The Rebellious Son: An Exercise in Judicial Interpretation – Sanhedrin 68b
This lesson will illustrate a very interesting legal and theological phenomenon a case where the sages delimit the application of a law by making it next to impossible to carry out. We will deal with the Talmud’s treatment of the “ben sorrar u’moreh the wanton and rebellious son.” Whatever the purpose and application of this law in biblical times (something that it is next to impossible to assess), Rabbinic Judaism obviously wanted to limit or deny its application through the interpretative process.
The first step in our lesson is to examine the source for these laws in the Torah:
(יח) כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם:
(יט) וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ:
(כ) וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא:
(כא) וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ: ס
18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; 19 then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; 20 and 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.’ 21 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.
This passage, aside from being the pretext for our entire discussion, is important for its details. The details will turnout to be tool by which the sages limit the application of this passage. What I suggest for now is that you familiarize yourselves with this passage. We will be seeing a lot of it.
I now want to spend a moment on a Talmudic technique in interpretation called the דיוק or limited reading of a text. One can read laws inclusively or, in other words, in a representative fashion, or exclusively, narrow the meaning of something so that its applicability is limited. We will see a lot of the later in our discussion.
View the English text for Sanhedrin 68b
View the Hebrew text for Sanhedrin 68b
Guide Questions and Issues
Now to the Talmudic text itself:
It is a rarity that we find midrash or scriptural interpretation in the Mishnah, yet in this lesson practically every step in the mishnayot is accompanied it.
The first mishnah deals with two questions: 1. The age of person for whom this law applies; 2. Is this law to be broadly applied to all children or narrowly applied exclusively to boys.
- What is the age range talked about by the Mishnah?
- How does it derive this from the Torah?
- How does the Mishnah limit the law’s application exclusively to boys?
1-2. This first sugya initially attacks the question of the law’s applicability from a different angle than that of the mishnah. Its opening question concerns finding a source for exempting a minor from this law, but its answer in step two is not from Scripture. How would you describe the answer?
3. Here an alternative answer is offered in the form of a rhetorical question. Again no Scriptural reference is offered. Still this answer depends on Scripture? What is the crux of the answer? Describe how it proves that a minor is exempt from this law.
4. This step changes the focus of the question and allows for the possibility that a minor might be liable. Why might this law apply to a minor, according to the argument in this step?
5. This step further reinforces this question through a textual reference from verse 18 quoted above. On which is its focus? What is it trying to derive from this verse?
6. Rav faces down this question using the very same words used in the question. How does he interpret these words differently to answer the challenge offered by the question?
Question to Consider
- What does this Talmudic argument add as ammunition to the attempt to limit the applicability of this law?
- The second small sugya quotes step 2a in the mishnah and then brings a baraita which comments on it.
- The baraita contains a statement about the logic of the laws application. Logically this law should apply to both boys and girls. Why?
- How does it justify that the law does not apply to girls?
- Is this reading of the verse the only possible understanding of this verse? (Hint: Above we discussed the difference between a narrow and broad reading of a text.)
- What is Rabbi Shimon’s assumption regarding how to read this verse?
- Again, how has this baraita limited the scope of this law?
1-2. This mishnah focuses on the meaning of the words ” זולל וסבא glutton and drunkard” found in verse 20. Read steps 1 and 2 through a first time. What do these steps attempt to do with these words? There is a word (Tatemar) in step one that you will not understand. Don’t be surprised. The sages in the Talmud were already not sure of its meaning either because it was a loan word from Greek. It is a measurement word. They will try to determine its meaning though.
3. This step gives a whole list of different kinds of food and beverages that even if the youth would eat or drink them in a gluttonous fashion, he would still exempt from the application of this law.
The first three examples represent three possible “mitzvah meals”.
- An example of a חבורת מצוה would be a wedding. If the boy ate stolen food at a wedding, he would be exempt.
- If he ate at a meal celebrating the new month, he would be exempt.
- ” מעשר שני maser sheni” is tithed food which must be eaten in Jerusalem. If he ate this tithe gluttonously in Jerusalem after having stolen it from his father, he would be exempt from the laws of the rebellious son.
Similarly, if he ate forbidden food like:
a. נבילה which is carcasses of animals which were not slaughtered properly
b. טריפה which are animals with physical defects which will cause the animals death within a year
c. טבל which is untithed food (fruits and vegetables grown in Israel must have certain tithes removed from them before eating them. If these tithes are not taken, it is forbidden to eat them.
d. If the boy at both permitted and prohibited to make up the prescribed amount
e. If he ate meat and other food to make up the prescribed amount
f. Or similarly drank wine and other beverages
- After defining all of these foods, the mishnah quotes the verse as proof that all of the above categories are exempt from this law. How has this mishnah redefined the terms “drunk and gluttonous”?
- The mishnah uss a verse from Proverbs as its proof text for its definition of “drunk and gluttonous”. Explain how this verse illustrates the mishna’s definition.
אַל תְּהִי בְסֹבְאֵי יָיִן בְּזֹלֲלֵי בָשָׂר לָמוֹ:
Be not among wine imbibers; among gluttonous eaters of flesh;
- In this step a sage attempts to determine what a ” תרטימר ” is. Describe his method of resolving this question.
- This begins a series of limitations on what specific case the mishnah is talking about. Here Rav Huna builds his interpretation on the word ” זולל ‘ taking from it the word ” זול ” cheap. There is a sense here that because he drinks cheap wine, his acts will become habitual and his criminal activity will continue.
- Rav Huna narrows the case again.
- These sages offer a meimra which contradicts Rav Huna’s teaching.
- How does this step resolve the contradiction?
- Another attempt to narrow the law. Here because this is a kind of meat and kind of wine which one cannot generally drink large quantities of and consequently get addicted.
- We have here a similar but different issue since on the eve of Tisha b’av when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, wine and meat are prohibited.
- Salted meat is however permitted to be eaten at that meal.
- The Talmud tries to determine how much salting takes meat out of the “meat category.
- “Shelamim” is a sacrifice where part is offered on the altar and part is eaten so it must be edible.
- A question attempting to determine what takes this wine out of the wine category.
- The answer.
- A parenthetical remark concerning the laws of beverages. It is prohibited to drink beverages which are left uncovered over night because of the danger that they might have been poisoned by a snake drinking from them. Since foaming wine is not “drinkable” it does not have this prohibition.
- Comparison of the issues discussed regarding Tisha b’av and the subject of the “rebellious son”.
- The issues are not quite analogous because there rationales are different.
- The Talmud quotes the mishnah which limits a “ben sorer u’moreh” to a son who eats meat and drinks wine.
- a. What further limitations does this baraita add to the mishnah?
- How does this baraita build an association between “zolel v’sovei” and the eating of meat and the drinking of wine?
- After using the Proverbs verse to establish the desired association, the Talmud offers a second midrash on the later part of the verse. This is an example of the associative nature of the Talmud. (Since we quoted a verse, I might as well teach you something else from that verse.) I hope no one fell asleep in the process.
- This mishnah further limits the applicability of this law. What would seem to be the impetus for the legislation in this mishnah. (Hint: There seem to me to be two basic problems with the law as found in the Torah. One is the seriousness of the punishment. This mishnah may come to solve the other problem.)
- The mishnah offers a number of the different cases where the boy would be exempt from the determined punishment. What question is not answered for each of these cases? Do you see a pattern in the exemptions?
- How does Rabbi Yossi’s opinion differ from that of the first opinion in the mishnah? What prompts Rabbi Yossi to further limit the application of the law? (Hint: Look at the verses from the Torah.)
- What question concerning the mishnah does each of the parts of this teaching come to answer?
What is the underlying theme of why the boy would be exempt in each of these situations according to this teaching?
- This second section of comments on the mishnah focuses on Rabbi Yossi’s opinion.
- Rabbi’ Yossi asserts that a boy cannot become a “ben sorer u’morah” unless he steals from both his father and his mother. The Talmud posits a kushiyah or challenge to this assertion. Why did Rabbi Yossi assert what he did? (Hint: look at the verses from the Torah.) Why does the Talmud challenge him?
- This step brings an answer to the challenge a teirutz. It has created a unique situation an אוקימתא , which satisfies the conditions raised by the kushiya, namely, that both the mother and father have sep-arate ownership of what the boy stole.
- A further kushiya is raised on this אוקימתא . Since we already learned that the meat and wine that he must steal to be a “ben sorer u’moreh” must be “cheap”, how can we say that he stole from a prepared meal?
5.-6. The Talmud offers two alternative teirutzim which provide us with two new and different אוקימתאות to resolve the kushiya. How does each of them resolve the kushiya?
1.-2 This mishnah makes conditions for the boy’s parents. Again let us turn back to the verses from the Torah and ask what in the Torah, prompts the mishnah’s legislation?
- How does Rabbi Yehudah read the verse differently from the preceding opinion?
It is worthwhile for us to note that note everything states in the mishnah is clearly understood. What in Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion is not clearly understood?
- The Talmud immediately raises the same question which I hope we also raised in step 3 of the mishnah.
- The term אילימא raises a possible answer which will ultimately be rejected. The initial response of the Talmud is that the boy’s mother and father were not legitimate marriage partners, i.e. they were not fit for each other. This, however, is immediately rejected, since after all, they are the boy’s parents.
(It seems to me that this most reasonable explanation is rejected because the Talmud has its own agenda, namely, to find other ways to limit the application of the law.)
- In this answer, the Talmud offers us a definition of ראויה fit. Fit = equal or the same. This, of course, offers comic results but also makes the law next to impossible to carry out.
- In this step, a baraita is brought to support the answer given in step 3. In this step it also specifies exactly what is mean by “equal”, namely, in appearance and height.
- This step adduces how these legal parameters are learned from Scripture.
- This step is a true turning point in our discussion. It poses a question which we may have understood from the very tenor of the discussion until now. It wants to identify the sage who thinks that the very law of “ben sorer u’moreh” is inoperative.
- Here, it identifies the sage as Rabbi Yehuda. What might prompt this identification?
- The Talmud offers an alternative identification.
8a. An attempt to prove this identification from a baraita. Explain how this baraita might serve as proof for the identification of this opinion with Rabbi Shimon.
8b. Rabbi Yonatan does not think this law is inoperative, although note here from his opinion how many cases of “ben sorer u’moreh” have come up.
- The Talmud now wants to offer a comparative situation the case of the idolatrous city which must be destroyed. (See Deuteronomy 13:13-19)
In this case, we have a similarly difficult law which the sages most likely also want to guarantee to be inoperative.
“line-height:normal”>Here, a baraita is brought in Rabbi Eliezer’s name which created a situation where it was impossible to carry out the law, since there would never be found a Jewish city where there was not at least one mezuzah and since everything in the city by law had to be destroyed and a mezuzah could not be destroyed, according to Rabbi Eliezer, the law was inoperative.
10.-11a Proof for 9
12.-16 Another similar situation. In this case we are dealing with a “leprous house”. (See Lev. 14:33-53) Here we also find sages who created conditions which were impossible to fulfill so that this law became inoperative.
- In this step, we find two opinions that the phenomenon of the “leprous house” did indeed exist but notice again here, how many instances there were.
This mishnah goes through the verses of the law of the “ben sorer u’moreh” piece by piece, taking each detail as a n opportunity to limit the application of this law. Try to discern what about each verse segment offers the mishnah the possibility of determining the limit that it does.
- The Talmud draws a potentially problematic conclusion from the mishnah, namely, that perhaps all of the legislation in the Torah should be carried out as precisely as we carrying it out in the case of the “ben sorer u’moreh” and if the procedure cannot be carried out this way then perhaps other laws should be rendered inoperative as well. This is one difficult question which sums up both the problems and the challenges of this passage of Talmud.
- The Talmud’s answer to this question is telling. It rules that this passage cannot be taken as an exemplar since we are not learning these details from the passage per say but rather from language in this passage which is superfluous. Therefore, it cannot be used for generalization purposes.
Questions to Consider
- What can we learn from this passage about the rabbinic treatment of difficult Torah legislation?
- Were the sages willing to use this treatment in a wholesale manner?
- What are the virtues and vices of being able to interpret legislation this way?