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The mitzvah of chinuch explored

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Parshas Vayera; The Mitzvah of Chinuch

This week’s dvar Torah is going to be a bit different. We are going to explore the sugya (topic) of chinuch (‘education of one’s children’), as will be explained. This sedra is full of chinuch issues, for example Yishmael’s sinful ways and the decision to remove him from the home. In fact, it is from the pasuk in our sedra ‘…in order that he [Avraham] shall command his children and household after him and they should keep the way of HaShem…’ (18;19) that the Meshech Chochmah and Rav Osher Weiss[1] say that the mitzvah of educating one’s children to religious observance and attitudes (chinuch) is a biblical mitzvah.

What we are going to discuss is the Rabbinic mitzvah of chinuch mentioned in the gemarra, the source of which is the pasuk in Mishlei (22;6) ‘educate a child according to his way, when he grows older he will not veer from it.’[2] As Rav Weiss explains, the Rabbis laid down certain specific obligations within the Torah mitzvah of chinuch, in much the same way that (according to some) tefillah is a Torah mitzvah yet the rabbis obligated tefillah to be ‘done’ at three particular parts of the day[3]. First, a definition of this mitzvah of chinuch. Once one’s own child becomes old enough to perform a mitzvah, there is a rabbinic obligation to teach and facilitate this child to perform the mitzvah. The age for each mitzvah varies. For example, the gemarra says[4] that once a child knows how to shake a lulav, the father is to buy him a lulav, once the child knows how to put on tzitzis, the father buys him tzitzis, and in each case makes sure that the child performs the mitzvah. These obligations all begin at different points before the child turns bar/bat-mitzvah, and are rabbinic. Thus, even though shaking lulav is a biblical mitzvah, a child performing it at the age of chinuch fulfils a rabbinic mitzvah. Once the child becomes bar/bat-mitzvah, they will be fulfilling a biblical mitzvah when they shake lulav. What exactly is the nature of this rabbinic mitzvah of chinuch? It is important to mention that anything we write here should not be taken as halacha; we are merely exploring the issue. The plan is to bring two machlokos (‘disputes’ for lack of a better word) on this issue and connect them. Here goes…

The first dispute is who exactly is obligated in the mitzvah of chinuch: is it that the parent is obligated to teach his child, or that the child is obligated to do these mitzvos when he reaches the appropriate ages; just that the father helps the child. Put differently, when a child who reaches the age of chinuch shakes lulav, who gets the mitzvah on their ‘heavenly account’ – the father or the son? Rashi’s opinion[5] is that the mitzvah of chinuch is ‘on the father,’ whilst Tofafos[5] holds that the mitzvah of chinuch is ‘on the son.’

The next dispute is whether the mitzvah the child performs at the age of chinuch must be exactly the same as if he were to be performing the mitzvah at bar/bat-mitzvah. For example, does a father need to buy for his chinuch-aged child, a lulav and esrog which are fully kosher, or is it sufficient to buy the child a lemon which looks like a kosher esrog (to the child)? The mishna brura[6] brings a machlokes about this subject in the following case. On the first-day yom tov of sukkos, one may not use a borrowed lulav to fulfil their mitzvah – one has to fully own their lulav. What about a child who has reached the ‘chinuch age’ here; can he fulfil this mitzvah with a borrowed lulav? The mishna brura says it is a machlokes amongst the authorities. In fact, this seems to be a machlokes between the Ritva and Tosfos. The Ritvah[7] says that the mitzvah the child fulfils must be exactly the same as if he were to fulfil it as an adult, whilst it seems that Tosafos[8] argues. What is behind this machlokes and what can it teach us about the nature of the mitzvah of chinuch?

Conceptually, one can view what the rabbinic mitzvah of chinuch is in two distinct ways.[9] Either, the Rabbis brought the age of mitzvah obligation down from thirteen/twelve to the age of chinuch for each mitzvah, and so the existing obligations to perform the various mitzvos became rabbinically mandatory early. Or, the rabbis made a new mitzvah called chinuch for the child to perform mitzvos so that mitzvos do not seem strange and new to him when he reaches bar-mitzvah. Put slightly differently, is there a mitzvah of chinuch for each mitzvah, or one large mitzvah of chinuch with several applications – In other words, when a child shakes lulav and then puts on tzitzis, under which category on the ‘heavenly mitzvah account’ do the mitzvos go; under the mitzvah of lulav and tzitzis as rabbinic, or under a new category of ‘chinuch?’ Some theoretical examples should serve to make this more understandable.

Let’s take an example of an ill child who knows for sure (somehow) that he is not going to live to the age of thirteen (chas veshalom); having now reached the age of chinuch for lulav, should he start shaking lulav on sukkos? This depends on the conceptual question above. If mitzvas chinuch is the lowering of the mitzvah ages from bar mitzvah to the age of chinuch, then this ill child certainly should shake lulav. But if chinuch is its own new mitzvah in order that the child should not turn thirteen and suddenly have to do all these strange mitzvos that he has never done before, then since this child is not going to live to be thirteen, the mitzvah would not apply.[10] Another difference is whether a father must buy tzitzis for his child who has reached the age of chinuch. The halacha is[11] that one is only obligated in tzitzis if they have a four-cornered garment. Nowadays, we have few four-cornered garments, so we buy a four-cornered garment with tzitzis strings on in order to obligate ourselves and fulfil the mitzvah of tzitzis. What about a chinuch-aged child who has no four-cornered garment; does the father need to buy the child a four-cornered garment and tzitzis strings, or not? This is a machlokes[12], and is based on our two ways of understanding mitzvas chinuch. According to the ‘bring down the age of mitzvah obligation’ side, there is no need to buy tzitzis here, for since there is no obligation to buy/wear tzitzis if one has no four-cornered garment even at bar mitzvah, there is going to be no obligation before that time either. But if chinuch is like the second side [a new mitzvah in order to accustom the child to mitzvos that he will be doing later in life] the father is obligated to buy a four-cornered garment with tzitzis for the child, for that is what adults do now and is what the child is to be accustomed to.

These two ways of understanding mitzvas chinuch are behind the machlokes as to whether the chinuch.mitzvah needs to be exactly the same as the adult mitzvah; kosher esrog or not? If mitzvas chinuch is lowering the age from barmitzvah then the esrog must be fully kosher, like an adult’s, but if mitzvas chinuch is its own independent mitzvah to accustom the child to mitzvos, a discreetly non-kosher esrog is ok. Perhaps this is also behind the machlokes as to whether it is the son or the father who is obligated in the mitzvah of chinuch. According to our first way of understanding of mitzvas chinuch (mitzvah age-lowering), the obligation is on the child, just like it is on him when he turns bar mitzvah. But according to the second understanding, it is probable that the obligation is on the parent to ensure that the child is accustomed to mitzvos. That’s the topic finished. In halacha, the Chafetz Chaim writes[13] that one must buy a fully kosher esrog, lulav, tzitzis, etc. for the child who has reached the age of chinuch, but need not worry about hiddurim.

We shall end with a short idea about chinuch. After Yishmael was sent away, HaShem personally raised Yishmael (Bereishis 21;20). What did this child turn out to be? The pasuk tells us that he became an archer; he shot arrows. HaShem raises a child and he only turns out able to shoot arrows! What’s the message here? Rav Berkovits answers that the idea of chinuch is, as Shlomo HaMelech writes in Mishlei (22;6) to ‘educate a child according to his way’ – according to the way of the child. That means that education does not mean making the child be the person that you want them to be, but rather the parent is to harness and increase the child’s personal talents and potential as much as they can. But each child will naturally have a different potential and talents to improve. Thus, the potential of Yishmael lay in merely shooting arrows, and so HaShem raised him to be the best archer he could be. We are not trying to produce clones, we are trying to make each child harness their talents for the good, make the best of their G-D given abilities, and be the best that they can be.

Have a great Shabbes

[1] Minchas Osher, Vayera, on Chinuch. The Meshech Chochmah is on Bereishis 18;19

[2] The Ritva (sukkah 2b ‘amar rebbi,’), Rambam (hil. ma’achalos assuros 17;28), and Rashba (megillah 19b ‘hah’) all cite this as the source for this rabbinic mitzvah.

[3] All according to the Rambam. The Ramban holds that Tefillah is rabbinic, unless one is crying out to HaShem to be saved from a specific trouble, in which case it is biblical.

[4] Gemarra sukkah 42a

[5] The Rashis are: Chagigah 2a ‘iy,’ Brachos 20a ‘ketannim,’ Brachos 48a ‘ad,’ and Sukkah 42a ‘chayav.’ The Tosafos are: Brachos 20a ‘veketannim,’ Brachos 48a ‘ad,’ and Erchin 2b ‘hayodeya.’ Rashi lived 1040-1105. Tosfos was written over a period of 200-300 years by different authors across Europe; which is why one cannot necessarily match opinions of Tosafos from different parts of Shas, for they are likely to have different authors.

[6] Mishna Brura 656;28

[7] Ritvah Sukkah 2b ‘amar rebbi’

[8] Tosafos Pesachim 88a ‘seh’

[9] See Birkas Avraham Sukkah 2b. According to Tosafos Megillah 19b ‘VeRebbi’ this chakira might very well be a machlokes Tanna’im.

[10] Practically, this would not occur, because how does a child really know for certain that he will not live until thirteen. And besides, many rabbinic laws are made with a ‘lo plug,’ ie they were blanket, across-the-board rulings and did not allow for unlikely events like these to be exceptions in practice. See gemarra Shabbes 12b (Rabbah there)

[11] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 24;1

[12] Between the Bach [orach chaim 17;3 ‘kattan’] and the Machatzis HaShekel [orach chaim 17;3], and if you look carefully, they are saying precisely the two understandings of mitzvas chinuch we presented above.

[13] Bi’ur Halacha Orach Chaim 657 ‘kedei’

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