In almost all modern societies there are laws prohibiting
acts of physical violence. It comes as no surprise that the Torah also
considers it a grave sin.
And yet, surely we don’t need G‑d to tell us that physical
violence is not allowed, as all half-decent people could come to thisSurely we don’t need G‑d to tell us that physical
violence is not allowed
conclusion on their own. And that’s not the only obvious commandment. Did G‑d
really need to tell us not to murder?
One of the reasons we need these Divine commands is because,
although the general prohibition may be dictated by logic, the details are
For example, it might be obvious that we should not take another person’s life, but
when does life start? When does it end? Are there any exceptions?
Additionally, a person is not always capable of remaining
objective. Hence these mitzvahs need the force of a Divine commandment to stop
a person from bending them because of subjectivity and bias.
Now let us explore what the Torah actually says about
One who wounds or even hits another person actually
transgresses one of the 365 prohibitions
of the Torah. Although there’s no verse in the Torah that explicitly
forbids hitting, the Talmud derives the prohibition from the verses that
discuss the punishment of lashes.
The verses state that in some instances people who
transgress Torah prohibitions receive 40 lashes (which the rabbis explain to
mean 39), and that the person giving the lashes “shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe
flogging than these [40 lashes].” In practice, the
Jewish courts would assess if the offender was strong enough to withstand the
39 lashes, and if not, he was given only as many lashes as he could bear.
If the courts would strike the offender even one extra time, they would have
transgressed the prohibition of “he shall not exceed.”
Our sages reason: If it is forbidden to give even one extra
extra lash to a wicked person, all the more so must it be forbidden to hit an
innocent person, who is deserving of no lashes whatsoever.
Generally speaking, when somebody damages another person’s
property he is liable to pay damages. Similarly when one inflicts damage on
another person, he is obligated to pay. In addition to actual damages, the
Torah obligates the person to pay for pain, doctors’ fees, lost revenue and
(How these payments are assessed is a subject of an entire
chapter in Talmud
and is beyond the scope of our discussion.)
Now, there is a rule that one who is liable to pay for a
transgression is not subjected to corporal punishment as well. However, in a
case where no damage was caused, or where the damage was insignificant (less
than a small coin’s worth, shaveh prutah),
and as a result there was no monetary payment imposed on the offender, then the
punishment of lashes was administered.
In post-Talmudic times, the rabbis instituted a law that, in
certain situations, one who commits an act of violence against another person
is to be excommunicated and cannot be counted towards a minyan.
But He Hit Me First
Even in situations where somebody else started the fight, it
is nonetheless forbidden to hit back. However, if there is no
other way of restraining an attacker, it would be permitted to use force,
provided that you hit the person no more than is absolutely necessary.
If You Have
There is a dispute as to whether or not one is permitted to
hit someone who has given permission to be hit. The Rivash (Rabbi Yitzchak Ben
rules that it is forbidden,
and this seems to be the opinion of most subsequent authorities on Jewish law.
One reason for this is that one does not have autonomy over one’s body, which
is the property of G‑d, and therefore one has no right to allow someone else to
One is permitted to evict a person from one’s home if that
person has no right to be there.
If he refuses to leave, some authorities permit one to use physical force when
However, the use of force is only permitted as a last resort.
Similarly, when absolutely necessary, it is permitted to use
physical force in order to retrieve a stolen object, or for that matter to stop
a person from stealing from you.
Technically, one is permitted to hit one’s children or
students in an effort to discipline them. However, contemporary halachic authorities say that this does
not apply in this day and age.
Types of Hitting
It must be noted that not all types of hitting are included
in the prohibition. Maimonides writes that it is only hitting with malice that
is forbidden. (According to another version of Maimonides, only hitting of a
“degrading nature” is forbidden.)
Based on this, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allows cosmetic
surgery, since any wounds inflicted in the process of the surgery are not of a
degrading nature, and are not inflicted maliciously. However, others disagree
so be sure to consult a rabbi before any elective surgery. (Read more at Is Elective
In a similar vein, the second Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of
Israel, Rabbi Isser Unterman, permitted boxing and other forms of combat
sports, arguing that they do not fall under the category of hitting with
Lifting a Hand
When Moses, who was brought up in Pharaoh’s home, left the
palace to see how his fellow Jews were doing, he encountered two Jews fighting.
The verse states that “Moses turned to the wicked one and asked him, ‘Why are
you going to strike your friend?’” A close reading reveals
that the person had not yet hit his fellow and, nonetheless, the Torah refers
to him as wicked. The Talmud concludes
that even one who merely lifts up his hand in violence is deemed wicked.
Some authorities suggest that a would-be striker has not
actually committed any sin in the legal sense; the Talmud just wants to
emphasize its hard-line approach to interpersonal violence.
However, most authorities opine that it is a sin to lift a
hand in violence.
There is discussion as to whether this sin is biblical or rabbinical in nature.
The fact that it is derived from the verse in Exodus would seem to imply that
it is forbidden on a biblical level, and this is in fact the opinion of many
However, it seems that in Maimonides’ opinion it is forbidden only on a
rabbinical level, since this verse does not explicitly teach this law.
Some authorities rule that one who lifts his hand in
violence is not invalidated as a witness. The reason for this would
be that, although there is a rule that a wicked person is invalidated as a
witness, one is considered wicked only if the sin committed is punishable by
and the general consensus is that lifting a hand does not warrant lashes.
However, in the opinion of most authorities, and this is in
fact the final halachah,
one who lifts a hand in violence is invalidated from being a witness.Why?
Rabbi Yosef Karo posits that, although the rule is that
only one who commits a Torah transgression that is punishable by lashes is
invalidated from serving as a witness, from the perspective of rabbinic law, an
offender can be invalidated even where there are no lashes if the prohibition
transgressed is biblical.
Lifting up one’s hand against another person is an
exception, since the Torah explicitly called such a person a wicked person and,
as mentioned above, wicked people are invalidated from serving as witnesses.
A number of explanations have been given as to why lifting a
hand is forbidden:
Lifting up one’s hand is the beginning of the forbidden
act of hitting.
The problem lies in the fact that the person has shown
intent to commit the sin of hitting another person.
The prohibition serves as a safeguard against the sin
of hitting another person. The Torah (or the rabbis) forbade lifting one’s hand
against another person so as to prevent people from transgressing the
prohibition of hitting another person.
The mere act of lifting one’s hand is an act of
violence and shows a negative character trait in the aggressor.
Alternatively, the mere act of lifting one’s hand
instills fear in the other person. As a result the aggressor transgresses the
prohibition of onaat devarim (verbal
oppression), causing emotional pain to another person.
The Rebbe posits that the distinct reasons given above as to
why lifting a hand is forbidden lead to different understandings of the
Talmudic statement regarding the offender’s wickedness and eligibility to serve
as a witness.
If one adopts the
explanation that raising one’s hand in violence is problematic because it is
the beginning of the act of hitting or because it shows intent to hit one’s
fellow (explanations #1 and #2 ), then it would be difficult to understand how
raising one’s hand could have any legal ramifications. There is a general rule
that the Torah does not punish for intent alone, and seeing that no harm has
been inflicted on the other person, why would such a person be considered wicked in any legal sense of
the world? It therefore makes sense to
say that the Talmud was not making any legal statement, but rather is to be
understood homiletically. It follows that the act of lifting one’s hand up in
violence does not actually invalidate the offender from serving as a witness.
If however, one adopts the explanation that the act of
lifting one’s hand up in violence is in itself a negative act (reasons #4 and
#5), then there is no reason not to take the Talmud literally to mean that it
is a forbidden act, and one can readily understand why it disqualifies one who
commits this act from serving as a witness.
The Purpose of Hands
The Rebbe offers a fascinating insight into why lifting
one’s hand against another person is considered such a terrible act.
In a talk on Shabbat Parshat Noach 5748, the Rebbe asked why
the Talmud specifically states that one who lifts his hand is consideredHands were created to do acts of kindness
wicked. Surely one who lifts up any other body part against another person
should be considered wicked as well?
The Rebbe answered that there is an important lesson to be
learned from the phrasing of this Talmudic dictum. A person’s hand was created to
do acts of tzedakah (charity) and
kindness. When a person uses his hand for opposite aims, he sins, not only
against his fellow man, but also against his Creator, who created his hand for
a specific purpose.
This passage of Talmud teaches us how important it is to use
all the gifts G‑d has bestowed on us—wealth, health and talents—for the purpose
for which they were created, namely, for the service of G‑d.