Wife Beating in Jewish Law
Many people wrongly think that Jewish law permits a man to beat his wife. This is incorrect. In a recent article, R. A. Yehuda Warburg, a practicing dayan (rabbinic judge), explores how Jewish courts function in cases of abuse, whether against a spouse or a minor, and focuses particularly on the evidentiary rules (fairly liberal) and potential punishments meted (solely financial). The article (“Harnessing the Authority of Beit Din to Deal with Cases of Domestic Violense” in Tradition 45:1, Spring 2012) is not yet online but I reproduce here a key paragraph establishing the prohibition against beating your wife (p. 39):
The seriousness of the issur [prohibition] of battery expresses itself in a husband’s liability for injuring his wife while engaging in onah (conjugal relations). The duty of a husband to engage in onah is mi-dioraita [biblical]. Lest one argue that engagement in a mitsva exempts one from responsibility from injury caused during its performance, halakha states otherwise. Hence, Hazon Ish contends that engagement in the mitsva of onah does not serve as a defense. Even if the husband unintentionally injured his wife due to losing self-control, i.e. ones, nevertheless, regarding any assault against another person, adam muad le-olam, a person is always deemed forewarned. Cosnequently, it is no surprise that numerous posekim argue that it is the husband’s responsibility to foresee the possibility of potential injust and therefore, if injury nevertheless transpired, he is negligent. Similarly, a husband who argues that he lost self-control and therefore assaulted his wife will be equally responsible. As R. Shlomo Luria notes, if a husband is liable for any injury caused to his spouse during onah, a fortiori, should he become angry and assault his wife at any other time, he is liable. A husband must control his desires and not injure his wife under any circumstances. Moreover, neither the establishment of marriage nor a mutual agreement between spouses to sanction a husband’s assault of his wife even for her enjoyment may serve as grounds for a husband’s exemption form liability for any ensuing damage. Any agreement between two individuals to be a subject of battery is prohibited.
 Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 63 (end); Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 421:12.
 Shemot 21:10; Tur, Even ha-Ezer 69; Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 69:6.
 Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Kamma 6:13; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 340, Hoshen Mishpat 418:12; Responsa Havvot Yair, no. 207; Responsa Be’er Sarim, Vol. 1, no. 10. For exceptions to the rule, see Rambam, Hilkhot Hovel u-Mazzik 6:8; Shulhan Arkuh, Hoshen Mishpat 359:4.
 Hazon Ish, Bava Kamma 11:21.
 Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 378:1; Hazon Ish, supra n. 11. Cf. Tosafot, Bava Kamm 27a s.v. u-Shemuel amar; Tosafot, Bava Metsia 42a, s.v. amar Shemuel.
 Piskei ha-Rosh, Bava Kamma 2:10.
 Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 3:21.
 Revid ha-Zahav 42:3.
 Bava Kamma 93a; Teshuvot ha-Rosh Kelal 68:10; Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 421:12.
In an online article, Naomi Graetz surveys the halakhic literature on the subject: Domestic Violence in Jewish Law. However, I am not clear how seriously to take this article. For example, she writes about the Maharshal:
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).
That is just totally incorrect. The Maharshal (Bava Kamma, ch. 3 no. 21) forbids beating your wife under any circumstance. He suggests that the Rambam permits beating your wife to prevent her from sinning but quickly and firmly adds that the Ra’avad’s dissenting opinion is authoritative. You can see it in these two editions, neither of which are easy to read: link 1, link 2. I checked a third edition offline and it reads like the other two. I have no idea what Graetz was quoting.
Graetz writes about the Rema:
His [R. Yosef Karo's] 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).
I’m looking at the Darkei Moshe she cites (although it’s no. 16, not 15) and it says the exact opposite! Look for yourself: link.
Graetz also makes a big deal about those who forbid wife beating but do not force husbands to divorce their wives in such a case. Either way, they still forbid wife abuse. But even with her apparent bias and mistakes, she concludes that contemporary rabbis forbid beating your wife:
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-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.
For an interesting article on the Rambam’s position, see “Did Maimonides Really Say That? he Widespread Claim That He Condoned Wife-Battering May Be Mistaken” by David E. S. Stein: link – PDF.
UPDATE: I plan on posting a follow-up which clarifies and corrects some of the claims made in this post. Read the comments for more information.
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