(from the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l)
The Nature of the Mitzva to Educate Children- part II
(condensed from Amud Hay’mini, siman 54)
[We saw last time that there are two elements to the mitzva of chinuch (educating a minor): to get him cognitively accustomed to the mitzva and to expose him to the spiritual elevation which surrounds a mitzva even when he is not capable of appreciating it cognitively. We saw distinctions between the responsibility of a father in chinuch and that of a mother or beit din.]
We find several examples of the mitzva of chinuch before the child is capable to understand a thing. Shamai required bringing even the smallest of infants to the sukka (others argued because of the child’s dependency on his mother), despite the fact that he does not understand what is happening (Sukka 28a; see Ran, ad loc., contradicting P’nei Yehoshua and Rashash). The Yerushalmi (Chagiga 1:1) requires babies to be brought to Yerushalayim for the regel. Also, the gemara, describing the different stages when a child is obligated in various mitzvot (Sukka 42a) does so based on their ability to fulfill the physical requirements of each specific mitzva, not based on the cognitive level, which probably does not change from mitzva to mitzva.
On the other hand, there are also examples of chinuch which depend on the ability of the child to understand. It appears clear that when the mitzva is performed without the child being able to understand it, the child is not considered the one who is obligated and is fulfilling the mitzva. Rather, the educator is the one who performs the mitzva in regard to the child [as we brought last week in regard to hakhel]. On the other hand, we find that a minor can fulfill the mitzva of Birkat Hamazone on behalf of an adult who is obligated on a rabbinic level (Berachot 20b). This implies that the minor himself has an obligation on a rabbinic level. We saw [last week] that there may be chinuch for positive mitzvot, but not for negative ones, or by the father but not the mother. On the level of spiritual effect, it should not make a difference who prevents the child from the violation or whether his father or mother educates him. Therefore, these distinctions must relate to the cognitive level, where the father’s education for positive mitzvot has a special impact. The developing child and the father share in this obligation. The mother and father are equally obligated to care for exposure of the child to mitzvot in the non-cognitive realm, in those areas that this applies. Beit din, while charged with preventing sinners from sinning, are not obligated to ensure that children, who are not characterized as sinners, do not violate prohibitions.
The distinction between a child’s obligation and the parents’ explains a difficult Rashi. The gemara (Megilla 19b) says that a minor can read the megilla for others when he reaches the age of chinuch. Rashi says that this from the age of 9. But we find minors obligated in other mitzvot before age 9, and we are obviously talking about a child who is capable of performing the mitzva (or the question would be moot)!? The answer is that we are talking about the age where the chinuch is the child’s own mitzva, not his parents’. Only then can he be considered obligated and be able to fulfill the mitzva for others. This is the age of cognition for mitzvot, which Rashi learns from chinuch for fasting on Yom Kippur. Apparently, since the food itself is not a prohibited item on Yom Kippur, but the timing is the issue, there is only a cognitive mitzva to keep a minor away from eating, and the age of 9 is related to general cognition.