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Teaching Torah to One's Children

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Teaching Torah to One's Children

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent to bring him, and the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived" (45:27).

Rashi explains that Yosef was sending a sign to his father Yaakov. At the time they had separated so many years before, they had been studying together the law of the "egla arufa" (beheaded heifer - the atonement for a murder whose perpetrator is unknown). The wagon ("agala") was meant to remind Yaakov of the "egla." Tosafot, on the other hand, explain that they had been studying the laws pertaining to the wagons in the mishkan. Either way, the sign here was connected to the Torah study in which Yaakov and Yosef jointly had been engaged.

This is reminiscent of Onkelos' understanding of the phrase, "ben zekunim" (lit., son of his old age), which he takes to mean that Yosef was wise, in line with the midrash (84:8) quoted by Rashi:

"R. Nechemia said: All the laws that Shem and Ever had transmitted to him, Yaakov transmitted to Yosef."

The Ramban explains (37:3),

"He transmitted to him wisdom and secrets of the Torah, and found him to be as discerning and able to comprehend esoteric matters as though he were an elderly man."

The fact that Yosef chose to remind his father of their joint Torah study indicates how significant this activity is. What is its significance? First of all, there is an explicit halakhic aspect to it:

"Just as a person is obligated to teach his son, so he is obligated to teach his grandchild, as it is written: 'And you shall inform your children and your children's children.'" (Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:2, following Kiddushin 29b-30a)

But there is much more to it than just halakha. One of the sources for a father teaching his child is the command, "And you shall teach them diligently to your children" (Devarim 6:7). Thereafter we are told, "And you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and while you are walking on your way, and when you lie down and when you get up." We are commanded here to engage in Torah study in every place and in every situation; it is central to our lives and touches the soul. This indicates that teaching one's children likewise has an existential element to it, and goes beyond conveying information.

Another source for teaching one's children is to be found in Devarim 4:9-11:

"Only guard yourself and guard your soul greatly lest you forget the things... and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children, the day when you stood before Hashem your God at Chorev when Hashem said to me... and they shall teach their children."

Here, too, the intention is more than just teaching children the commandments and ensuring that they know them intellectually. Parents must convey the very experience of Sinai. The Torah is talking about a feeling, a commitment, and not just knowledge.

Thus, it appears that there is considerable existential significance to the fact that a parent teaches his child. Although the gemara (Bava Batra 21a) teaches that Yehoshua ben Gamla is remembered with favor for having established a network of educational institutions in which children studied from a young age, Rav Hutner explains that this innovation arose as the result of a situation which was less than ideal, where not every father managed to teach his children Torah, and not all children had fathers. Ideally, every father should teach his child himself. This has dual significance:

  1. If the child learns not in his own home but rather only in school or at yeshiva, then his academic experience is severed from his existential experience. The home is associated with food, shelter and other basic necessities, while study becomes an occupation that takes up part of his day, rather than an existential foundation of his life.
  2. Learning together strengthens and deepens the parent-child relationship. When a parent teaches a child, a powerful and profound bond is created between them. The gemara (Sota 36b) teaches that at the moment when Yosef was tempted to engage in relations with Potifar's wife, the image of Yaakov's face appeared to him. This does not mean that he was reminded of what his father had taught him, but rather that he was reminded of Yaakov himself and of the special bond between them. Yosef felt a closeness to his father, such that he could not engage in this sin.

The whole point of tradition is the handing down of Torah from one generation to the next. This creates an existential connection between parent and child. The gemara (Kiddushin 30a) emphasizes this existential issue:

"Anyone who teaches his grandchild Torah is considered as though he himself received the Torah at Har Sinai."

"And he saw the 'agalot'" - Yaakov was reminded of the son whom he had taught, and this is what revived his spirit. Yaakov had no alternative - there were no schools then, and only Yaakov could teach his child. However, as mentioned above, this situation has existential significance even when other possibilities do exist. Today, too, despite the generally accepted educational system, there is great importance attached to parents teaching their children. It is far easier for a parent to instill an existential commitment to Torah than for a school to instill it. Even if a parent is busy and occupied with many other concerns, and even if he has psychological difficulty teaching his child, still - there is nothing more important than this. How can the most important thing that a parent must transmit to his child, his principal task as a parent, be relegated to someone else?

Although it is not my habit to tell stories, let me conclude by sharing with you two memories.

I remember, at the age of eight, sitting in my father's lap and finishing learning Parashat Teruma. My father went into the kitchen and said to my mother, "Now I know what they do in Gan Eden - they sit and learn Torah with their children."

Another incident: When my sons were in high school in Netiv Meir, I used to go there to learn with them two evenings each week. One time, I was sitting and learning with one of my sons in the beit midrash there, and someone approached me and commented how impressed he was that I made the time to come and learn with my son. "Histakalti alav ke-ilu hu nafal min ha-yareach." (I looked at him as if he had fallen from the moon.) I responded, "MAKE TIME for this?! THIS is my priority, and I make time for other things."


(Delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Vayigash 5752 [1992].)


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