Women in the Mitzva of Chinukh
The mitzva of chinukh (education) involves training a child in the performance of the mitzvot, so that the child will be accustomed to them when the child grows up. According to the strict law, a child is obligated in the mitzvot only from the time that he or she reaches the age of bar/bat mitzva. However, the mitzva of chinukh demands fulfilling the mitzvot already at a younger age. The word “chinukh” is similar in meaning to the word “chanuka,” dedication. The dedication of the altar means the beginning of its functioning in the sacrificial service, and similarly the "dedication of a child" means the beginning of his functioning in the performance of mitzvot.
When we discuss the mitzva of chinukh with respect to women, the question is twofold. First, are parents obligated to educate their daughters – that is, to make sure that they perform mitzvot even when they are still minors – or does the mitzva of chinukh applies exclusively to sons? Second, is a mother obligated to educate her daughter, or does the obligation apply only to the father?
I. The Mitzva of Chinukh with Respect to Daughters
The starting point of our discussion is an important passage in tractate Nazir:
Mishna: A man is able to impose a Nazirite vow on his son, but a woman cannot impose a Nazirite vow on her son…
Gemara: A man can [subject the son to a Nazirite vow], but not a woman. Why? R. Yochanan said: It is a [traditional] ruling with regard to the Nazirite. R. Yose son of R. Chanina said in the name of Reish Lakish: So as to train him in [the performance of] mitzvot. (Nazir 28b-29a)
The gemara cites a disagreement as to why a man can subject his son to a vow of Naziriteship. According to R. Yochanan, this is a law given to Moshe at Sinai – that is, a Scriptural decree – whereas according to Reish Lakish, this is part of the mitzva of chinukh. The gemara continues to explain that in order to explain the mishna according to Reish Lakish, we must say that a mother is exempt from the mitzva of chinukh, and therefore the mishna speaks exclusively of the father, and not the mother. Similarly, we must say that the father is obligated to educate his sons, but not his daughters, and therefore the mishna speaks only of the son, and not the daughter.
Limiting the mitzva of chinukh to the father and to a son arises in the course of the passage as part of the discussion. The question is whether this limitation is still relevant according to the gemara's conclusion. Here we must mention a passage in tractate Yoma that deals with a child's obligation to fast on Yom Kippur:
Mishna: One should not afflict children on Yom Kippur, but one trains them a year or two before in order that they should become accustomed to the mitzvot.
Gemara: …R. Huna said: At the age of eight and nine years, one trains them by hours, at the age of ten and eleven they must fast to the end of the day by Rabbinic ordinance. At the age of twelve, they must fast to the end of the day by Biblical law; [all this] referring to girls. R. Nachman said: At the age of nine and ten, one trains them by hours, at the age of eleven and twelve they must fast to the end of the day by Rabbinic ordinance, and at the age of thirteen they must fast to the end of the day by Biblical law; [all this] referring to boys. (Yoma 82a)
The gemara addresses the question of the age at which children should be trained to fast on Yom Kippur, both a partial fast and a full fast. It clearly implies that children must be trained to fast on Yom Kippur, both boys (before the age of 13) and girls (before the age of 12). We see from here that the mitzvaof chinukh indeed applies to daughters.
How are we to reconcile these two passages? The Tosafot in Nazir raise this question, but they do not propose an explicit answer, merely stating: "A distinction must be made" (Tosafot, Nazir 28a, s.v. beno). The expected answer would be that the gemara in Nazir is in accordance with Reish Lakish, whereas we rule in accordance with R. Yochanan, who disagrees with him. Apparently, the Tosafot assume that even R. Yochanan accepts the distinction between sons and daughters, as nowhere do we find anybody who explicitly disputes it. What do the Tosafot mean then when they write "A distinction must be made"? The Acharonim (Machatzit Ha-Shekel 343) suggest two possibilities: either that the law governing a Nazir is exceptional, in that only with regard to that law are daughters removed from the mitzva of chinukh, or that the law governing Yom Kippur is exceptional, in that only with regard to that law are daughters included in the mitzva of chinukh.
What is the logic behind these two explanations? It might be argued that the law governing a Nazir is the exception, because there is no mitzva to be a Nazir; it is merely an option. The possibility of a father imposing a vow of Naziriteship on his son is thus unlike other cases of chinukh. In general we say that it is incumbent upon a father to train his son in the performance of a mitzva – to recite the Shema, to take a lulav, and the like. Here the situation is different: We bestow upon the father the authority to impose a certain halakhic status on his son, on the assumption that this is a fitting spiritual option that the son should be familiar with as he approaches adulthood. In a certain sense, this law is more similar to the mitzva of teaching one's son Torah than to the mitzva of chinukh. There is no direct training in the fulfillment of mitzvot, but rather concern about the child's spiritual level. It may be argued that this law is limited specifically to sons for one reason or another (as is the mitzva of teaching Torah).
On the other hand, it might be argued that it is precisely the law governing Yom Kippur that is the exception. On Yom Kippur, there is a general law of "a Sabbath of solemn rest" (Shabbat shabbaton). Perhaps the fast of a child is not a fulfillment of the ordinary mitzva of chinukh, but rather a special fulfillment of resting on Yom Kippur. We find something similar on Shabbat: "You shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle" (Shemot 20:10). When a child performs a forbidden labor on Shabbat, it impairs the rest observed by the entire family. Perhaps on Yom Kippur we can say that when a son or a daughter eats on that day, this impairs the fasting of the entire household. If so, it is perhaps specifically with respect to the afflictions of Yom Kippur that there is this special law that even young girls are obligated to keep the fast.
The Magen Avraham is inclined to say that daughters must be trained in the performance of all the mitzvot (343, no. 1). The Machatzit Ha-Shekel (there) notes that the Tosafot Yeshanim in Yoma (82a) suggest the first possibility that we proposed in order to explain the Tosafot, that it is specifically the law governing a Nazir that is the exception. This is also the position of Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhata, who writes that the mitzva of chinukh relates also to daughters (1st ed., chap. 32, par. 3). The Acharonim (ibid., note 3; Orach Mishor, Nazir 29a) note that this is also the implication of Rashi, who writes that one is obligated to educate both his minor son and his minor daughter regarding the Paschal lamb (Pesachim 88a, s.v. al Yedei).
II. The Mitzva of Chinukh with Respect to Mothers
The more complicated question is whether or not a mother is obligated to train her children in mitzvot. The passage in Nazir mentions that mothers are exempt from the mitzva of chinukh. But there too it can be argued, as we argued regarding the obligation toward daughters, that this limitation is only according to Reish Lakish, while we rule in accordance with R. Yochanan. It is also possible to say that mothers are exempt from training their children in the mitzva of Naziriteship, but they are obligated to train them in the performance of all the other mitzvot.
It would seem that proof regarding this question can be adduced from a baraita in tractate Sukka:
A sukka which is higher than twenty cubits is not valid, but R. Yehuda declared it valid up to a height of forty or fifty cubits. R. Yehuda said: It happened with Queen Helena in Lydda that her sukka was higher than twenty cubits, and the elders nevertheless were going in and out of it and spoke not a word to her [in disagreement]. They said to him: Is this a proof? She was a woman and [therefore] free from the obligation of the sukka. He answered them: Did she not have seven sons? And besides, she did nothing except in accordance with the command of the Sages. (Sukka 2b)
This baraita seems to imply that a mother is obligated to train her children in mitzvot, as it explains that Queen Helena had to build a kosher sukka for her minor sons. The Rishonim and Acharonim discuss this baraita. Some argue that Helena was not obligated to educate her sons, but was stringent upon herself and did so anyway. This, however, is not the plain sense of the baraita. There is an even greater difficulty with this explanation, in that if she was not obligated to train her sons in the mitzva of sukka, we cannot prove from the height of her sukka the dimensions of a kosher sukka. If she was not obligated to train her sons in the performance of the mitzva of sukka, how do we know that she was careful to build a kosher sukka for them with all of its specific requirements?
The Arukh Le-Ner (Sukka 2b) suggests two answers to reconcile the different passages. According to R. Yochanan, as we have already said, there is no problem, for according to him we can say that the mitzva of chinukh applies to a mother and a daughter, as is indeed implied by the passages in Yoma and Sukka. According to Reish Lakish, a distinction can be made between training in the performance of positive mitzvot and preventing children for violating prohibitions, negative commandments. Only the father is obligated in the mitzva of chinukh,but even the mother is obligated to prevent her child from violating prohibitions, and perhaps even strangers are bound by this obligation. Eating outside of a sukka and eating on Yom Kippur are considered violations of prohibitions, rather than non-performance of positive commandments. From a formal perspective, these mitzvot are defined as positive commandments – that is, to eat in a sukka and to fast on Yom Kippur – but their legal content is a prohibition. In other words, there is no obligation to do something, but rather to refrain from doing something – not to eat outside the sukka and not to eat on Yom Kippur. The Arukh Le-Ner suggests the novel idea that regarding the mitzva of chinukh, we follow the legal content, and define these mitzvot as preventing the violation of a prohibition, which applies even to the mother. Queen Helena was therefore obligated to train her sons to refrain from the prohibition and not eat outside of a sukka.
The Arukh Le-Ner adds that perhaps even Reish Lakish does not necessarily say that all people are obligated to prevent children from violating prohibitions, but here we are dealing with a more severe matter: If Queen Helena's sukka was not kosher, she would have been feeding her children in a non-kosher sukka. This is like a person who feeds a child prohibited food, which all agree is prohibited. Perhaps for this reason alone it was clear to the gemara that we must be dealing with a kosher sukka.
In practice, the Shulchan Arukh writes that the mitzva of chinukh is incumbent upon the father (Orach Chayyim 343:1). The Magen Avraham (no. 1) writes resolutely that the mother is exempt. This requires further study, for the Magen Avraham himself was inclined to say that there is a mitzva to train one's daughter in the mitzvot. The exemption regarding daughters and the exemption regarding mothers were taught in the same passage in Nazir, and it is difficult to distinguish between them.Some understand Rashi as implying that the mitzva of chinukh is incumbent also on the mother (Chagiga 2a, s.v. eizehu katan). Some Acharonim (e.g., Orach Mishor, Nazir 29a) agree that even the mother is obligated to train her children in mitzvot. The Mishna Berura (no. 2) mentions both positions. In practice, it is clear that in a healthy family, the father and the mother share the educational responsibility of training their children in the performance of the mitzvot.
(Translated by David Strauss