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Halachic Perspectives on Chinuch

Jun 7, 2012

The Gemara (Yevamot 114a) presents a dispute at to whether one is obligated to stop a minor from transgressing a prohibition. The accepted opinion is that one is not obligated. Many Rishonim ask how this position can be reconciled with the obligation of chinuch. If one has to educate children in mitzvot, how can he stand idly by while a child transgresses a prohibition?

There are two basic approaches to this issue. The first is to modify our understanding of who is obligated in chinuch. Tosfot Yeshanim (Yoma 82a) and Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 17:27-28) explain that chinuch is incumbent only upon the father. Other members of society have no obligation of chinuch, and the Gemara’s discussion pertains only to these people. The father, who is obligated in chinuch, must in fact stop his own child from transgressing a prohibition.

The second approach is to modify our understanding of what areas fall under the rubric of chinuch. This is the approach adopted by the Sefer Yerei’im (cited by Tosfot Yeshanim Yoma 82a), who posits that chinuch does not apply at all to negative commandments. Thus, there is no contradiction between the obligation of chinuch and standing idly by while a minor transgresses a prohibition. According to this approach, even the father may allow his child to violate a prohibition.

On the surface, Tosafot Yeshanim’s distinction is easier to understand than the Sefer Yerei’im’s. Why should chinuch not apply to negative commandments? Some have explained based on a suggestion of the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Beresihit 46:7). He attempts to resolve Chazal’s statement that the avos observed the entire the Torah with pesukim that indicate otherwise. The Maharal suggests that the avos kept only positive commandments, not negative ones. He explains that there is no value in observing a negative commandment that one is not obligated in. Apparently, the Maharal understands that positive commandments have inherent value while negative commandments are valuable only inasmuch as they express subservience and obedience to the Divine will. If it makes no sense to volunteer to observe a negative commandment, there might be no obligation to educate children to keep them.

But even if the Maharal’s analysis of positive and negative commandments is correct, it seems insufficient to explain the Sefer Yerei’im’s distinction. If we assume that the structure of chinuch is based on pragmatic concerns of what accrues the most reward, then this analysis holds. But if, as is most intuitive, the goal of chinuch is to familiarize the child with the halachic observance, why should negative commandments be excluded? Both are equally important parts of an integrated life as an eved Hashem.

Perhaps we can cast the Maharal in a slightly different light. Indeed, both positive and negative commandments are fundamental to halachic observance. One has no right to be diligent and exacting with one while striving for mediocrity with the other. However, as the Maharal indicates, negative commandments are intended to facilitate subservience and obedience to the Divine will. Perhaps this responsibility is appropriate only for an adult, who has the cognitive ability and the maturity to understand it. A minor would not appreciate this responsibility and might even come to view it as a harsh burden. It thus would be counterproductive to train a child to keep negative commandments.

There is precedent for the notion that chinuch applies uniquely to each child according to his cognitive level. Even the Mishnah Berurah (343:3), who does not follow the view of the Sefer Yerei’im, writes that a father shouldn’t separate a child from transgression if the child is too young to realize that what he is doing is prohibited. Perhaps the Sefer Yerei’im simply is adopting an expansive application of this principle, positing that fundamentally, all children are too young to adequately understand the responsibility of negative commandments.

Practically speaking, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 343) codifies the first resolution offered by the Rishonim, namely, that chinuch is incumbent only upon the father and that it applies to negative commandments as well. The position that it applies to all members of society is quoted as a minority position. The Chayei Adam, cited by the Mishnah Berurah (343:7), writes that if a child is violating a Torah prohibition, we should be strict to assume that all members of society have the obligation of chinuch, and any person should stop the child. If, however, ithe child is violating only a rabbinic prohibition, the obligation of chinuch is assumed to devolve solely upon father.


References: Yevamot: 114a 

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