Babylonian Talmud II
Prof. Bill Long 9/13/06
The Stubborn and Rebellious Son (Sanhedrin 68b-71a)
One of the wonderfully appealing and complex subjects with which the Talmud occupies itself for several pages is an interpretation of Biblical and Mishaic language regarding the stubborn and rebellious son. The purpose of this essay is to show how complex and obscure the discussion can become even when a seemingly simple biblical law is in view.
We know that the biblical prohibitions against dishonoring parents are clear. From Ex 21:17 we have, "He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death." From Deut. 21:18-21, "If a man is a stubborn and rebellious son, who does not heed the words of his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gates of the community. They shall say to the elders of the town, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he does not heed our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkiard.' Thereupon all the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid."
Even though Deuteronomy develops the thought in Exodus considerably, the result is the same. A rebellious and insulting son can be put to death.
The Talmudic discussion seeks to limit the effect of this clear biblical rule. In other words, the Rabbis perceived that this law was too "harsh," and so they interpreted it almost out of existence through their discussions as recorded in the Talmud. Seven pages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 68b-71b) are devoted to careful discussion of the Mishnah's elaboration of the biblical text (part of the Mishnah's words are in your text on p. 94). The complete Mishnaic text is in the Talmud, but it is given in small chunks or parts, and then the discussion and commentary begins. Let me illustrate how the discussion goes.
First there is the quotation from the Mishnah. It provides:
"'A STUBBORN AND REBELLIOUS SON': WHEN DOES HE BECOME LIABLE TO THE PENALTY OF A STUBBORN AND REBELLIOUS SON? FROM THE TIME THAT HE PRODUCES TWO HAIRS UNTIL HE GROWS A BEARD RIGHT ROUND (BY WHICH IS MEANT THE HAIR OF THE GENITALS, NOT THAT OF THE FACE, BUT THAT THE SAGES SPOKE IN POLITE TERMS), FOR IT IS WRITTEN, IF A MAN HAVE A STUBBORN AND REBELLIOUS SON: 'A SON', BUT NOT A DAUGHTER; 'A SON', BUT NOT A FULL-GROWN MAN. WHILST A MINOR IS EXEMPT, SINCE HE DOES NOT COME WITHIN THE SCOPE OF THE COMMANDMENTS.
Thus far the Mishnaic quotation. Then we have the first interpretation of it in the Talmud. Here is the paragraph.
"Whence do we know that A MINOR IS EXEMPT? (Whence do we know? The Mishnah states the reason, viz that HE DOES NOT COME WITHIN THE SCOPE OF THE COMMANDMENTS. Moreover, where else do we find that Scripture prescribed a penalty [for a minor], that a verse should be necessary here to exempt him? — This is our question: Now, is then a 'STUBBORN AND REBELLIOUS SON' executed for his actual iniquity? Surely he is rather slain on account of his ultimate end; and that being so, even a minor should be executed? Moreover, [the interpretation,] 'a son', but not a man, implies a minor?) Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Scripture saith, If a man have a son [that is stubborn and rebellious], implying, a son near to the strength of manhood."
This text from the Talmud (called the Gemara) appears before the rabbinic discussion begins. But note how already it tries to limit the applicability of the biblical law. First, it emphasizes that a minor is exempt while the son is not. This distinction does not appear in the Bible, but it brings up the point of how you distinguish between a son and a minor. At what age does a male stop being a minor and become a son? Second, we see that the Gemara has interpreted son to be a sort of intermediary position between being a minor and a man. Thus, once you are a "man," you cease to be a "son" for purposes of the statute. The Bible leaves open the possiblity that a son remains a son as long as the parents live; the Mishnah and Talmud limit this period to a sort of "interim period." Thus, the period of culpability is narrowed. But, how narrow is it? I will get to that below. But I conclude here with a third way that the Talmud narrows the biblical teaching. It talks about what we would call "legislative purpose." The son is not to be slain because he has been stubborn and rebellious but "on account of his ultimate end." This suggests that it isn't the substantive violation that is in view but the "purpose" behind the statute. Thus, if the offense (being stubborn and rebellious) could be handled another way, perhaps you wouldn't have to kill the son.
The Issue of Hair
What is fascinating in the rabbinic discussion is the effort to narrow the category of "son" even more through an examination of what is meant by hair. The Mishnaic text talks about liability from the time he produces two hairs to the time of a full beard. But then, in parentheses, the "hair" is interpreted as genital hair. Indeed, one of the Rabbis pressed that issue more fully with these comments:
"UNTIL HE GROWS A BEARD RIGHT ROUND, etc. R. Hiyya taught: Until he grows a beard round the corona. When R. Dimi came, he explained it thus: It means, until the hair surrounds the membrum, but not until it grows round the testicles" (68b).
Isn't this fascinating? R. Hiyya emphasizes the difference in time between the growth of pubic hair and testicular hair. Then, another Rabbi speaks of facial hair but decides that the total period talked of by the Mishnah is only three months. Here is the quotation:
"To revert to the above text: 'R. Keruspedai said in R. Shabbethai's name: The extreme limit of a "stubborn and rebellious son" is only three months'. But did we not learn, FROM THE TIME THAT HE PRODUCES TWO HAIRS UNTIL HE GROWS A BEARD RIGHT ROUND? — If he grew a beard, even if three months have elapsed, or if three months elapsed, even if he did not grow a beard [he is no longer liable]."
That is, for R. Keruspedal the maximum time of liability for being a stubborn and rebellious son is three months. And it may be less.
Now we are only part of the way through the interpretation of the Mishnaic passage. The final essay takes us further.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long