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From Parsha to Halakha Vayera: The role of fathers and mothers in chinukh

Cheshvan 5784 | October 2023

Avraham and Sarah

Parshat Vayera reveals at least one reason God chose Avraham: “For I known him, for he will command his children and his household after him, to keep the way of the Eternal to do righteousness and justice, and the Eternal will bring everything He spoke of upon him.”[1] According to this verse Avraham was chosen because God knows he will pass on the ways of God, righteousness and justice, to his children and household, for them to continue. It is both the values and the importance of educating toward these values that set Avraham apart.

Later in the parsha we will see Sarah’s part in this endeavor, when she tells Avraham to banish the son of the maidservant. According to some commentaries she is concerned for Yitzchak’s moral instruction, worried Yishmael would have a bad influence on him.[2]

The mitzvah of chinukh

So let’s focus on the question of chinukh, educating a child to follow the path of Torah and mitzvot, and the role each parent plays.

Several Talmudic passages discussing child rearing and chinukh seem to contain conflicting ideas. On the one hand, there are clear guidelines about positive mitzvot. The mishna in Sukka states: “A child who knows how to shake is obligated in lulav.”[3] Similarly the mishna in Yoma teaches: “Children do not observe the ‘afflictions’ on Yom Kippur, but we teach them a year or two before so they are accustomed to mitzvot.”[4] Other sources expand on this idea and state that children are taught to perform different mitzvot based on their physical and cognitive capabilities.[5]

When it comes to prohibitions, or “negative mitzvot,” things are not nearly as clear. When discussing non-kosher animals the Torah tells us, “you may not eat (lo tokhlum) them because they are disgusting (sheketz).”[6] Chazal expound on the verse and explain it to mean that because they are sheketz, disgusting, “‘lo taakhilum’ – you may not feed them [to others] – to prohibit adults from [feeding them to] children.”[7]

From here it seems that all Jewish adults must ensure that Jewish children do not transgress any mitzvot, or, at the very least, eat prohibited foods. A mishna in Shabbat leads to the same conclusion, teaching that if a fire breaks out on Shabbat adults may not allow a child to put it out.[8] Nevertheless, in both the cases cited, as in other discussions, the gemara clarifies, “do not hand it to them,” meaning that adults may not give a child something prohibited, but they do not need to stop them from independently doing something prohibited. This makes it seem like the mitzvah of chinukh is limited in scope.

There are several explanations for the discrepancies between the sources discussing chinukh. According to Rabbi Eliezer in Tosafot Shantz, the obligation of chinukh only applies to positive mitzvot – those things we are commanded to do, and not negative mitzvot we must avoid. The focus is on “aseh tov,” “do good,” and “sur me’ra,” “turn away from evil” comes later.[9]

Other Tosafists differentiate based on the child’s age. From a young age we avoid feeding children prohibited foods. The active aspects of education wait until they are older, when they are encouraged to do mitzvot and avoid transgressing.[10]

Rambam, alternatively, differentiates between the father and the Beit Din, which may be used here to represent the community or society as a whole. Beit Din is not permitted to feed children prohibited foods or accustom them to acting in ways that are prohibited.[11] But the active role in chinukh – teaching the child to perform mitzvot and avoid transgressions – belongs to the father. “Even though Beit Din is not commanded to prevent a child from sinning, a father must reprimand the child and prevent them from sinning to raise them in sanctity and restraint, as it says, ‘Teach a child according to their way.’”[12]

Based on this it seems that the father bears the main obligation of chinukh but there are also communal aspects. The community has some responsibility towards the child’s education, though it may be limited to “do no harm.”

What is the mother’s role in chinukh?

In general, the sources that discuss parental responsibilities refer to the father’s obligations to his children.[13] In some cases when the father is not around the mother is able to fill the role, in others it’s not even an option.[14] One of the father’s obligations is to teach his son Torah, women are exempt from that and from Torah reading in general, except when it concerns mitzvot they are obligated to fulfill.[15]

When it comes to the responsibilities of chinukh things are not as clear-cut. According to the mishna a father can vow nezirut on his child’s behalf, a mother can’t.[16] Reish Lakish explains that the reason for the distinction is that only fathers are obligated in the mitzvah of chinukh for their children, at the very least active mitzvot like that of a nazir.[17] Rabbi Yochanan disagrees and teaches that this law only applies to nazirites; his general approach to chinukh is unclear.[18] In general there are assorted Talmudic and midrashic accounts of women teaching their children mitzvot and taking an active role in raising and educating them.[19]

In general, it seems that women often take an active role in many facets of Torah and religion they aren’t obligated to fulfill. The sages rule that women are officially exempt from the mitzvah of peru u’revu (be fruitful and multiply), having children.[20] Yet Chava was “Mother of all life” and generations of women have taken motherhood upon themselves, giving birth and raising children.

Ramban teaches that the Torah assumes that a father will support his children, even though he is not obligated to do so. Therefore, if a Jewish man becomes an Eved Ivri, a Hebrew slave his master is obligated to provide for his children, since he takes over the paternal role.[21]

Women are clearly partners in raising children, whether they are formally commanded to do so or it stems from the aspect of “ezer kenegdo” – a helpmate or partner. As Mishlei unequivocally teaches, “Listen, my son, to the teachings of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother.”[22] The sources also relate that women’s efforts to raise their children to follow the path of mitzvot are spiritually valuable; beyond the benefits of the act itself, God rewards them as well.[23]

[1] Bereishit 18:19

[2] Tosafot Sota 5:7; Alshich and Kli Yakar on Bereishit 22:10; among others.

[3] Mishna Sukka 3:15

[4] Mishna Yoma 4:8

[5] For example: Tosefta Chagiga 1:3

[6] Vayikra 11:42

[7] TB Yevamot 114a

[8] TB Shabbat 121a

[9] Tosfot Shanz Yoma 82a

[10] See: Tosafot Shabbat 121a “Shma Mina.” Compare with: Tosafot Nazir 28b “Beno Ayn.”

[11] Terumat HaDeshen Pesakim 22 explains that we do not want to actively accustom children to transgress because they will want to continue to do so when they are older.

[12] Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot 17:28. See also Tosafot Yeshaynim Yoma 82a.

[13] Mishna Kiddushin 1:7; TB Kiddushin 29a-b.

[14] The mitzvah of Brit Mila is clearly the father’s obligation, but it is also a mitzvah of the “Beit Din” and we find that women can accept responsibility to fulfill it. Pidyon HaBen, Redeeming the Firstborn Son, can only be fulfilled by the father (or the son when he reaches majority). See TB Kiddushin 29a; Shulchan Aruch YD 305:2; Pitchei Teshuva ibid.

[15] TB Kiddushin 29a; Shulchan Arukh and Rema YD 247:6.

[16] Mishna Nazir 4:6

[17] TB Nazir 28b – 29a, and, for example, Meiri’s commentary.

[18] Some explain that Rabbi Yochanan views chinukh as something greater that includes fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. See Meiri ibid and Terumat HaDeshen 94.

[19] See the story on Heleni HaMalka, TB Sukka 2b. Some Rishonim explain that she went beyond the letter of the law. See Netziv Meomei Sadeh 29a.

[20] See Bereishit 3:20; Mishna Yevamot 6:6; Bavli Yevamot 65b; Alei Tamar Yevamot 8:3 “Ketiv”; Resposa Radbaz III (Choshen Mishpat) 73.

[21] An Eved Ivri is more like an indentured servant, a man sells himself or is sold to pay a debt, but it is for a limited amount of time. See Mishna Ketubot 4:6; TB Ketubot 49b; TB Kiddushin 22a; Ramban Shemot 21:3.

[22] Mishlei 1:8

[23] TB Brachot 17a; Mateh Ephraim, Elef l’Mateh 715:5, among others.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

Graduates of the Kitvuni Fellowship and Matan’s Talmudic Institute