer Judah Waldenburg (b. 1912), and Rabbi Moses Feinstein. The later rabbis all show an awareness of the earlier debates and an increased interest in issues of money and property. They do not hesitate to disagree with earlier rabbis who were influenced by Islamic society. They do not allow for beating even in the case of the “bad wife” who curses her husband. They also recognize the power that the abusive husband has over his wife if he refuses to give her a divorce and interpret the halakhah leniently in order to pressure the husband to divorce his wife.

In Summary

In summary, we have noted that both Christian and Muslim sources sanction wifebeating/chastisement for the purpose of education. In Jewish sources there are clear differences. The early geonic (Babylon) responsa while having a mixed attitude toward forced divorce seem to agree that stranger assault is more severe than wife assault, because the husband has control over her and not over the stranger. In the Spanish/Muslim sources there seems to be more leeway for the husband to beat the wife, especially for the purposes of education and retaining the dominant position. In marked contrast to these sources are the French medieval sources in which the attitude is that a husband is as accountable to his wife as he is to a stranger. The German medieval sources go furthest by stating that one has to be more stringent in cases of wifebeating than with stranger assault because he must honor the wife who is under his protection and thus he is more accountable to her than to a stranger. It is possible that this reflects the higher status of German women in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

What becomes clear is that from the fifteenth century onwards, when women’s status declines all over, the cultural differences break down. Illustrative of this decline is Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, who lived in Christain Spain in the fifteenth century. In his Commentary on Genesis I, he writes that only man is created in God’s image; masculine man was the pinnacle of God’s creation and woman was only meant to be a helpmate and a vessel for man’s use. Thus it should not shock us if rabbis begin again to allow wifebeating for educational purposes and/or do not view wifebeating as grounds for divorce. There still remain some rabbis who are bold enough to choose sides and unconditionally condemn wifebeaters and force them to divorce their wives, but they are a minority. Most are intimidated by the halakhic problems of mamzerut which might result when a husband is forced to divorce his wife against his will and then recants. Thus, although in modern times there are almost no rabbinic authorities who justify wifebeating for the purpose of education, there are many who still do not allow a forced divorce to free the victim of wifebeating. Because of the hardships imposed on women by this reluctance, there has been some talk of reviving a takkanah procedure such as R. Perez (thirteenth century) suggested. However, without a rabbinic will, there seems to be no rabbinic way to make use of this creative halakhic tool.


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How to cite this page

Graetz, Naomi. "Wifebeating in Jewish Tradition." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 2, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/wifebeating-in-jewish-tradition>.