The mitzvah of chinuch, educating our children in general, and specifically initiating them into keeping mitzvos, is among the central elements of the Jewish people.

In one of the first encounters between Hashem and Avraham Avinu, Hashem states that He chose Avraham, “so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem by doing what is right and just” (Bereishis 18:19). Throughout the generations, educating the next generation has been at the forefront of the Jewish mindset, and at the top of our collective list of priorities.

Central in chinuch is chinuch for mitzvos. Although the ideal is that our performance of mitzvos should draw upon an internal depth and awareness of the meaning of the mitzvos and their significance in serving Hashem, we also know how important it is to  simply get used to the daily, monthly and annual order of mitzvah performance. Before we inject the deeper meaning into mitzvos, we need to simply perform them. This depends on the training for mitzvos we receive as children.

But from which age is it appropriate to begin educating children for mitzvah performance? The age from which parents are obligated to train their children in mitzvos is a subject of some controversy among Poskim, who mention a variety of ages. The following is a sample of opinions:

  • Tzitzis (talis): 9 years old (Magen Avraham 16); 6-7, depending on keenness of the child (Bach, Orach Chaim 16, Ben Ish Chai, Lech Lecha)
  • Benching: 9-10 (Magen Avraham 199)
  • Kiddush: 6-7, depending on keenness (Mishnah Berurah 269); 5-6 (Pri Megadim 269; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa 2, 48:9)
  • Kriyas Shema: 6-7, depending on keenness (Mishnah Berurah 70:6)
  • Lulav and Esrog: 6 (Taz 657; Shut Chasam Sofer 99)
  • 4 Cups of Seder Night: 5-6 (Chok Yaakov 472)

In the present article we will therefore try to organize the matter of the appropriate age for beginning to educate children in mitzvah performance. What are the basic criteria that determine the age of chinuch? How are these criteria applied to the mitzvos mentioned above, as well as to others? How significant is the keenness of the child in question?

These questions, and other related issues, are discussed below.

The Age for Sitting in a Sukkah

One of the sources for the age of chinuch, relates to the mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah: From which age must a child sit in a Sukkah?

The Gemara (Eruvin 82a) discusses this question and gives the following answer: A child must dwell in a Sukkah from the time that he does not need his mother (at night). The Gemara states the age at which this degree of maturity is reached: 4-5 years old for a child whose father is in town, and 6 years old for a child whose father is not in town.

This is certainly a young age relative to some of the ages mentioned by Poskim concerning chinuch for other mitzvos. But a closer inspection shows that according to certain Tanaim there is no minimum age at all for Sukkah!

The Gemara (Sukkah 28b) tells of how Shammai used to behave with special care concerning chinuch in the mitzvah of Sukkah: He made a special arrangement so that even a newborn infant would be able to be in a Sukkah. This appears odd: Is there any chinuch in placing a newborn in a Sukkah?

The Ritva explains that although the Rabbis disputed this stringency, the discussion was not over the general issue of a child’s chinuch, but rather over the particular question of Sukkah:

“The true explanation is that Shammai was stringent in the rabbinic obligation of chinuch and was careful that the infant should eat in the Sukkah, because he is able to do so. For this is the halacha in every mitzvah: the obligation of chinuch begins when the child is able to perform the mitzvah. The Rabbis maintained that because his mother is exempt from Sukkah, an infant is also exempt from the mitzvah as long as he remains dependent on his mother, because we may not separate him from his mother.”

The Ritva explains that in principle, all parents are obligated in chinuch for even a newborn babe. The only reason this may not be true (concerning Sukkah) is the child’s dependence on his mother, and his resultant inability to perform the mitzvah at such an age. Shammai, however, considered a newborn fit to perform the mitzvah of Sukkah (because all he needs to do is to be in the Sukkah), and he was therefore particular in chinuch even concerning a newborn infant.

Different Ages for Different Mitzvos

Concerning other mitzvos, we find a range of minimum ages, as noted above in the introduction. For example, concerning zimun, the Rashba (as cited by the Beis Yosef, 199:10) explains that a child can join a zimun group only from the age of 9-10, since prior to this age he is not included in the mitzvah of chinuch. The Beis Yosef adds that according to the Rambam, the age for chinuch is 7-8, whereas according to the Rivash the age is 6-7.

These ages, and other ages given for various mitzvos, do not involve a contradiction with chinuch for the mitzvah of Sukkah, for as the Gemara itself implies, the age for chinuch is based on the specifics of the mitzvah.

Citing a Beraisa, the Gemara (Sukkah 42a; see also Erchin 2b) writes: “[A child] who knows how to shake the lulav is obligated in shaking; to wrap himself in a Talis is obligated in Tzitzis; to guard his Tefillin, his father buys him Tefillin; who knows how to speak, his father teaches him Torah and Krias Shema.”

The implication is that the age of chinuch fluctuates, depending on the mitzvah and the ability of a child to perform it.

This, indeed, emerges from the wording of the Ritva (Sukkah 28b), who notes that the obligation of chinuch begins when the child can perform the mitzvah, and he explains that “the age at which a child reaches chinuch is not equal for all places, but varies according to the matter in which one must train him.” The Ritva distinguishes between the age for fasting on Yom Kippur, for Sukkah, and for Tefillin, concluding that “the same is true for all mitzvos.”

The Ran (to Sukkah 28a) echoes this explanation, and the Ritva repeats his position in a responsum (no. 96). According to this interpretation, the ages of 6-7 (cited from the Rivash by the Beis Yosef) will therefore apply specifically to berachos. For each mitzvah, we must determine the age from which a child is worthy of training. For berachos, the time of chinuch begins when a child knows to Whom he blesses. The minimum age for this level of understanding is 6-7 according to some, or 9-10 according to others.

Who, then, is the katan she-higia le-chinuch—the “child who has reached chinuch” that Chazal sometimes refer to (see Chagigah 4b; Megillah 19b)? According to the above, it depends on the context. Indeed, Tosafos (Sukkah 28b) state explicitly that the concept of a “child who has reached chinuch” does not refer to a uniform age. Everything depends on the particular mitzvah involved.

Thus concerning Sukkah, a child can perform the mitzvah at a relatively young age: according to Shammai from birth, and according to the Rabbis from the age of 4-5. In order to make a berachah, however, a child must understand to Whom we bless, for without this understanding a berachah is meaningless. Therefore, the chinuch for berachos only begins later, at ages 6-7 (Rivash), 7-8 (Rambam), or 9-10 (Rashba).

Fixed or Fluctuating?

The Rashba, however, adopts a different approach. As the Beis Yosef says, the Rashba maintains that there is a general minimum age for all mitzvos, which he gives (based on the Rif) as being 9-10. How can this opinion explain the younger ages found in the mitzvah of Sukkah, and the apparent fluctuation implied by the Beraisa?

The Rashba (Berachos 20a) himself offers a novel approach to solve the problem: On the one hand, there is a minimum age for chinuch, which applies generally to all mitzvos. Yet on the other, there are exceptions to the rule. For certain mitzvos, such as Sukkah, we are obligated to train children even before they have reached the general age of chinuch.

It appears that all of the mitzvos mentioned in the Beraisa, such as Lulav, Tefillin, Tzitzis, and so on, are thus exceptions to the general rule.

We thus have two fundamental approaches to the age of chinuch. According to the Ritva and Ran, there is no general age of at which a child becomes a barchinuch. Everything depends on the ability of children to perform the specific mitzvah. For Sukkah, the age might be four, for berachos nine, and for other mitzvos something in between. According to the Rashba, however, there is a fixed age for chinuch, with a number of exceptions.

How does the Shulchan Aruch rule concerning this? Concerning Lulav, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 657) rules that one should buy his son a Lulav from whenever the son is able to shake. This of course is taught by the Beraisa, so that all agree to the ruling.

The Shulchan Aruch (658:6) warns further that one should not give over possession of the Lulav to the minor (on the first day of Sukkos), for he will be unable to give it back to his father. This seems to imply that the minor referred can be younger than onas ha-pe’utos—younger than the age of chinuch for berachos (though see also Taz 657, who offers a different approach).

But is Lulav an exception to the rule, as the Rashba states, or is Lulav the general rule: that for all mitzvos the age of chinuch depends on the child’s ability to perform the mitzvah?

The Age of Chinuch for Matzah and Other Mitzvos

There is no explicit ruling on this question in the Shulchan Aruch. Nevertheless, it is significant to note that the Shulchan Aruch does not cite the fixed age of the Rashba for any mitzvah. Even with regard to berachos, concerning which the Beis Yosef notes the ruling of the Rashba, the Shulchan Aruch favors the age of onas ha-pe’utos mentioned by the Rivash (6-7) over the age of 9-10 mentioned by the Rashba. It seems therefore that the Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the other rishonim we have mentioned, who maintain that the age of chinuch always varies from mitzvah to mitzvah.

This dispute has ramifications. For example, from which age must we train our children to eat matzah—from the age at which a child is able to chew and swallow the required amount, or from the age of nine?

We find no ruling on this matter in the Shulchan Aruch. The Rambam, however, is explicit: “A minor who is able to eat bread—we train him in mitzvos and we give him a kezais of matzah to eat” (Chametz and Matzah 6:10). The age of chinuch for matzah, in accordance with the principles we have seen, begins whenever a child is able to consume matzah. Why, however, does the Shulchan Aruch not mention this important ruling?

It is possible that for the Shulchan Aruch the mere ability to physically perform the mitzvah is not sufficient to obligate parents in chinuch. Only if the child can perform the mitzvah in the fullest sense does chinuch apply.

For instance, the Rema (Orach Chayim 17:3) writes that chinuch in Tzitzis does not begin until the child is able to ensure that two of the tzitzis fall at his front, and two at his back, and to hold them up during Kriyas Shema. In a similar vein, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 657:1) writes that chinuch for Lulav only begins when a child is able to shake the Lulav “according to its laws.” This refers to shaking the Lulav in the six directions of the world, implying a higher age that the mere ability to simply hold a Lulav. The Beraisa itself refers to “shaking” the Lulav, rather than merely holding it.

The Child’s Understanding

The Mishnah Berurah (343:3) adds another point concerning the age at which chinuch begins: the child’s understanding. Dwelling on chinuch for the mitzvah of Kiddush, he writes that “the time of chinuch for positive mitzvos is for each child according to his keenness and knowledge in each area and field, so that a child who understands the matter of Shabbos must be trained to hear Kiddush and Havdalah, and somebody who knows to wear a tallis properly must be trained in Tzitzis, and so on, both for a Torah mitzvah and for rabbinic mitzvos.”

This requirement of understanding is found in some other authorities too (for instance, see Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 472:4, concerning the Four Cups of Seder Night; see also Mekor Chayim 269). Although the sources we have seen above do not mention this factor, we can explain the need for the child to understand what he’s doing based on the general reasoning about the time chinuch begins: the mitzvah of chinuch begins when the child is able to perform the mitzvah in a complete sense. This complete performance, we can argue, requires a degree of understanding.

However, we have seen that according to the Ritva, it is possible even for a newborn infant to obligate parents in chinuch. Chinuch, according to the Ritva, is a matter of training for the basic physical performance of the mitzvah and does not require any level of understanding—except for berachos, for a beracha can only be performed as such when the person making it knows to Whom we bless.

Conclusion

A comprehensive analysis of the age of chinuch for mitzvos, including the many different mitzvos to which Poskim have given their attention, is beyond the scope of this article. Indeed, there are several mitzvos that raise specific issues we have not even touched upon, such as the ages for fasting on Yom Kippur, the age for adhering to prohibitions, and the age for not drinking wine in the Nine Days.

In the present article, our aim is only to present a basic analysis of the underlying principles of chinuch, and to see how these principles are expressed in some concrete examples.

In particular, it is important to note that according to one basic approach, the obligation of chinuch depends primarily on the child’s ability to perform the mitzvah, that is, from when he can begin to get used to doing it. We have seen that this is the opinion of the Rambam concerning eating matzah, and his ruling is cited by the Chayei Adam (66).

Whenever our children reach the ages at which they can perform mitzvos, we must therefore be aware of the possible obligation to train them in their performance.

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