Links in the Chain: On Educating Children

Dear Josep,

I remember you telling me once that one of the things you liked about Jews and Judaism was the strong emphasis on education and love of learning. Jewish literacy rates were always significantly higher than those of the surrounding populations, and it all comes down to the fact that teaching our children is one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Combine that with the love of delving into the depths of the Torah that characterized our ancestors, and it’s no wonder there’s a completely out-of-the-park disproportionate representation of Jews in the sciences and other fields that require a lot of study.

As with everything, the Sages guide us in how to properly educate our children and raise them to serve God and be good Jews and good people.

You asked me last year about a few things that stood out to you in my kids’ appearance, and I was going to write you an e-mail on “boy mitzvot”, but that will pull me into the topic of gender and Judaism and I just don’t feel like opening that can of worms right about now. 😛

So there were two things you pointed out: the payot, “sidecurls”:

R1's are particularly impressive :)
R1’s are particularly impressive 🙂

And tzitziyot, the four-cornered garment worn underneath the shirt with fringes on each corner:

tzitziyot

When you see a Jewish boy with these things, he is probably over three years old. Why? Because age three is what we call gil chinuch–the “age of education”. It is when we start teaching them about the Torah and the mitzvot. There is a custom to let their hair grow out until the third birthday, so that we can cut it that day to teach them about the mitzvah of payot; the prohibition to shave that area above and behind the ears to create a rounded shape–because this was a symbol of idolatrous practices back in the day. (The payot don’t need to be that long, but like with beards, growing them out is an outward symbol of piety.) We also have them start wearing tzitziyot and kippot* at this age. These are all highly visual and experiential mitzvot that make the children look and feel different, and that’s why they’re the best ones to start with.

The mitzvah of tzitzit is sourced in the third chapter of the Shema prayer: “‘Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that they make, throughout their generations, fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you a fringe, so that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and so that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray; so that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.” (Numbers 15:38-40) So the very idea of this commandment is that it is a visual reminder of God’s presence… sort of the clothing version of the mezuza. 😉

Kippot are actually not a Biblical commandment and even rabbinically they are only required when studying Torah or praying. The idea is modesty before God when speaking of Him. But today most observant Jewish men wear them all the time, and they have become an expression of Jewish identity, to a point where not wearing one is considered to be making a statement. So practically speaking we think of it as a requirement.

Anyway, back to chinuch. Age three is also when we start teaching them to recite blessings and basic prayers, and to light candles for Shabbat. Observant Judaism is so complex and there are so many details, we don’t try to give it all over at once; we introduce things slowly and organically. You probably don’t remember when we were walking home from the playground on Shabbat and one of my kids picked up a coin that was on the ground; I mentioned that we are not allowed to carry money on Shabbat, and you asked if you should take it from him, and I said no. I don’t want them to experience Shabbat as something restrictive and harsh, so I choose my battles carefully. Children are not obligated in mitzvot until their bar or bat mitzvah–at age 12 for girls and 13 for boys. In Judaism, this is the age where they become morally responsible for themselves. By this age, of course, most of them have been keeping all the mitzvot for years, with the possible exception of fasting on fast days.

I was thinking about this lately as I listened to H and R1 recite the blessing over tzitzit in the morning. There is a concept in Yiddish and Hebrew that is not quite translatable into English, called nachat (or naches in Yiddish); it’s that sense of contented joy and pride you get when your children or other loved ones live up to your hopes for them and “do you proud”. That’s what I feel when I hear the sweet voices of my children reciting that blessing. Slowly, carefully, I am taking this precious gift passed down to me through hundreds of generations starting at Mount Sinai, and passing it on to my own children; becoming a link in the chain that roots us in the past and raises us towards the future.

May you have lots and lots of nachat from raising your own son. 🙂

Love,

Daniella

***

*Kippot is the plural of kippah, also known in Yiddish as a yarmulke; a special cap that Jewish men wear. Josep knows all about this and owns at least one, which he likes to wear when he is here and confuse all my neighbors. 😛

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