Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Lech Lecha
To dedicate this lesson

A Chinuch Primer

In parshas Lech Lecha, the Torah (Bereishis 14:14) refers to the chanichav, the people trained by Avraham Avinu to believe in Hashem and observe His mitzvos.


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Cheshvan 9 5777

Question #1: May he bensch for me?
"We packed sandwiches for a family outing. I made hamotzi and ate a small amount of bread. In the interim, all our sandwiches and bread have now been eaten, and I do not know whether I ate enough to bensch. May I have my 11-year-old son be motzi me in the bensching?"

Question #2: Class Size
"Does halachah discuss how many students one may have in a class?"

Both of our opening questions are about different aspects of the mitzvos of chinuch, educating our children in the observance of the Torah’s commandments. This topic is indeed very vast; this article will service as a primer explaining and introducing some of the basic ideas.

I refer to the mitzvos of chinuch, in the plural, because there is more than one mitzvah involved. Actually, there are three different mitzvos involved.

Teaching Torah
A: The first is the Torah requirement that a father teach his son Torah and, indeed, that any talmid chacham teach Torah. The requirement to teach one’s son Torah is derived from two pesukim that we recite daily in the Shema, Veshinantam levanecha, "And you shall teach them (meaning the words and laws of the Torah) to your children until they know them thoroughly," and Velimadtem osem es beneichem ledabeir bam, "And you shall teach them to your children, to speak about them." Should the father be unable to teach his son for whatever reason, he is obligated to hire someone to teach him (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:3).

This requirement to teach one’s son Torah begins when the child is very young. When he is just beginning to speak, the father should start to have him recite and memorize pesukim, beginning with the verse, Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehilas Yaakov.

Training to do mitzvos
B: The second aspect of the mitzvos of chinuch is the requirement instituted by our Sages to train a child in the performance of mitzvos (Berachos 20b; Sukkah 2b and 28b; Yoma 82a ; Chagigah 4a; Nazir 29a; Arachin 2b). As we will soon see, the Gemara, itself, combines these two mitzvos, that of teaching one’s son Torah and that of training him to perform mitzvos, into one discussion.

Avoid prohibitions
C: The third aspect of the mitzvos of chinuch is a requirement min haTorah that we not cause a child, or, for that matter, an adult, to violate a prohibition of the Torah. For example, bringing a minor kohen into a hospital or museum in which there is tum’as meis violates this mitzvah of the Torah. (Of course, this mitzvah, like virtually any other, is superseded in a situation of a life-threatening emergency.)

The father or the community?
Whose responsibility is it to guarantee that a child receives a Torah education? Is it the responsibility of the father or of the community?

The Torah, itself, did not require other people to pay for a child’s Torah education – this responsibility is borne min haTorah only by a father. Since this is the requirement min haTorah, originally, from the time of the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai until the second Beis Hamikdash period, the father taught his child himself or hired someone to teach him. In that era, it seems that there were few, if any, schools or chadarim for children to study Torah, although there were melamdim who taught children. Presumably, a few fathers together would arrange to hire a melamed for their sons. The community carried no responsibility to arrange schooling for those children who had no fathers.

Enter Yehoshua ben Gamla
However, during the era of the second Beis Hamikdash, one man, a great tzadik and kohein gadol named Yehoshua ben Gamla, noted that children who did not have a father available to teach them Torah, or to hire someone in his stead, were growing up without a Torah education. He created a complete revolution in Torah education by requiring the existence of yeshivah schools for all male children and obligating the local community to support these schools.

To quote the Gemara: Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, "Indeed, this man named Yehoshua ben Gamla should be remembered favorably, for, were it not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people. Prior to his time, someone who had a father, his father taught him Torah, and one who had no father did not study Torah" (Bava Basra 21a). First, Yehoshua ben Gamla introduced that there be schoolteachers available in Yerushalayim to teach Torah without charge to the student. He eventually expanded this program until every city and town had Torah teachers available for every Jewish boy, beginning from the age of six or seven. His ruling established this as a permanent requirement incumbent upon Jewish communities: They are obligated to guarantee that every Jewish boy can study Torah.

The Gemara proceeds to discuss many of the details that are required according to Yehoshua ben Gamla’s takkanah, including the maximum classroom size, the priorities established in hiring teachers, grounds for dismissal of a rebbe, the relaxation of zoning requirements in order to encourage Torah study, etc. In other words, an entire literature was created as a result of Yehoshua ben Gamla’s takkanah.
Subsequent to this time, a community that failed to assume this responsibility was excommunicated, and if this failed to alleviate the situation, the community was destroyed (Shabbos 119b; Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:1).

Free public education
We should not underestimate the extent of influence of Yehoshua ben Gamla’s innovation. One of the hallmarks of modern society is the availability of free public education for all. Yehoshua ben Gamla was the first leader in world history to institute such a program. Thus, the concept of universal free public education is originally a Jewish innovation, instituted well over two thousand years ago! Perhaps this explains why we find so many Jews involved professionally in education at so many different levels.

Class size
At this point, we can note one of our opening questions: "Does halachah discuss how many students one may have in a class?"

Indeed, there is an extensive halachic literature on this topic, but we will leave it for a different time. Someone who has a practical question in this matter should address it to a dayan (rabbinic judge) qualified to rule on this subject.

Mitzvas chinuch
Until this point, we have been discussing the aspect of chinuch relating to teaching children Torah. We will now discuss some of the basics germane to the second of the mitzvos mentioned above, which relates to the other aspect of chinuch, training children to observe mitzvos. Although the Torah does not require boys under the age of thirteen or girls under the age of twelve to perform mitzvos, there is a mitzvah miderabbanan to train them to do so in order to accustom them. When Chazal refer to the mitzvah of chinuch, they are referring to this obligation. This concept is alluded to by the pasuk, Chanoch lanaar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimenu, "Train the lad according to his way, then when he ages he will not veer from it" (Mishlei 22:6).

Is chinuch education?
Before discussing this mitzvah, I need to provide a linguistic introduction. Although the word chinuch is used in modern Hebrew to mean "education," technically, this is not the correct translation. Teaching Torah is called limud or shinun, as we see from the pesukim quoted above -- limud is the general word for "teaching" and shinun carries the specific meaning that one teaches something until the student knows it thoroughly. On the other hand, chinuch means training in the details of proper observance of mitzvos, rather than teaching factual Torah information.

In Tanach, the root of the word chinuch appears most frequently referring to the dedication of the Mishkan or of its vessels. Since it is difficult to teach these appliances, the word chinuch must mean to use them the first time for their intended purpose. This use accomplishes that the items are now designated. Rashi (Bereishis 14:14 and Devorim 20:5) explains that the word chinuch refers to a beginning. Either one begins to use a particular item, or a person begins a new occupation. The Rambam (Menachos 4:4) writes that chinuch means to become accustomed to doing a particular activity. The primary meaning of the term chinuch is the training of people, and using the word chinuch in reference to items is a borrowed usage. Just as we say that chinuch is to accustom a person to performing certain activities, we "accustom" the utensils of the Beis Hamikdash to perform their jobs. Rav Hirsch adds that the word chinuch includes dedicating something for a lofty, holy purpose.

Only twice in Tanach is the word chinuch used in reference to people, and only once in chumash. That place is in parshas Lech Lecha, where the Torah refers to Avraham’s followers as chanichav, "those he had trained." The other Biblical place that the word chinuch refers to people is the verse I quoted above, Chanoch lanaar al pi darko. This verse functions both as a halachic and advisory directive how to train youth, and also provides a prediction of how to guarantee that a child develops and matures to fulfill his potential. Chanoch lanaar al pi darko, the most important adage in education and training, means that one should assess the strengths of every child and evaluate the best way to train him for his ultimate goal in serving Hashem. Having figured out the best approach in training each child for his goal, both the short-term and long-term results should be what one hoped the child would attain.

Chinuch for adults
We should note, further, that the word chinuch in Tanach can include the training of adults, and, indeed, we find in Chazal that the mitzvah of chinuch includes the obligation to train and influence one’s adult children (Kiddushin 30a). However, since most of the halachic applications of the mitzvah refer to the training of minor children in the performance of mitzvos, our articles focuses on this aspect of the mitzvah. In this context, we find the following passage of Gemara:

"A minor who knows how to shake the lulav in the way that halachah requires (na’anuim) is obligated to have a lulav; one old enough to put on a talis properly is obligated in tzitzis; one old enough to protect his tefillin, his father must purchase for him tefillin; when he knows to talk, his father teaches him Torah and the Shema (Sukkah 42a; see also Arachin 2b). Note that this passage combines two of our above-mentioned mitzvos, the min haTorah requirement to teach one’s son Torah and the rabbinic requirement to train him to perform mitzvos.

One of the first lessons of mitzvas chinuch that we see here is that it is insufficient to have the child perform a mitzvah a few times before his bar mitzvah, so that he becomes familiar with its performance. Rather, Chazal required that we begin training a child to perform mitzvos at the earliest age that he can perform that particular mitzvah. Thus, as soon as he is beginning to talk, we teach him to recite pesukim. When he is old enough to wear a talis properly, we train him in the mitzvah of tzitzis.

Age of chinuch for lulav
However, based on the above-quoted passage of Gemara, which stated, "A minor who knows how to shake the lulav in the way that halachah requires (na’anuim) is obligated to have a lulav," we can note the following question:

The mitzvah min haTorah of the four species does not require shaking the lulav and esrog, but merely holding them in one’s hands. Na’anuim, shaking the four species in all directions, is a rabbinic enhancement of the mitzvah. That being so, why does the Gemara rule that the requirement to train one’s son in this mitzvah begins only when he is old enough to perform the na’anuim? Why did Chazal not require chinuch from the time that one’s son is old enough to fulfill the mitzvah min haTorah by holding them?

The commentaries explain that the mitzvah of chinuch is to train a child to fulfill a mitzvah in the proper way, what we call lechatchilah. Chazal did not want us to train him to perform a mitzvah that one is yotzei only after the fact, which we refer to as bedei’evid. They wanted us to train our children to perform mitzvos in the optimal fashion (Aruch Laneir; Netziv). Thus, we wait until the child is old enough to do these mitzvos in the proper way, and only then are we required to train him to perform the mitzvah. This rule applies in the fulfillment of chinuch regarding all mitzvos.

Is this a mitzvah?
Does the mitzvah act performed by a minor qualify as an act of a mitzvah? After all, he is not obligated to fulfill any mitzvos!

Let me clarify. When Chazal established the mitzvah of chinuch, upon whom did they place the obligation, upon the father or upon the child? Or, to explain the question more accurately: Certainly, the mitzvah applies to the father; the issue is whether it is a commandment also upon the son.

The question here is: How can we require a minor to fulfill a mitzvah? After all, he is not obligated to fulfill any mitzvos! So, if a child is not obligated to fulfill any mitzvos min haTorah, how could Chazal require him to do so?

Assuming that the mitzvah of chinuch is incumbent only on the father but not on the minor son, does the mitzvah act performed by a minor qualify as an act of a mitzvah? Since a minor is, himself, not obligated to perform any mitzvah, perhaps a mitzvah he performs is not considered a maaseh mitzvah, a mitzvah act. This is not just a theoretical discussion, but a practical halachic question, germane to our opening questions:

May he bensch for me?
"We packed sandwiches for a family outing. I made hamotzi and ate a small amount of bread. In the interim, all our sandwiches and bread have now been eaten, and I do not know whether I ate enough to bensch. May I have my 11-year-old son be motzi me in the bensching?"

Before we can analyze this question, I must provide two introductions.

1. We are aware that we fulfill mitzvos such as reciting Kiddush, Havdalah, blowing the shofar or reading the megillah by hearing the act of the mitzvah (the recital or the blasting) performed by someone else. In all such instances, the person performing the act of the mitzvah must be obligated in the mitzvah. In other words, only someone obligated in the mitzvah of Kiddush, Havdalah, shofar or megillah may perform the act of the mitzvah and thereby cause someone else to fulfill the mitzvah.

2. The mitzvah to bensch applies min haTorah only when one ate a full, satisfying meal. Someone who ate a smaller amount of bread is required to bensch, but only because of a rabbinic requirement, which applies upon eating even an amount as small as the size of an olive. In the case at hand, the father is uncertain whether he ate enough to be required to bensch even miderabbanan; he is certainly not required min haTorah. His question is whether the son’s bensching, required because of mitzvas chinuch, qualifies as a fulfillment of the mitzvah to enable the father to fulfill his requirement, should he have one.

Does the son’s bensching have the halachic status of an act of bensching, albeit only miderabbanan, and therefore enables the father to fulfill his requirement, which is only miderabbanan?

Indeed, one early authority rules that the father cannot fulfill his requirement this way. The Ramban (Milchemes Hashem, Berachos 20b) explains that since a minor himself is never obligated to observe any mitzvos (and the mitzvah of chinuch is solely the father’s responsibility), the act performed by a minor does not have the halachic status of being an act of mitzvah. This means that, in our case, when the son bensches, technically, no mitzvah act is being performed. As a result, an adult cannot fulfill any mitzvah, even a rabbinic requirement, on the basis of a child’s act. Thus, according to the Ramban, the answer is that the father does not fulfill any mitzvah by listening to his son’s bensching.

However, we should note that most rishonim dispute this conclusion of the Ramban. They understand that the mitzvah performed because of chinuch has the status of a mitzvah act according to rabbinic law, and that, under some circumstances, an adult may rely on it to fulfill his mitzvah requirement. Thus, according to the latter opinion, in this situation Dad could rely upon his son’s bensching. In practical halachah, one would tell Dad to rely on this opinion, since, according to the Ramban’s approach, he will be without any solution as to how to fulfill his mitzvah.

We have learned the importance of training a child properly in the performance of mitzvos, and have seen that there are both mitzvos min haTorah and miderabbanan involved. In prioritizing our lives, we should always place the educating and developing of the next generation at the top of our list, since this is where the future of the Jewish people lies.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site

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