by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 16, 2010
In the Torah section of Vayechi, we read of Jacob’s coming on in years after emigrating to Egypt to reunite with his cherished son Joseph who has become the viceroy in Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. Before his passing, Jacob chooses to talk individually to each of his twelve sons, whereby he blesses them and warns of certain negative traits or encourages certain positive traits. Thereby Jacob exercises his fatherly duty to the very end, even on his deathbed, of attempting to show guidance to his children that will remain with them and their children even after he is gone.
Before anyone else, Jacob starts with Joseph. “He blessed Joseph and he said, ‘Oh G-d before Whom my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked, G-d Who shepherds me from my inception until this: May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads [Joseph’s sons], and may my name be declared upon them and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land” (Bereshit 48:15-16).
In his Shne Luchot Ha’Brit, the renown Torah great R. Yeshaya Horowitz (1565 – 1635) asks why in the above verse it speaks of Jacob blessing Joseph when he, in fact, is not blessing him but rather Joseph’s sons Menashe and Ephraim? In answer, he points out that there is no greater blessing to a father than the blessing that his children be granted with goodness. By blessing Joseph’s sons with goodness and bliss, Jacob was triggering the parental chord that would be a source of blessing and happiness to Joseph. In the same way was Jacob satisfying his parental obligation in giving his last words of guidance and blessing to all his sons before passing on.
In line with this sense of parental obligation, concern and happiness in their children’s being given guidance and blessing, do we have our Sages’ direction over the centuries in providing chinuch – education and training – to our own children. In accordance with the verse “For I knew him [Abraham], because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d” (Bereshit 18:19; see Meshech Chochma ad locum) and the verse “Train the youth according to his way” (Mishle 22:6), the Sages have instructed adults to train children in G-d’s precepts and injunctions even before they reach the age of obligation (13 for boys and 12 for girls) in order that they can properly fulfill them when they are obligated to.
Boys and girls are to be trained in the precepts and injunctions pertaining to each one respectively. The training of negative injunctions begins when a child understands that an action is prohibited and will refrain from continuing such an action (generally around the age of four; see Mishna Brura 343:3, Chidushim U’Biurim, Shabbat 27:5, Kavanat HaLev 9:3). The training of positive precepts, however, depends both on the child’s intelligence and the type of precept to be performed. Whereas the training for positive precepts that are basically mechanical in nature start as soon as the child understands that he or she is fulfilling a precept and can properly execute all the details of the given precept (generally around the age of five or six; see Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 42a, Mishna Brura 128:123), the training for precepts more conceptual in nature, such as kiddush, havdalah or aveilut, are begun after the child is able to understand the basic concept behind the precept (generally a year or two later; Mishna Brura 269:1 and 343:3).
Accordingly, it is customary, for example, to have boys wear a head covering as early as three years of age (see Chinuch Yisrael p. 239). Children aged five and six begin washing their own hands in the morning and after using the bathroom (Chinuch Yisrael 63). Donning a talit katan begins at five or six, and some say at seven and others at nine (see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 17:3, Bayit Hadash 16, Magen Avraham 16:1) while it is prevalent to begin at the age of three (Sha’are Teshuva 17:2, Arukh HaShulchan 17:5). And children are to begin training at the age of six or seven in the recitation of blessings (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 167:19), Kriat Shema (see Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 20a, Rashi and Tosafot ad locum, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 62, Mishna Brura 70:6) and Shmone Esrei (Shulchan Arukh106:1 and Mishna Brura ad locum).
All these laws of training are aimed at properly and effectively passing on Jewish law and lore to offspring, under the watchful eye, guidance and supervision of responsible parents, allowing G-d’s blessing to shine upon His people, upholders of His message and doctrine, from generation to generation, following in the footsteps of Jacob and Joseph as well as Abraham and Isaac before them.