Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Domestic Violence

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, behavior used by one partner to control the other; it can include verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and cuts across social strata. Although men can be abused, most victims are women. Children in abusive households are likely to have been abused or to have witnessed abuse. In recent decades, the term "domestic violence" has replaced "wife beating" or "wife battering"; such behavior is also referred to as "relationship violence," "domestic abuse," and "violence against a spouse."

Domestic violence is not a new issue among Jews. Although the word מכה (strike, blow, hit, beat) appears in the Bible, it is not associated with wife beating until talmudic times and even then it is not overtly discussed. The most useful source in the study of wife beating is responsa literature (ranging from geonic times to the present). There are a variety of attitudes towards domestic violence found in these texts, with some decisors who declare it unlawful while others justify it under certain circumstances. Gratuitous abuse, striking a wife without a reason, is unlawful and 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.

Medieval Attitudes in the Muslim World

*Ẓemaḥ ben Paltoi, gaon of Pumbedita (872–90), allowed a man to flog his wife if she was guilty of assault. Rabbi *Yehudai b. Naḥman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–61) wrote 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" (Oẓar ha-Ge'onim, Ket. 169–70). The ninth-century gaon of Sura, *Sar Shalom b. Boaz (d. c. 859 or 864), distinguished 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 should be judged less severely, since the husband had authority over his wife (Oẓar ha-Ge'onim, BK 62:198).

In his Mishneh Torah, Moses *Maimonides (1135–1204) recommended beating a bad wife as 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" (Ishut 21:10). The responsa of R. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret (Rashba, 1235–1310) include examples of husbands who occasionally or habitually use force; few of these men are brought to court for beating a wife in a moment of anger. However, there are instances in Rashba's responsa of wives who considered the rabbis as allies against violent husbands (Adret, vol. 5, no. 264; vol. 7, no. 477; vol. 8, no. 102; vol. 4, no. 113).

Medieval Attitudes in Ashkenaz

Responsa from 12th- and 13th-century France and Germany express a rejection of wife beating without any qualifications in a Jewish society in which women held high social and economic status. This attitude is reflected in a proposed takkanah (regulation supplementing the talmudic halakhah) of R. Perez b. Elijah, who believed that "one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger"; he decreed that "any Jew may be compelled on application of his wife or one of her near relatives to undertake by a ḥerem not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty so as to disgrace her, for that is against Jewish practice." If the husband refused to obey, the court could assign her maintenance according to her station and according to the custom of the place where she dwelled. It is not clear whether this takkanah ever received serious consideration.

Some Ashkenazi rabbis considered battering as grounds for forcing a man to give a get. Rabbi *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (Maharam, c. 1215–1293) and R. *Simḥah b. Samuel of Speyer (d. 1225–1230) 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. Simḥah argued that like Eve, "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20), a wife is given to a man 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 not only recommends a compelled divorce, but allows one that is forced on the husband by gentile authorities. This is highly unusual since rabbis rarely endorse forcing a man to divorce his wife and it is even rarer to suggest that the non-Jewish community adjudicate internal Jewish affairs. Although many Ashkenazi rabbis quoted his opinions with approval, they were overturned by most authorities in later generations, starting with R. Israel b. Pethahiah *Isserlein (1390–1460) and R. *David b. Solomon Ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz, 1479–1573). In his responsum, Radbaz wrote that R. 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 (mamzer)" (part 4, 157). Sixteenth-century responsa seem to acknowledge that wife beating 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.

Contemporary Perspectives

For many years there was 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 twice as long to leave battering relationships than other women for fear that they will lose their children and because they are aware of the difficulties in obtaining a get, the Jewish divorce decree which is dependent on the abusive husband's consent. The major halakhic stance in the early 21st century continues to support the central role and authority of the husband and domestic abuse is not automatic grounds for Jewish divorce. Rabbinic courts tend to favor men who promise to reform their behavior (shelom bayit) and often force women to return to their vicious husbands or lose their rights to maintenance and property and custody of children. An abused woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce is considered an *agunah, a chained or anchored woman.

The problem of domestic violence in Israel surfaced in the media during the first Gulf War in 1991 when soldiers were not mobilized and husbands and wives (and their children) were forced to be together in sealed rooms. Beginning in the 1990s the rate of husbands murdering wives spiralled upwards in Israel and this trend has continued, with over 200 spousal murders reported by 2002.

Jewish Women International (JWI) is among contemporary organizations addressing the plight of victims of domestic abuse. It has developed resources for Jewish women and an information guide for rabbis. JWI coordinated international conferences on Jewish domestic violence (2003 and 2005) addressing this behavior in the U.S., Israel, South America, and the FSU. An inter-denominational group, the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment (J-SAFE), promotes a Jewish community in which all institutions and organizations conduct themselves responsibly and effectively in addressing the wrongs of domestic violence. Its goal is to promote universal standards for training and policies that prevent abuse, that ensure that victims are treated supportively and appropriately, and that perpetrators are held accountable, thereby promoting a safer environment for all children and adults. In recent years, some rabbinic authorities, shocked by the growing murder rate, have made initial efforts to address the situation of women in abusive marriages.


D. Gardsbane (ed.), Healing and Wholeness: A Resource Guide on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community (2002); N. Graetz, Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (1998); A. Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Europe in the Middle Ages (Heb., 2001; Eng., 2004); C.G. Kaufman, Sins of Omission (2003); M. Scarf, Battered Jewish Wives: Case Studies in the Response to Rage (1988); J.R. Spitzer and Julie Ringold, When Love in Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism (1985, 1991, 1995); M.A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, "Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys," in: Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48 (1986), 465–479; A. Twerski, The Shame Born of Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community (1996).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.