Thoughts on Chinuch

Since this week’s parsha discusses the Tochacha, whose entire purpose is the education of the Jewish people, it is certainly an appropriate time to discuss:

Thoughts on Chinuch

Question #1: Chinuch or Myself?

Is it better to train my children to do hachnasas orchim, or to do the mitzvah myself?

Question #2: Who Pays?

Whose responsibility is it to pay for the Torah education of those children whose parents cannot afford it?

Question #3: Tongue in Cheek

What delicacy should one ideally serve one’s guests?


The Torah teaches that Avraham Avinu ran to his cattle to shecht fresh meat for his guests. According to the Gemara (Bava Metzia 86b), which Rashi quotes, he slaughtered not one, but three animals, in order to serve a delicacy to each of his guests – an entire tongue, prepared and served with mustard. I have been told that there was an old custom to serve tongue as a delicacy for Yom Tov meals, particularly when having guests. (I am disappointed to note that I do not think I have ever been the guest of people who have that custom. Do you know anyone who observes it, and can you figure out how to get me invited?)

In the context of this discussion, Rashi is bothered by a question. Immediately after Avraham Avinu slaughters the bulls, while he is acting with total alacrity to perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, the pasuk notes that he gave them to “the lad.” The question is: Avraham Avinu was a very wealthy man, with many servants who could have taken care of his guests. Obviously, he wanted to perform the mitzvah himself (mitzvah bo yoseir mibeshelucho, see Kiddushin 41a). If this is true, why did he give this part of the mitzvah to someone else?

Rashi, quoting the Midrash Rabbah, explains that “the lad” is Yishmael, and that Avraham’s goal was to train him in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. How does Rashi know this? The answer is that otherwise Avraham Avinu would not have allowed someone else to participate in the mitzvah. For this reason, even those who can afford household help should make the beds and prepare the meals for guests, so that they can perform the mitzvah themselves.

Rashi’s explanation assumes that the mitzvah of training your children to perform mitzvos is more important than doing the mitzvah yourself, and therefore the na’ar must have been Yishmael.

From this it would appear that we see an important lesson in chinuch. Often we could gain much more spiritually by performing a mitzvah ourselves than by spending time training our children to do the mitzvah. But some authorities rule that it is our halachic responsibility to train our child, even when we seem to gain less spiritually as a result. As we will soon see, not everyone agrees with this assessment.

Chinuch Controversy

When the Gemara in Bava Metzia discusses Avraham’s interaction with the angels, it makes the following statement: “Whatever Avraham did for the angels by himself, Hakodosh Boruch Hu later performed for his children Himself, and whatever Avraham did via an agent, Hakodosh Boruch Hu performed for his children via an agent.” Thus, the Gemara implies that there is criticism of Avraham for not doing these mitzvos himself.

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that, indeed, Avraham Avinu felt that he should include Yishmael actively in the mitzvah. However, the Gemara is teaching that it would have been better chinuch for Yishmael to see Avraham Avinu perform all the chesed himself and not discharge some of the responsibility (Dorash Moshe, new edition).

Chinuch or Myself?

We can now address our opening question: Is it better to train my children to do hachnasas orchim, or to do the mitzvah myself?

According to Rav Moshe, it is better to do the mitzvah myself in a way that my child knows that I am doing it. I should have the child involved when I cannot perform all the chesed myself in an efficient way.

Partners in alacrity

We should note that the wording of the Midrash Rabbah varies slightly from what Rashi writes. The Midrash Rabbah states vayitein el hanaar zeh Yishmael bishvil lezarzo bemitzvos, which translates as “And he gave it to the lad – this was Yishmael – in order to have him treat mitzvos with alacrity.” Whereas when Rashi quotes this, he says simply lechancho bamitzvos, “to train him in mitzvos.” The Midrash adds another lesson. Avraham Avinu was not only training Yishmael to perform hachnasas orchim himself, but he wanted him to learn to do it with zerizus, promptly and with enthusiasm. Avraham Avinu felt that although one usually teaches best by way of example, a child learns the way of his parents not only by observation, but also by participation. When a child becomes a partner in his parents’ chesed endeavors, the child’s learns to become a zariz in chesed.

His brothers or his sons?

We find a similar lesson borne out in another Midrash Rabbah. The pasuk in Bereishis (31:46) teaches that to make a covenant with Lavan, Yaakov told “his brothers” to take stones. Midrash Rabbah (74:13) points out that Yaakov had only one brother, and that brother, Eisav, was not with him at the moment. The Midrash, cited there by Rashi, explains that his “brothers” must have been Yaakov’s sons, whom he called his brothers.

The question is, what are the Midrash and Rashi teaching us here? Why does the Torah refer to Yaakov’s sons as his brothers? Let the Torah call them his sons!

Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains that part of chinuch is to have your children become your partners. If a child feels that he is a partner in his parent’s mitzvah and chesed activities, he does not feel that he is being forced to do something, or that his parents are providing for someone else rather than attending to the child’s needs. Quite the contrary, he feels honored by the responsibility (Zeriyah Uvinyan Bechinuch, page 27). Thus, Avraham Avinu understood that the proper chinuch is to make your child a partner in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, notwithstanding that otherwise one should perform the mitzvah oneself.

Bear in mind that this does not mean that the child does most of the work. The parent does most of the work, and incorporates the child in a way that the child feels honored to be a partner in the parents’ chesed endeavors. When the child sees that the parent always runs to do the chesed himself or herself, and then involves the child in part of the project, the child understands instinctively that the parent is involving them not because the child is doing the parent a favor, but in order to share the performance of the mitzvah with the child.

Accomplishments of a mechanech

Someone who implements the goals of chinuch accomplishes tremendous things, as we see in the following passage of Gemara (Taanis 24a). Rav went to a place that was suffering from a severe drought. In earlier days, when neither piped nor bottled water was available, a drought was a calamitous circumstance. The lives of all individuals in the community, both wealthy and poor, are endangered. One cannot live without water, and one needs water not only for drinking, but also for crops and livestock, without even mentioning the need to bathe and launder clothing.

Rav declared a fast day, which the community began observing, but rain still did not fall, and the fervent prayers of the community did not seem to be having any obvious influence.

The gabbai then asked a particular individual to be the chazzan. When the individual chosen began reciting the repetition of the shemoneh esrei as the representative of the famished and thirsty community, as he said the words mashiv haruach, the wind began blowing, and when he recited the words umorid hagashem, it began to rain, thus relieving the problem for the entire area. Thus, the merits of the prayers of this one individual saved the entire community not only from financial devastation but from almost certain death!

Rav inquired of the chazzan what his occupation was. He answered: “I am a melamed of children, and I teach the children of the poor just like the children of the wealthy.” (In those days, this was not a job in a local school, but it was arranged on an individual basis. Usually, the financially stable members of a community could get together and hire an excellent rebbe for their children. The poor, unfortunately, sometimes had to do without.)

Continued the melamed, “If someone cannot afford to pay my wages, I teach his child without pay. Furthermore, I own fish ponds, and whenever a child misbehaves, I bribe him with fish until I get him to straighten out. I then spend time making him feel good until I succeed in getting him to learn Torah.” Do we have any question why Hashem answered the prayers of the melamed!

The Ben Yehoyada explains in greater depth that this melamed was rewarded and listened to because he treated the poor and the wealthy in the same way. Water is a great equalizer. It provides for everyone equally. In a place without any water, the wealthy will die also. Furthermore, there are machlokos regarding irrigation ditches, because each individual wants more water at the expense of his fellow. This is not so regarding rainwater, since each household receives water directly from Above that others cannot claim.

The Ben Yehoyada notes further the method that this melamed used to encourage his talmidim. In an era when rabbeyim would resort to potching to get a child to learn, this melamed used fish as a positive reward.

In addition, fish are concealed from the eye — no ayin hora controls them. Rain is similar; it absorbs into the ground, so no ayin hora sees it, and it always flows to a lower place, reflecting humility. This is again similar to the humility so obvious in the behavior of this melamed that we are not even told his name. Such recognition would run counter to his way of serving Hashem.

Where was the community?

There is a question germane to this story: The Gemara states that the melamed involved was teaching the children of the poor of his own volition. No one in the community was making sure that they had a rebbe. However, this story took place hundreds of years after the days of the great tzadik, a kohein gadol named Yehoshua ben Gamla, who had created a revolution in Torah education by requiring that communities create yeshivah schools and support them.

To quote the Gemara (Bava Basra 21a): Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “Indeed, this man named Yehoshua ben Gamla should be remembered favorably, for, were it not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people. Prior to his time, someone who had a father, his father taught him Torah, and one who had no father did not study Torah”. First, Yehoshua ben Gamla introduced that there be melamdim available in Yerushalayim to teach Torah without charge to the student. He eventually expanded this program until every city and town had Torah teachers available for every Jewish boy, beginning from the age of six or seven. His ruling established this as a permanent requirement incumbent upon Jewish communities: They are obligated to guarantee that every Jewish boy can study Torah. Subsequent to this time, a community that failed to assume this responsibility was excommunicated, and if this failed to alleviate the situation, destroyed (Shabbos 119b; Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:1).

So, the question is raised: Why did it fall upon this melamed to provide personally for the poor children in his town? Why did the community not assume responsibility that there be melamdim available to teach them?

We do not know why this community had not made arrangements to have Torah taught to all its students. But we do see that this melamed took the responsibility on himself when he saw that the need was not being fulfilled. Single-handedly, he was the Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla of his town!

At this point, it is appropriate for us to discuss one of our opening questions: Whose responsibility is it to pay for the Torah education of those children whose parents cannot afford it?

Based on the Gemara in Bava Basra, we can answer one of our opening questions: We see that the Jewish community must assume this responsibility.

Many students

The Mishnah at the beginning of Pirkei Avos quotes that one of the three lessons that the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah emphasized was he’emidu talmidim harbei. But the literal translation of the word he’emidu, means to “get them to stand up.” What does that mean?

One early anthology, the Midrash Shmuel, quotes several approaches. One approach is that it is an instruction to the philanthropists of a community: Provide financial support for as many students as possible. Do not rest on your laurels that you have already been a major backer of Torah! As long as there are more potential students, find means to have them supported.

Growth through teaching

The Midrash Shmuel mentions another answer to explain the words he’emidu talmidim harbei. The Midrash Shmuel mentions another answer to explain the words he’emidu talmidim harbei. This Mishnah addresses the rebbe, principal, rav or rosh yeshivah — provide instruction to as many students as you can. The more students one teaches, the greater the rebbe will grow in learning. One grows in Torah by answering questions of students and by learning how to explain the subject matter to different minds, each of which thinks somewhat differently. The Midrash Shmuel understands that this Mishnah is an extension of an idea we find in a different Mishnah (Avos 2:7) — marbeh eitzah marbeh tevuna, the more advice, the more understanding is produced. In this context, this is understood to mean: The more one is placed in a position of providing quality advice to people, the deeper one’s understanding grows. This is something to which any experienced rav, social worker, psychologist or community activist will readily agree.

There is also a halachic side to this lesson, quoted by the Midrash Shmuel. When Rav, the great amora, was asked a question in the very complicated laws that determine whether an animal is kosher or not (the laws of hilchos tereifos), he would show it to and discuss it with many people before ruling on it. Although clearly his level of Torah erudition was far greater than that of the people with whom he was discussing the question, by explaining to them the issues involved, hearing their questions and sharing insights with them, he grew in his own depth of understanding of the topic.

More talmidei chachamim

Yet another approach mentioned by the Midrash Shmuel to explain the Mishnah’s statement he’emidu talmidim harbei provides an additional insight to the laws of chinuch. In this approach, the Mishnah is addressed to a lay person whose sons have demonstrated a particularly strong desire to grow in learning. “Do not have the attitude that since I allowed one of my sons to become a talmid chacham I do not need to encourage the others to grow in learning to the same extent. One’s other children should also be encouraged to learn to the extent that they can. And, if they demonstrate a facility in learning, one should do whatever possible to encourage them to continue.


Returning to the story of the melamed whose prayer brought rain on his entire city,we see the tremendous sense of responsibility this melamed felt and demonstrated for all the children in his town. This brings to mind a closely related point, also made by Rav Wolbe, based on the following passage of Gemara.

The Gemara (Makkos 11a) mentions that someone who killed a person out of negligence must remain in the city of refuge (ir miklat) until the kohein gadol dies. The Gemara asks: Why is the length of stay in the ir miklat dependent on the kohein gadol? The Gemara explains that the kohein gadol was responsible for davening that such calamities not occur.

The question is: Where do we find that the kohein gadol is responsible for davening that things don’t go wrong? Rav Wolbe explains that this is a given. Although the Torah never gives us such a commandment, it is understood that if one is responsible for educating people, automatically, this means that he davens for them. Just as  parents do not need to be told to daven for their children’s wellbeing, health, and success, a teacher, rabbi, kohein gadol or anyone else responsible for other individuals does not require to be told to daven for them. It should come naturally.


We have learned the importance of training a child properly in the fulfillment of mitzvos. In prioritizing our lives, we should always place the educating and developing of the future generation at the top of our list, since this is where the future of the Jewish people lies.