The Torah section of Vayikra, which begins the third of the five books of Moses by the same name, begins, “And He called to Moses and G-d spoke to him.” With regards to this verse and the rest of this section, commentaries talk of the custom of beginning the introduction of Jewish children to Torah study with the study of this book, mainly revolving around the laws of sacrifices and ritual purity.
The Yalkut explains this custom as resulting from the sacrifices’ purity which is appropriate to be taught to children who are pure of sin and iniquity. The pure should begin by studying purity. In his Even Ha’Azel, the latter day Torah giant, R. Isser Zalman Meltzer looks at it from the perspective of the parents. In order to properly educate our children, we must be prepared to sacrifice, whether monetarily or otherwise. Beginning with the study of Vayikra alludes to this.
We gather from the above that in the pursuit of education, we are to maintain purity and encourage self-sacrifice. In fact, from early Talmudic times up to our modern era, an emphasis has been placed on the importance of Jewish education, and great effort, concern and self-sacrifice was exerted in this respect, as attested to in Jewish literature throughout the ages.
True to the verse, “You shall teach them to your children” (Devarim 11:19), our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 21a) of the initiative and self-sacrifice a few thousand years ago of R. Yehoshua ben Gamla in setting up the first school system, in order that as many children as possible be granted the opportunity of a proper education.
Over the ages, we read of the great role that self-sacrifice and sincere caring has played in the development of Jewish minds. As late as recent times, we find how the self-sacrifice and anguish for his education by his parents propelled the preeminent Torah scholar R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1817 – 1893), known as the Netziv, to greatness, without which his potential may never have been fulfilled (Pesach Krohn, The Maggid Speaks, pp. 117 – 119). And when two Jewish American businessmen approached R. Michael Ber Weismandel (1903 – 1957), head of the Nitra Yeshiva and known for his boundless efforts in saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis, he reiterated the importance of self-sacrifice in raising Jewish youth. When these businessmen cried of their sons’ choosing to marry out of the faith, he inquired about the boys’ education. When told that each of them had re-settled from Europe to American cities that had no Jewish schools to offer their children, R. Weismandel retorted, “If you would have cried years ago, and been concerned for your children’s education earlier, then you would not have to cry now!” (ad locum pp. 122 – 125).
Education of our children, developing their minds and actualizing their potential is not a matter to be taken lightly. From verses in the Torah to statements and anecdotes throughout Talmudic literature to many laws quoted in the code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, much script has been devoted to this subject and its importance. Not only do we find precepts and guidance in the actual study of Jewish literature, we are given guidance in behavior as well. As alluded to earlier, proper and successful study goes hand in hand with purity of behavior and training.
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 and educators. We must teach the youth, but we must know how. Teaching the youth must go hand in hand with self-sacrifice and maintaining their purity – purity in behavior and purity in thought. There is no room for complacence. Children cannot grow properly on their own, no more than grass, fruits or vegetables. The best of earth left alone and not worked will become hard and produce little of value. The same is with our children. And if the earth is tilled but instead of using the proper tools, one works with a hammer and chisel, again little of value will arise. The same is with our children. The proper tools must be implemented. And self-sacrifice and hard work must be exercised by parents and educators involved in this important endeavor. Lazy individuals have never succeeded in extracting produce from a field. The same is with our children. The lazy parent or educator – lazy physically or mentally – cannot succeed in extracting a child’s full potential.
If we take the time, thought and effort necessary to train the youth among us, then we will allow G-d’s blessing to shine upon His people, upholders of His message and doctrine, from generation to generation, following in the footsteps of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We will be able to approach our savior, the Messiah, at his his eventual arrival with pride, and we will approach our Holy G-d with gladness in the world to come.