Ben Sorer U’Moreh–The Rebellious Son”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, we read of the unusual case of the “Ben Sorer U’moreh,” the disobedient son who refuses to follow his parents’ directives.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 21:18, states: “Kee yee’yeh l’eesh ben sorer u’moreh, ay’neh’noo sho’may’ah, b’kol ah’viv oov’kol ee’mo, v’yis’roo oh’toh, v’lo yish’mah ah’lay’hem,” If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not harken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they discipline him, but he does not harken to them; then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of the city and the gate of his place. They shall say to the elders of his city: “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not harken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard!” All the men of his city shall then pelt him with stones and he shall die; and you shall remove the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear and they shall fear.

The case of the disobedient son is one of the most complex in all of Jewish law. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a cites Rabbi Simon, who maintains that there never was an actual case of a disobedient son, nor will there ever be, because the circumstances required for convicting the child are far too complex. If that’s the case, why then is it recorded in the Torah? The answer given is: “D’rosh v’ka’bayl s’char,” so that students will analyze the case and receive reward for their studies.

The truth is that even though the case of Ben Sorer U’moreh may be only theoretical, there is much to be learned from the circumstances. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), citing the Talmud’s comments on Deuteronomy 21:18, states that a wayward and rebellious son is put to death “because of his end.” In practical terms, this means that the first time the wayward son steals, guzzles wine and eats meat gluttonously after having been warned by his parents, he is flogged. If he transgresses a second time, he is put to death. In effect, the Torah foresees the culmination of the child’s present wayward behavior and concludes that, eventually, this rebellious child will become thoroughly destructive. The child will soon exhaust his father’s money, and resort to standing at the crossroads robbing wayfarers. The Torah therefore declares, “Let him die as an innocent person and not die guilty” (Sanhedrin 72b).

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 71a, lists a host of detailed circumstances that must be met in order for a prodigal child to be found guilty. The law of Ben Sorer U’moreh applies only to males, not females. The son may not be sexually compromised (hermaphrodite). He must be a ben, a son, and not a child or an adult. Consequently, the boy must be not less than thirteen years old and not more than three months beyond his Bar Mitzvah. The child’s rebelliousness against his parents must be in the areas of gluttony and drunkeness, the exact acts that are mentioned in the Torah, and he must eat and drink very specific amounts. Both his parents must be alive, and both parents must take hold of him physically. If one of his parents was missing a hand or was lame, the child may not be put to death, since the Torah says that the parents must take hold of him and take him out. The child’s parents may not be either blind or deaf. If one of the parents was mute, the verse that states “he doesn’t listen to our voices” cannot apply. In fact, both parents must be equal in voice and in stature, which, of course, is particularly uncommon. These many stringent limitations are the reason why Rabbi Simon states that there never was such a case, nor can there ever be such a case. Interestingly, even though Rabbi Jonathan is reputed to have said, “I [personally] saw a Ben Sorer U’moreh and [even] sat on his grave,” a single case is not deemed persuasive.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 88a-88b and Mishnah Sanhedrin 71a, cites Rabbi Josiah as saying that if the parents of the prodigal son wish to forgive their child, they may do so. Even if one parent wishes to forgive him and the other refuses, the child still cannot be punished.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his insights on the weekly parasha, expresses concern regarding the parents’ ability to forgive their child. After all, if the child is punished because of his evil potential, forgiving the child is likely to endanger the entire community! Rabbi Firer therefore suggests that the reason a child may be forgiven is because a rebellious child may only be punished if he is deemed a “rasha,” a certifiable wicked person. However, if others forced him or led him astray, then he is not considered a “rasha,” because the crimes were not committed of his own volition. In addition, he cannot be called an evil person until he personally commits an evil act. Only an evil person who has already committed an evil act may be judged for what he may do in the future, not one who is “not yet” an evil person.

The fact that the child’s parents are prepared to forgive their son despite his prodigal behavior may be evidence of improper child rearing. Being forgiving of a child who has become a habitual drunkard and glutton most likely testifies to years of spoiling their child and paying little heed to his so-called “minor” misdeeds. Most likely, this lack of discipline is what led him to become “prodigal.”

Rabbi Firer even suggests that having physically-challenged parents might also have contributed to the child’s problematic behavior. Because of their disabilities, it may have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to properly educate and discipline their child. And since the boy is not entirely at fault himself, but influenced by other contributing factors, he is not regarded as an evil person, deserving of severe punishment.

As we often find, the Torah’s laws, even when they appear to be extreme from a contemporary perspective, reveal great understanding and compassion that inevitably become evident upon more intensive study and analysis.

May you be blessed.