Question: I am a single mother of young children. Their father has shirked all his responsibilities to them. I do my best for my children, but it isn’t easy. Isn’t their father in serious violation of the Torah by neglecting his children and not making any effort to provide them an education?
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Answer: Last week we learned from a mishnah (Kiddushin 29a) that a father has certain exclusive responsibilities to his children. One of those responsibilities is teaching them Torah. The Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 245:1-6) states that it is a Bbblical requirement for the father to educate his son himself or hire a teacher. The Meiri (Nazir 29) learns from R. Yochanan that besides for designating a child a nazir, a woman shares the obligations of child rearing, including education, with her husband. The Shitah Mekubetzes (Nazir ad loc.) cites the Gemara (Sukkah 2b) about Queen Helena training her minor children to eat in the sukkah, indicating that a mother is also obligated to educate her children in the performance of mitzvot.
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While in agreement that a mother bears responsibility to educate her children, many commentators (Meromei Sadeh, Keren Orah, Chidushei Orach Mishor, and Hagahot Birkat Rosh to Nazir 28b) distinguish between obligatory precepts and discretionary precepts.
Without a doubt, they note, a mother is obligated to train her children to fulfill commandments, but only in the performance of precepts (such as sukkah) that they will be obligated to perform when they reach maturity. That’s why a mother cannot make her son a nazir as there is no obligation for a person to become one.
Indeed, from the Torah’s words (Numbers 6:2), “ish o isha ki yafli lindor neder nazir – a man or a woman who shall dissociate him or herself by taking a nazirite vow of abstinence,” it is clear that one effects nezirut purely at one’s own discretion, in order to seek perfection and refinement. One of the paths to refinement is this optional mitzvah – an exercise in abstinence and self-discipline for one who wishes to live a life of purity and sanctity. If a parent wishes to effect this level of sanctity and abstinence upon a child as a means of imparting those unique qualities in him, it may be done – however, only by the father.
Chidushei Orach Mishor (Rabbi Yochanan Kremnitzer, cited above to Nazir 29) goes even further and explains that a mother’s only obligation is to train her children in positive precepts, mitzvot aseh, but not prohibitory precepts, mitzvot lo ta’aseh.
Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky (novella to Nazir) explains this matter differently. He argues that, in fact, a father is not obligated to train his children in the performance of commandments; rather he bears personal responsibility for their transgressions. A father incurs punishment for his children’s transgressions because they are considered his own. This is implied by the blessing a father recites at his son’s bar mitzvah: “Baruch she’petarani me’onsho shelazeh – Blessed is He Who has absolved me from the punishment due this one.” Thus, it is in the father’s interest to train his children in mitzvot.
A mother, on the other hand, while obligated to educate and train her children in the performance of mitzvot, bears no personal responsibility for their transgressions.
Rabbi Grozovsky further argues that a mother lacks the authority to declare a nazirite vow for her son because one cannot impose a vow on another person. How, then, is a father capable of imposing such a vow? The answer lies in the unique relationship the Torah vests in a father. Since a father is responsible for his son’s transgressions, the son is deemed an extension of his father in this regard; he is not considered a separate person. Therefore, just as a father is able to render himself a nazir, he may render his son a nazir.
I would like to add that the Torah and our sages place the responsibility of chinuch on fathers because they might at times shirk their responsibility. As to mothers, there really is no need to place the full responsibility of chinuch on them because they will naturally involve themselves in this task in any event. In fact, mothers will go to great lengths in this regard. Indeed, this is one of the reasons women are not obligated in time-related precepts – because of their all time-consuming responsibilities in the home.