Who is Obligated in the Mitzva of Chinukh?

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


Although a katan less than 13 years old is exempt from mitzvot, the Rabbanan instituted a mitzva to train him in mitzva performance, - the mitzva of chinukh. Did the Chakhamim obligate the minor directly, and the father merely facilitates his son's obligation? Or did the Chakhamim impose the mitzva upon the father, perhaps as a component of the father's own mitzva fulfillment?

Rashi (Berakhot 48a) clearly states that the mitzva is imposed upon the parent and not the child, and the Ramban (comments to Megilla 4a) also indicates that the mitzva of chinukh is mandated to the parent and not the child. In fact, viewing the mitzva as incumbent upon the child is a very provocative concept. Since the mitzva of chinukh is clearly Rabbinic in nature, the notion of the Rabbanan introducing a halakhic mandate to a child who is otherwise exempt from the halakhic system is somewhat questionable. 

The most obvious nafka mina of this question surrounds the katan's ability to perform a mitzva on behalf of a gadol who is conventionally obligated in that mitzva. If the katan himself is obligated, he can potentially be motzi a gadol. However, if the katan is not personally obligated in the mitzva but is rather the subject of his father's mitzva, he may not be able to perform a mitzva on behalf of a gadol.

This question is debated by Tosafot and the Ramban in Berakhot. As noted above, the Ramban claims that the parent is obligated, not the child. Consequently, the child is not considered a bar chiyuva – someone who is obligated in the mitzva at some level – and he is therefore incapable of performing the mitzva on behalf of an obligated individual. Tosafot disagree, defining the mitzva as incumbent upon the child himself and therefore permitting the child to perform the mitzva on behalf of another. This is the most common application of the question regarding who is obligated to perform the mitzva of chinukh.

A second interesting consequence relates to who is obligated to perform or supervise the chinukh of a child. Specifically, are women obligated in the chinukh of their children? The simple reading of the gemara in Sukka (2b) implies that women are indeed obligated in chinukh. The gemara attempts to prove a law about the height of a sukka from the sukka built by Heleni Ha-Malka (a 1st century Assyrian Queen who along with her husband converted to Judaism along with her husband) for her younger children. The implication of this proof is that Heleni was actively involved in the chinukh of her children. Several Rishonim – including Rashi (Chagiga 2a) and Tosafot (Yoma 82a) – claim that a woman is not, in fact, obligated to train her child in chinukh. Queen Heleni was supervising her children's chinukh even though she was not obligated to do so.

Perhaps this question as to who is obligated to dispense chinukh depends upon whom the Chakhamim obligated as the primary subject of the mitzva. If the Chakhamim obligated the child and the parent merely facilitates the child in his obligation, it makes little sense to distinguish between father and mother. The father is not obligated per se, but rather assists his child in the execution of that child's mitzva; in her role as co-parent, a mother should bear equal responsibility. Alternatively, if the Chakhamim directly obligated a father, perhaps this obligation (like many obligations) was not extended to the mother. It is certainly still possible that chinukh is a direct obligation on a father and is equally imposed upon a mother. However, many Rishonim exempt the mother from chinukh, and it is highly likely that they viewed the mitzva as a direct responsibility upon the parent.

Can the mitzva of chinukh be extended to other supervising parties aside from a parent? Tosafot (Nazir 28b) and the Terumat Ha-Deshen (siman 98) claim that Beit Din is also obligated in the mitzva of chinukh. However, Tosafot (ibid.) and the Rema (Yoreh Deah 343:1) cite opinions who disagree and limit the mitzva exclusively to a parent. Once again, if the mitzva is primarily incumbent upon the child and the parent is merely assisting the child, it would be logical to extend the role of facilitator to any person or institution authorized to assist in general religious experiences. In fact, some actually consider extending the mitzva to a teacher. Alternatively, if the primary mitzva is mandated to a parent (even if a mother is included), it is unlikely that the mitzva would be imposed upon non-parents.

An additional question surrounds the level of accuracy to which chinukh must be performed. Must the halakhically accurate mitzva be performed, or can any activity that builds general awareness be classified as chinukh? For example, many people purchase non-kosher etrogim or even lemons for their children on Sukkot. In this case, the legal mitzva has not been performed, but the child has certainly gained awareness and appreciation for the mitzva. Does this entail a legal chinukh fulfillment? The Ritva (Sukka 2b) claims that it does not, and he bases his position upon the aforementioned gemara in Sukka that derives general sukka laws from the sukka that Heleni Ha-Malka erected for her chinukh-aged children. By contrast, Rashi (Chaggiga 6a) implies that any awareness-building that will ultimately facilitate FUTURE mitzva performance qualifies as chinukh.

If the Rabbanan obligated the child in this mitzva, presumably they obligated him to fulfill the classic performance of an accurate ma'aseh mitzva. If, by contrast, the Rabbanan did not (or could not) generate a mitzva obligation for a katan, perhaps they imposed general educational responsibilities upon the father. Even if every detail is not performed correctly, the educational process that will one day enable accurate performance has been performed.

Finally, the popular minhag to recite a berakha upon the completion of chinukh – when the son becomes a bar mitzva – may indicate that the father is the primary subject of the mitzva. The source for the berakha is a midrash (Bereishit Rabba 63) that is cited by the Rema (Orach Chaim 225:2). The berakha declares that the father is now excused from his child's onesh (punishment) since he is no longer obligated in chinukh. This implies that during the chinukh years, the father received punishments for his child's religious underperformance. If the child is the primary subject of the mitzva and the father merely helps him dispense his obligations, it is unlikely that a father would be punished for his son's underperformance. If, however, the father is the primary subject, perhaps he receives punishment for failure to successfully provide chinukh, just as he would receive punishment for failure to properly execute other mitzvot that he is obligated to perform.

Of course, the source for this berakha is non-halakhic, and the evolution of this berakha is minhag driven. It may be difficult to derive halakhic information from a practice that is not grounded in the halakhic system.