Hashem said to Moshe, “Speak to the kohanim, sons of Aharon. . .”
Rashi: To warn the adults concerning the young.
The Age of Chinuch
The age from which parents are obligated to train their children in mitzvos is a subject of a fascinating dispute among rishonim. Ritva, who discusses the issue in two distinct places, states as follows:
The age at which a child reaches chinuch is not equal for all matters, but varies according to the matter in which one must train him. There is one age for [fasting on] Yom Kippur, a different age for Sukkah. … Concerning Lulav the time of chinuch is given as a child who knows how to shake a Lulav, and for Tefillin the age at which a child can behave properly while wearing his Tefillin. The same is true for all mitzvos. (( Sukkah 28b; see also responsum 96. ))
According to Ritva, and a number of concurring authorities, (( See, for instance, Ran, Sukkah loc. cit.; see also Rambam, Laws of Chametz and Matzah 6:10, concerning the age of chinuch for the consumption of Matzah.)) there is no fixed age for cihnuch. Everything depends on the specific mitzvah and the ability of the child to perform it properly.
Thus, although the Gemara gives the age for educating a child in Sukkah as young as four or five years old, (( For a child whose father is with him; for a child whose father is not with him, the age is given as six years old.)) the age for educating a child in making a quorum for zimun can be as late as nine or ten years old. (( For a child whose father is with him; for a child whose father is not with him, the age is given as six years old.)) The difference between the two is clear: whereas a relatively young child is able to sit in a Sukkah, the ability to being a member of a quorum for zimun depends on knowing to Whom we bless. (( For a child whose father is with him; for a child whose father is not with him, the age is given as six years old.)) There is no reason for which the two ages should be the same.
Rashba, however, sees the age of chinuch in an altogether different light. In his opinion, (( Quoted in Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 199.)) there is a set age for chinuch of mitzvos, which is fixed at nine-ten years old, depending on the keenness of the child. According to Rashba, those mitzvos in which a different stage of development is mentioned are exceptions to the rule. (( Rashba, Berachos 20a.)) As a rule, a child beneath the age of nine is beneath the age of chinuch.
What is the depth behind this most fundamental dispute?
Training or Teaching
The question, it would appear, is whether we consider chinuch in mitzvos as ‘training’ for the performance of mitzvos, or ‘teaching’ children how mitzvos are performed.
According to Ritva, chinuch means training children in the performance of the mitzvos. As soon as the child is able to perform the mitzvah, we are obligated to begin training him in keeping mitzvos, irrespective of his intellectual level. Based on Shammai, who placed a newborn baby in the Sukkah, Ritva goes so far as to state that the concept of chinuch can be theoretically applied even to a small infant. (( Rashba, Berachos 20a.)) Even though we don’t follow the opinion of Shammai, his idea sheds light on the general concept. The idea is that by training him to keep the mitzvos, we hope that the child will continue to perform in adulthood, adding depth and perception to the deeds he already performs.
According to Rashba, however, the concept of chinuch is not merely training the child in the performance of physical deeds. Before the mitzvah of chinuch applies, a child must reach a certain level of maturity and understanding. The point is not so much to get him used to doing physical actions, but to impress upon him that the physical actions he performs have deep meaning.
Mitzvos are unlike all other physical activity; they are mitzvos, great acts of serving Hashem, performing His will as instructed in the Holy Torah. According to Rashba, chinuch is not only training, but also teaching: only training that teaches is considered chinuch.
Positive and Negative Chinuch
While we do not follow the opinion of Rashba that chinuch commences generally at the age of nine, the Mishnah Berurah, it would seem, finds room in the definitions of chinuch for both outlooks.
Concerning a number of Positive Commandments, Mishnah Berurah writes that the age of chinuch commences when a child is able to understand the action that he is doing. Only when a child understands something of the concept of Shabbos does he reach the age of chinuch for Kiddush. (( Rashba, Berachos 20a.)) A similar concept is mentioned by the Baal Ha-Tanya, who writes that chinuch for Kiddush on Yom Tov begins only after a child appreciates Kedushas Yom-Tov. (( Rashba, Berachos 20a.))
This ruling reflects the ‘teaching’ aspect of chinuch. We wish to educate our children is performing meaningful actions. Before a child appreciates the basic meaning behind a mitzvah, the concept of chinuch does not apply.
With regard to Negative Commandments, however, Mishnah Berurah writes that the age of chinuch begins as soon as the child is able to obey instructions. (( Rashba, Berachos 20a.)) Here, no understanding of the matter is required. There are some things that we do not do, and chinuch concerning them begins as soon as the child understands that “no means no.” (( Mishnah Berurah, loc. cit.))
We thus find an interesting dichotomy. With regard to positive actions, chinuch is defined in terms of meaningful actions, with regard to abstaining from negative actions, the definition is obedience. On the one hand, we train; on the other, we teach. This, indeed, is the dual G-d-given role of every parent. On the one hand, we must be teachers. On the other, we are trainers.
May we merit to teach and train our children in the ways of the Torah. Both Hashem and we should see much nachas from them.