Chinnuch in Chazal

Shabbat (16:6) | Yaron Gottlieb | 17 years ago

Children’s education is a fundamental and interesting idea that is raised throughout Jewish sources. In dealing with a child’s education one must determine the circumstances under which children are permitted to transgress Halacha, until what age one allows them to transgress Halacha and what is the nature of the laws that they may transgress?

One of these issues is raised in the Mishnah in Shabbat (16:6) that states that a father must prevent his child from extinguishing a fire that is burning down a Jewish house on Shabbat. This law is brought in contrast to the gentile who we need not stop from putting out the fire, since unlike a Jewish minor the shvita (rest) of the non-Jew on Shabbat is not our obligation. (The Halacha however states that the fire may be extinguished in almost every instance due to the danger to life).

The Tosfot Yom Tov raises the question citing the Gemara from the end of the ninth chapter of Shabbat that rules that we are not concerned about a child eating non-kosher grasshoppers, and may leave him to play with them. It would seem from the Gemara that while we may not actively feed him something forbidden, the parent is not commanded to actively prevent the child from performing an issur.

The general consensus amongst the commentators is that there is a certain point where a child need not be prevented from incorrect actions. However if there is any doubt in the mind of the child or the parent that may cause us to think that either party would encourage the action, we must actively prevent it. There is some discussion though about the exact age where the parents should place these extra stringencies on the child.

This idea is also quoted by a number of modern poskim (as transmitted to me by Rav Neriyah of Yeshivat HaKotel) where they state that there is no need to impose the stringencies on the child with regards to kashrut.

The above ideas are seemingly opposed to the halachic concept of Chinnuch (the obligation to educate our children by having them do mitzvot so that when they grow up it will be natural for them). The obligation on the parents states that they have to be careful that the child is brought up in an environment where they are encouraged to perform the commandments, and definitely not allowed a free hand to do whatever they want.

The idea of education can be learned out from the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus on Pesach. In the Sefer HaChinnuch we find the essence of the obligation to tell the story, but in the details of the mitzvah we find that the author speaks primarily about the actions that are performed on that night. It appears clear from the statements of the Chinnuch that the most important part of the education of the child is the action that he is encouraged to do and the actions that are performed in the environment.

These examples here point to a particular direction in educating children that is being expressed by the rabbis of the Mishnah. At a certain point we need to be concerned with the education of the next generation prior to their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since once they are already obligated it is too late. But on the other hand it is necessary to understand that children are still children, and it is not logical or helpful to demand of the average child to be a small adult. We have a need to let them ‘play in the dirt’ and explore the world in their own way even if we need to turn a blind eye to it, so as not to smother them. However the Mishnah here warns us that these rules are there for the child, and not to be abused by the parent to achieve their own goals.

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