I want to talk about one of the most difficult מצוות in this week’s parasha:
What has this child done wrong? (and he is a child, called בן, under his parent’s jurisdiction, though he has to be over bar mitzvah to be liable. The halacha specifies that he has to be from Tanner 2 to Tanner 4; as a practical matter from 13 to 13 and 3 months).
The Ramban notes that his fundamental sin is not the disobedience but the lack of sense. He is a נבל ברשות התורה and willfully continues at it. The Torah basically says that he is irredeemable (as Rashi puts it, הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו) for that. It’s an interesting perspective. What would bother us more, if our child violated Shabbat or if they smoked? Which would make us despair?
The mishna refers to chapter 23 of Mishlei to define זולל וסבא. It’s worth looking at that inside:
I would interpret this perek to be addressed to the child (בני). Psukim יב-יג are quotes of what advice the father got: אַתָּה בַּשֵּׁבֶט תַּכֶּנּוּ, a reference to ויסרו אתו, the first step of the בן סורר ומורה process. The warning is against being בְסֹבְאֵי יָיִן and בְּזֹלְלֵי בָשָׂר. The effects of wine are graphically described (עֵינֶיךָ יִרְאוּ זָרוֹת, כְּשֹׁכֵב בְּלֶב יָם) along with the dangers of addiction (מָתַי אָקִיץ; אוֹסִיף אֲבַקְשֶׁנּוּ עוֹד). But the זֹלְלֵי בָשָׂר is associated not with literal gluttony but with the זוֹנָה and נָכְרִיָּה; it’s a warning against ערוה. Perhaps this is why the mishna says אף על פי שאין ראיה לדבר, זכר לדבר.
Still the moral difficulty of punishing a child for their future sin remains. The halacha acknowleges this by making the actual punishment impossible:
And the gemara says it never happened:
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper points out many problems with ר׳ יונתן's comment. First, ר׳ יונתן was a Cohen (I don’t have his source for that), and should not have been sitting on a grave. Second, he was an amora, who lived centuries after the Sanhedrin could judge capital cases. So he could not have seen an actual case of בן סורר ומורה being tried. (The Bar Ilan database says that the ר׳ יונתן here was a fourth-generation Tanna, who was not a Cohen. He still could not have seen a capital case). Third, simply seeing an old grave of a בן סורר ומורה doesn’t mean the halacha was correctly applied; the only actual case in recorded history is from Josephus, describing how Herod had his sons killed:
But לא היה ולא עתיד להיות means it cannot be applied על פי הלכה.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger points out another problem: the halacha forbids sitting on a grave. וישבתי על קברו must be figurative.
The Kli Yakar makes a textual point that even the Torah did not expect this to ever happen:
Then what is ר׳ יונתן coming to tell us?
So the law is real (and the situation of a rebellious child is certainly real). The mitzvah as described emphasizes how important חינוך is, and we learn many things from the details. And it truly applies to all of us: