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?
No Name Please
Answer: It is a tragedy that your children’s father is not involved in their lives. Due to his lack of interest in them, you are left bearing all the responsibilities. You clearly intimate that you view educating one’s young children as the sole province of the father. The question is how halacha views this matter.
The mishnah on Kiddushin 29a states: “Men are bound by, but women are exempt from, all mitzvot of the son upon the father. Both men and women, however, are bound by all mitzvot of the father upon the son.” The Gemara seeks to clarify what the mishnah means. Surely it doesn’t mean that only sons, but not daughters, are duty-bound to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em. The Gemara, therefore, explains that the mishnah means to say that only men, not women, are bound by mitzvot that are incumbent upon a father to his son.
The Gemara then lists the responsibilities of a father implied by the mishnah: “The father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem his [first born] son [from the kohen – pidyon haben], to teach him Torah, to marry him [find him a wife], teach him a trade [that would lead to gainful employment], and some even say to teach him how to swim. R. Yehudah adds: One who fails to teach his son a trade teaches him thievery.” The Gemara asks: “Do it really mean thievery? Rather, it is as if he taught him thievery.”
The Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 245:1-6) rules accordingly that it is a biblical requirement for a father to educate his son in the study (and ways) of Torah when the son begins to talk. When the son reaches age six or seven, the father is required to engage a teacher and pay the his wages if that is the local custom (and if the father is unable to teach his son himself). It would thus seem clear that the father bears sole responsibility to educate his children from the standpoint of halacha.
Yet there are authorities that opine otherwise. The Meiri (Nazir 29) asserts that from the Gemara in Nazir (28b-29a) we can infer that, at least according to R. Yochanan, a woman does bear responsibility for educating her children as well. (R. Yochanan and argues with Resh Lakish about a father’s right in designating his child a nazir.)
In fact, the Shita Mekubbetzes (Nazir ad loc.) cites a Gemara (Sukkah 2b) that relates that Queen Helena trained her minor children to eat in the sukkah, thus indicating that a mother is also obligated to educate her children in the performance of mitzvot.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.