May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Bully Teachers and Halacha

Kids often complain about mean teachers, and parents react in different ways. Some take it with a grain of salt. Others always side with their child. And some show empathy and ask for examples. The third approach is ideal, because, unfortunately, bully teachers do exist. It is not just other students who bully; sometimes it is adults.

One young man who was bullied by his teacher told his mother, “She picks on me and is mean. I DO pay attention, but I look out the window because I’d rather look at trees and listen than look at her angry face.”

There is a fascinating individual with the initials ES. Her bully was the principal at a public high school where she had taught. Not only did she endure antisemitic comments from that principal, but she watched helplessly as her boss screamed at African-American students and mocked parents with accents. Other teachers were terrified to talk to ES because they knew that the principal would also take it out on them. ES made it her business to address this “elephant in the room” of a topic.

She had one student whose teacher had effectively made her a “pariah.” The negative effects lasted for many many years.

Let’s take another example.

“Stacey” had misbehaved in class. Nothing excessive, but enough to get the teacher a bit upset. The teacher thundered at the fifth grader, “Now I know why they call you Chaya; because you are like a wild animal!”

From that point on the young girl decided to stop using her Hebrew name. Well into adulthood she went by her English name “Stacey.” Indeed, she kept the English moniker as she developed into a master teacher herself with a sterling reputation.

So what are the halachic aspects of all this?


The Prohibition

The first thing we should know is that this type of behavior on the part of the bully teacher (and indeed, anyone) is that it is a Torah prohibition. The verse forbidding it is “velo sonu ish es amiso —(Vayikra 25:17). The prohibition is generally called “onaas devarim” or just plain “onaah.”


The Main Reason

The Sfas Emes explains that the main reason behind this mitzvah is so that we will all have a sense of complete oneness as a people. Causing another pain was prohibited because it causes division within us as a people.


Does an Apology to a Child Count?

Another question involves apologies. What would the halacha have been if that teacher had apologized to the young lady? At the time of the incident, “Stacey” was in the fifth grade, a 10-year-old child. Does an apology made to a minor count? Or is there a requirement to wait until the student’s bar or bas mitzvah?


Financial Issues

In regard to financial issues, the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 235:3) clearly indicates that a minor child’s forgiveness is ineffective. This is based upon the Gemara in Bava Metzia (22b). If the minor’s forgiveness is ineffective for financial issues, it stands to reason that it would likewise be ineffective for matters of an emotional nature, or for mitzvos that are bein adam l’chaveiro. Therefore, the teacher’s apology would have to be repeated at the age of the child’s bas mitzvah.


View of Rav Lorberbaum

Rav Yaakov Lorberbaum, zt”l (1760-1832), in his Nesivos HaMishpat (235:1 in the biurim section in the back), indicates that forgiveness by a minor on monetary matters is, in fact, effective. However, it very well could be that an exception was made in the halachos of this case in order to do business with them. Thus, it would perhaps not apply to cases of emotional harm, even according to the Nesivos. If this supposition were correct, the conclusion would again be that the teacher would need to apologize once again when the child reaches adulthood.


Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Shlita

In the Yomim Noraim edition of Kovetz Hilchos Piskei Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, by Reb Doniel Asher Kleinman, Rav Shmuel’s view is cited that the child’s mechila does not count. However, Rav Shmuel states that there are two reasons why the teacher must ask again. The first reason is for the person’s own atonement. When one needs to ask someone’s forgiveness, the request involves a form of personal embarrassment, which achieves a form of atonement. The second reason is so that the child have a form of closure and that there be an atmosphere of peace between them. Nonetheless, the teacher must ask mechila when the child becomes a bar or bas mitzvah.


Rav Elyashiv’s View

Similarly, Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, is cited in Ashrei HaIsh Vol. III (20:4) that the forgiveness of the child is ineffective. Nonetheless, he states that the person should ask forgiveness at the time (on account of the custom to do so), and later ask again when the child reaches the age of majority.

A well-known story is told about Rav Elyashiv’s mechutan, the Steipler Gaon. Apparently, the Steipler had inadvertently embarrassed a child in the Lederman shul in Bnei Brak. On the occasion of the child’s bar mitzvah, the Steipler attended and asked mechila of the young man.


Rav Nissim Karelitz’s View

In contrast to the views cited above, Rav Nissim Karelitz (nephew of the Chazon Ish, born 1926), zt”l, writes in his Chut Shaini (Mili DeNezikin and Yom Kippur p.101) that if a minor child grants forgiveness it is considered effective. [This is also one of the opinions cited in Tosfos Kesuvos (107a).] Rav Kareliz further writes that the mechila serves to remove the hakpada from the heart of the child and that it is also an appropriate penance, a “teshuvas hamishkal” for what the perpetrator had done.

As an interesting aside, Rav Karelitz’s own daughter, Rebbitzen Rosenberg, a”h, once came home in tears after someone had insulted her to the point of crying. Rav Karelitz empathized with her greatly, took a siddur and asked her to sit next to him. He opened up to the tefillah of Elokai Netzor at the end of Shemoneh Esrei and explained to his daughter the phrase “v’nafshi k’afar lakol tihiyeh, and my soul should be as dust to anyone.” He explained that we make this request of Hashem that nothing that anyone says to us should upset us. His daughter, aleha hashalom, explained that she kept that explanation dear to her heart forever afterward and it assisted her in never getting upset by anyone’s words.


Conclusion of the Story

So what was the final conclusion of the story of our young lady? Apparently, one of her colleagues had heard the reason of her fellow teacher’s aversion toward using her Hebrew name. The colleague, herself a wonderful and dynamic teacher, explained to “Stacey”:

“On the contrary, your name shows that you are filled with vigor and life, you are animated and dynamic! It is a very beautiful and fitting name! You should certainly use it!”

Since the encounter with the second teacher, it seems that “Stacey” now goes once again by the name Chaya.

What lesson can we learn from all this? One lesson is that we should be very careful never to embarrass anyone. Shaming a child can have long-lasting effects. It can also severely damage the relationship between a child and a parent or teacher. The devastating effects of our actions can have repercussions that last decades.

A second lesson, however, is that it is never too late. A positive statement and observation—even decades after a scarring event—can be remarkably healing. The power of words, both negative and positive, are truly remarkable.

The author can be reached at [email protected].

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman


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