03. Who Is Obligated to Educate and Object?

According to some, the obligation of ĥinukh devolves equally upon the father and mother (Terumat Ha-deshen). However, most poskim maintain that only the father is obligated to train children to do mitzvot, that is, objecting when they transgress negative commandments and requiring them to perform positive commandments. This is an extension of the obligation to teach them Torah, which also devolves upon the father. Despite this, it is clear that the mother has a general mitzva to educate her children about Torah and mitzvot; the general commandment to love one’s fellow and the demand for truth obligate every mother to educate her children to cling to the holy Torah and observe its commandments. What is incumbent upon the father alone is the responsibility to meticulously educate about Torah and mitzvot (Ri; Maharam; Hagahot Maimoniyot). If no father is present, whether due to death or absence, then the mother is obligated to teach her children meticulously about the Torah and mitzva observance (Eliya Rabba 640:4; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 343:9).

Thus, if a child who has reached the age of ĥinukh (about six or seven) is involved in a game and does not want to come to hear kiddush or havdala or recite Birkat Ha-mazon, the father must insist, so as to educate him properly. However, the mother may occasionally ignore such breaches in order to maintain a pleasant atmosphere in the home. If the father has passed away or is absent, the mother must take his place and insist that her children become habituated to keeping the mitzvot.[1]

When parents neglect to educate their children and do not stop them from violating Torah law, the local beit din or public representatives who are responsible for local education must admonish the father. However, if the parents are negligent in educating their children about rabbinic obligations, there is no need to admonish the father.

The poskim disagree regarding what an adult must do if he sees someone else’s child of educable age (six or seven) desecrate Shabbat or eat forbidden foods. Some maintain that the obligation to educate children is the sole responsibility of the father, and nobody else is obligated to prevent them from sinning (Rambam; SA 343:1). Others maintain that all Jews are obligated to prevent children of educable age from transgressing (Tosafot; Rosh; Rema). Practically speaking, several Aĥaronim rule that if an adult sees any child transgressing a Torah prohibition – such as turning on a light or washing his clothes on Shabbat, or eating foods prohibited by Torah law – he must stop him. However, if one sees a child transgressing a rabbinic prohibition – such as eating chicken with milk, or playing with muktzeh items on Shabbat – he does not need to stop him (Ĥayei Adam; MB 343:7). It would seem that if a minor repeatedly transgresses the same prohibition, even if it is rabbinic, it is proper to inform his parents.

If a minor is in danger of harming someone or damaging property, one must stop him in order to prevent the harm or damage. This law is derived from the mitzva to return a lost object to its owner: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it…restore it to him” (Devarim 22:2). If there is a mitzva to return another’s lost item, there is certainly a mitzva to prevent damage to his property. Similarly, we are told: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16). According to the Sages, the mitzva of saving someone’s property is included in this mitzva (Sifra).

We must stress that the mitzva of ĥinukh must be done in such a way that the child will be receptive. Therefore, one should not force a child to begin keeping all the mitzvot and saying all the prayers properly at the age of six or seven. A child’s early years are meant to allow him to get used to praying and keeping mitzvot. This way, by the time children reach halakhic maturity at the age of bar or bat mitzva, they will be capable of keeping all the mitzvot properly.


[1]. All agree that a mother must educate her children about Torah and mitzvot. Part of the mitzva of “Love your fellow as yourself (Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha)” (Vayikra 19:18) is enabling one’s child to benefit from engaging in Torah and mitzvot. The mother is also obligated on account of “Reprove your friend (Hokhe’aĥ tokhi’aĥ et amitekha)” (ibid. v. 17). Elaborating on this, the Sages tell us: “If one is able to object to the members of his household sinning but does not do so, he is held responsible for their sin” (Shabbat 54b). Nevertheless, the Torah tasked the father with the specific obligation to teach children Torah. If he does not wish to do so, the rabbinic courts can force him to pay for the education of his sons (SA YD 245:4). If he has no money to do so, he must sell his clothing or seek charity. The mother has no such obligation. Since the father is obligated to teach the children Torah, he is also obligated to make sure that they observe the mitzvot with precision. Thus, the father has a more demanding role – educating toward exacting mitzva observance – while the mother has a more general job – establishing a positive relationship between the children and Torah and mitzvot. This is the meaning of the verse: “My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother” (Mishlei 1:8). The Vilna Gaon (on Mishlei 20:20) writes similarly: “The son is taught Torah by his father. His mother guides him to do mitzvot and walk a straight path” (see Berakhot 17a). However, if the father is not present, the mother must take his place, dealing with ĥinukh in order to fulfill Ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha, tzedaka, and Hokhe’aĥ tokhi’aĥ et amitekha. (See Eliya Rabba 640:4; Kaf ha-ĥayim 343:9.) In some families, it is easier for the mother to be the demanding parent, while it is more difficult for the father. In such cases, it is a mitzva for the mother to take over the role of educating toward exacting mitzva observance.
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