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Rebellious Son

"If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father and [not "or"] the voice of his mother and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them, then shall his father and his mother lay hold of him and bring him out unto the elders of his city… They shall say unto the elders of his city: This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice, he is a glutton and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear" (Deut. 21:18–21).

It appears that this law was intended to limit the powers of the pater familias: the head of the household could no longer punish the defiant son himself, according to his own whim, but had to bring him before the elders (i.e., judges) for punishment. In earlier laws (eg., Hammurapi Code, nos. 168, 169) only the father had to be defied; in biblical law it must be both father and mother, and the father cannot act without the mother's concurrence. If either was dead (Sif. Deut. 219) or refused to join in the prosecution, the son could not be indicted (Sanh. 8:4), but it was not necessary that father and mother should be validly married to each other (Sanh. 71a).

There is no record of a rebellious son ever having been executed, except for a dictum of R. Jonathan stating that he had once seen such a one and sat on his grave (Sanh. 71a). However, it is an old and probably valid tradition that there never had been, nor ever will be, a rebellious son, and that the law had been pronounced for educational and deterrent purposes only, so that parents be rewarded for bringing their children up properly (ibid.; Tosef. Sanh. 11:6).

Interpreting every single word of the biblical text restrictively, the talmudic jurists reduced the practicability of this law to nil. The "son" must be old enough to bear criminal responsibility, that is 13 years of age (see *Penal Law), but must still be a "son" and not a man: as soon as a beard grows ("by which is meant the pubic hair, not that of the face, for the sages spoke euphemistically") he is no longer a "son" but a man (Sanh. 8:1). The period during which he may thus be indicted as a "son" is three months only (Sanh. 69a; Yad, Mamrim 7:6), or, according to another version, not more than six months (TJ, Sanh. 8:1). The term "son" excludes a daughter (Sanh. 8:1; Sif. Deut. 218), though daughters are no less apt to be rebellious (Sanh. 69b–70a).

The offense is composed of two distinct elements: repeated (Sif. loc. cit.) disloyalty and defiance, consisting in repudiating and reviling the parents (Ex. 21:17), and being a "glutton and drunkard." This second element was held to involve the gluttonous eating of meat and drinking of wine (in which sense the same words occur in Prov. 23:20–21), not on a legitimate occasion (Sanh. 8:2), but in the company of loafers and criminals (Sanh. 70b; Yad, Mamrim 7:2) and in a ravenous manner (Yad, Mamrim 7:1). There are detailed provisions about the minimum quantities that must be devoured to qualify for the use of the term (cf. Yad, Mamrim 7:2–3). As no "son" can afford such extravagance, the law requires that he must have stolen money from his father and misappropriated it to buy drinks and food (Sanh. 8:3, 71a; Yad, Mamrim 7:2). "Who does not heed his father and mother" was interpreted as excluding one who does not heed God: thus, eating pork or other prohibited food, being an offense against God, would not qualify as gluttony in defiance of parents (ibid.). But it was also said that one who in his use of the stolen money performed a precept and thus heeded his Father in heaven could not be indicted (TJ, Sanh. 8:2).

As father and mother have to be "defied," to "take hold of him," to "say" to the elders, and to show them "this" is our son, neither of them may be deaf, dumb, blind, lame, or crippled, or else the son cannot be indicted as rebellious (Sanh. 8:4; Sif. Deut. 219). Either of them could condone the offense and withdraw the complaint at any time before conviction (Sif. Deut. 218; Sanh. 88b; TJ, Sanh. 8:6; Yad, Mamrim 7:8).

The son had first to be brought before a court of three judges (see *Bet Din) where, when he was convicted, he would be flogged and warned that unless he desisted from his wanton conduct he would be indicted as a rebellious son and liable to be stoned; if he did not desist, he would be brought before a court of 23, including the three judges who had warned him (Sanh. 8:4; 71b; Mid. Tan. to 21:18; Yad, Mamrim 7:7). If he escaped before sentence was passed, and in the meantime his hair had grown, he had to be discharged; but if he escaped after sentence, he would be executed if caught (Sanh. 71b; Yad, Mamrim 7:9).

The sentence passed upon a rebellious son had to be published far and wide, so that "all Israel will hear and be afraid" (Sanh. 89a; Mid. Tan. to 18:21). According to one view, the sentence was to be passed and executed at Jerusalem, at the time of mass pilgrimages, when all the people would be there to see and to hear (Tosef. Sanh. 11:7). It is said that the rebellious son is executed, not because of what he has actually done, but because of what he was foreseen to be prone to do were he allowed to live. His conduct showed that eventually he would have ruined his parents and become a robber and murderer (Sanh. 72a; TJ, Sanh. 8:7), so God considered it better for him to die innocent than to die guilty (Sanh. 8:5).

"In our times, we pay no attention to gluttonous and defiant sons, and everybody covers up the sins of his children; even where they might be liable to flogging or to capital punishment under the law, they are not even reprimanded. Many such children are leading purposeless lives and learn nothing–and we know that Jerusalem was destroyed because children loafed around and did not study" (Shab. 119b; Samuel Eliezer Edels, Ḥiddushei Halakhot ve-Aggadot, Sanh. 71a).


J.S. Zuri, Mishpat ha-Talmud, 6 (1921), 88; ET, 3 (1951), 362–7; A.Ch. Freimann, in: EM, 2 (1954), 160–2; ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:305ff.; 3:1408; ibid., Jewish Law (1994), 1:365; 4:1677; Enẓiklopedyah Talmudit, vol. 3, S.V. "ben sorer u-moreh," 362–27; index.

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