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The Parental Relationship in the Talmud

Tishrei 5780 | October 2019

Children are our greatest asset, they ensure the continuation of our
tradition and are our window into the future. There is a specific mitzvah
to bring children into the world (pru urvu). Does a parent’s obligation
end there? Parents possess a natural instinct to care for children –
to nurture them so that they thrive. How much of this is codified in
The Mishna in Kiddushin1 states that there is a category of mitzvot that
a father is obligated to perform for his son. The Babylonian Talmud
2expounds on this by quoting a beraita listing these obligations:
“A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him,
and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son, and to teach him Torah,
and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And
some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim.”
The first three items in this list (circumcision, pidyon bechor and
talmud Torah) are based on pesukim in the Torah. A father performs
these mitzvot for his son, but in case the father fails to do these things,
the son must do them for himself once he reaches maturity.
The obligation to marry off a son is based on the verse from the Prophet
Jeremiah:3 “Take wives and bear sons and daughters, and take wives
for your sons and give your daughters to men.” The Gemara4 assumes
1 Mishna Kiddushin 1:7
2 Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 29a
3 Yirmiyahu 29:6
4 Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 30b
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that a son will accept a wife of his father’s choosing.
Similarly, the obligation to teach one’s son a trade is derived from
a verse in Kohelet5 “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.” At first
glance this doesn’t have anything to do with providing a son with a
trade. The Gemara takes the word חיים “life” to mean a livelihood. It
then gives two possible interpretations of the verse. If the wife in the
verse is an actual woman, then just as a father is obligated to provide
his son with a wife, so too, he must provide him with a life (livelihood).
If the verse is read allegorically and the “wife” refers to the Torah,
then just as a father is obligated to teach his son Torah, so too, he
must provide him with a life (livelihood). In either interpretation, the
end result is the same – a father must teach his son a profession so
that he will be able to sustain himself.
The Jerusalem Talmud6 quotes the same beraita, but reinforces the
statements using solely Biblical verses, while the Babylonian Talmud
uses a mixture of sources both from the Pentateuch and later Prophets
and Writings. This is significant because the Jerusalem Talmud can
claim that all of these parental obligations are Biblically ordained
(d’Oraita). Rabbi Yishmael explains that the verse “choose life”7
means teaching one’s son a trade. The obligation to marry off one’s
son is also derived from a Biblical verse “and you shall tell your sons
and your sons’ sons”.8 The Gemara explains – “When will you merit
having grandsons? Only when you marry your children off while they
are young.” Rabbi Akiva adds that one must teach his son to swim,
also based on the verse – “in order that you and your seed shall live”.9
Knowing how to swim can literally save a life.
Despite the emphasis on providing a son with life (both spiritual and
physical), there seems to be something glaringly absent from this
list – food. The Gemara in Kiddushin doesn’t mention feeding one’s
5 Kohelet 9:9
6 Talmud Yerushalmi Kiddushin 19a
7 Devarim 30:19
8 Devarim 4:9
9 Devarim 30:19
children. In contrast, the Mishnah in Ketubot10 states that a husband
is required to provide his wife with food. This is one item in a list of
additional rights and obligations that a husband has over and above a
father. A second Mishnah in Ketubot11 states clearly that fathers are not
obligated to feed their daughters. The Gemara12 is quite troubled by
this lack of obligation and cites several Tanaim who rule, in opposition,
that feeding one’s children is, in fact, a mitzvah. Nevertheless, the
Mishnah is quite clear that feeding children is not a father’s Halakhic
obligation (chiyuv).
A closer reading of the texts provides a key to solving this puzzling
discrepancy. The Mishna uses the term chiyuv to mean a Halakhic
obligation that can be enforced by a Rabbinic court. The Gemara
responds by saying that while providing children with food may not
be a chiyuv, it is certainly a mitzvah. In this case, we must translate
the word mitzvah as a moral obligation. A further step in codifying this
moral obligation was made in the Second Century CE by the Rabbis in
Usha who decreed that men are obligated to provide sustenance for
their minor children. The decree in Usha in effect upgraded the moral
obligation to one that could be enforced by a Rabbinic court.
The ketubah is a legal agreement between a husband and wife which
can be enforced by a Rabbinic court. The man accepts financial
obligations in order to convince the woman to marry him. Providing
food is one of these obligations. In a child’s early life, the mother is the
primary source of sustenance. This was recognized by the Gemara,13
where Rabbi Ula states that the obligation for men to feed very young
children (under the age of 6) is part of the obligation to provide
sustenance for one’s wife, basically an extension of the ketubah. Since
a young child isn’t empowered to make an agreement with his father
regarding his care, his sustenance is included with his mother’s, in the
ketubah. Once children are more independent, they establish their
own relationship with their father. This relationship is based on moral
10 Mishna Ketubot 4:4
11 Mishna Ketubot 4:6
12 Talmud Bavli Ketubot 49a
13 Talmud Bavli Ketubot 65b
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obligations as opposed to purely legal ones.
Thus far we have focused on the obligations incumbent on fathers
towards their progeny. What about the mothers? Women are specifically
exempt from the Halakhic obligation of bearing children.14 They are
exempt because the Torah would not obligate them in something that
causes pain,15 but if they do bear children they are credited with a
mitzvah. Similarly, women are exempt from performing mitzvot for
their children when they themselves are exempt from those mitzvot.16
This doesn’t detract from a woman’s desire and ability to support her
children in Torah study and in learning to make their way in the world.
In the Talmudic context, men are Halakhically obligated to guide their
sons in mitzvot and educate them so that they may make their own way
in the world, have children and in turn guide them in the same way.
Basic childcare is not part of this Halakhic obligation, but is rather a
moral obligation that could be left unsaid because it is such a natural
part of raising children.
The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabah17 provides a different perspective on
this entire topic. First, the Midrash quotes a similar beraita as the one
in Kiddushin, listing the five obligations of a father to his son. It goes
on to compare G-d to a father and the Children of Israel to a son. The
Midrash takes these parental obligations as a given and then uses
examples from Tanakh showing that G-d Himself acts in a similar way
toward the Children of Israel at different points in time.
The Midrash ends with a coda – “A father is obligated to his son [in
the following ways]: to give him food and drink, to bathe him, to give
him ointments, and to clothe him, and thus did G-d for the Jews, as
it is written: ‘And I washed you in water, and I washed away your
blood…and I clothed you with embroidered clothing…and My bread
14 Mishna Yevamot 6:6
15 Meshech Chochma on Bereishit 9:7
16 Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 29-30
17 Midrash Bamidbar Rabah 17:1; see also Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Shlach 14
which Igave you…’18 The second set of obligations are stated using
the Hebrew word זקוק . These things are “necessary” for a father to
provide for his children. This type of obligation is beyond the Halakhic
chiyuv and even beyond the moral mitzvah. It is a necessary part of
the relationship between parents and children. These necessary items
apply equally to fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
The Midrash ends by asking “And what must a son give to his father?
A gift.” A parent-child relationship is reciprocal. Parents care for and
nurture their children and in return, they receive the gift of watching
their child grow and make his successful way in the world. By definition,
a gift is not part of a mutual financial contract. It is something freely
given in recognition and gratitude. The relationship between a parent
and a child doesn’t need to be codified in financial and legal terms
because it derives from intense and inherent feelings on the part of
the parent.

Yedida Lubin

Yedida Lubin has been studying in various programs at Matan since she made aliya in 2000 including three years in Matan’s Advanced Talmudic Institute. Currently, Yedida teaches the Daf Yomi shiur on a weekly basis. Yedida has an M.A. from the Hebrew University.