Domestic Violence in Jewish Law

How Judaism views wifebeating.

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For many years there has been a myth that domestic violence among Jewish families was infrequent. However, there is much data demonstrating that domestic abuse is a significant and under-recognized behavior in Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish women typically take a longer time to leave abusive relationships for fear that they will lose their children and because they are aware of the difficulties in obtaining a get, a Jewish divorce document.  

Wifebeating in Rabbinic Literature

In biblical times, acts of sexual assault and abuse against women were of concern to the degree that they violated male property rights. The Bible delineated the marriage relationship by calling the husband ba'al which implies both ownership and lordship (Ex. 21:28). Thus, for example,if a wife is physically harmed by someone, compensation is paid to her husband. The husband is not only the owner of his wife, he is also the owner of her pregnancy (Ex. 21:22). If a man's "property rights" are violated, he is entitled to compensation.

domestic violenceIn Mishnaic and Talmudic literature there is no reference to battered women as a class, and the Talmud does not discuss wifebeating as a distinct category of corporeal damage. The one major allusion to wife beating in the Talmud is couched in a discussion about the unlearned lower class, the am ha-aretz (lit. "people of the land"). "It was taught, R. Meir used to say: Whoever marries his daughter to an am ha-aretzis 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-aretz 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 considered 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 ketubah, ("divorce compensation"), includes the following case: "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." (B. Ketubbot 72a). Although beating is not allowed or even suggested in the case of the screamer, the woman who curses will in later rabbinic texts be repeatedly used as an example of where beating is a justified means to an end.

The most useful source in the study of wife beating is the vast collection of Responsa literature, which includes rabbinic rulings (responses) to specific questions. These responsa date back to the period of the Geonim (7th-10th century C.E.) and continue to be written today. There are a variety of attitudes towards domestic violence found in these texts. Some decisors declare it unlawful, while others justify it under certain circumstances. Gratuitous abuse, striking a wife without a reason, is forbidden by all. However, the attitude of rabbinic sources toward  perceived "bad wives" is ambivalent, and wife beating is occasionally sanctioned if it is for the purpose of chastisement or education.

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Naomi Graetz has been teaching English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev since 1974. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God, The Rabbi's Wife Plays at Murder, S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories, and Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating.