Parenting: A View from Jewish Sources

Rabbinic readings of biblical stories suggest some pitfalls to be avoided in raising children.

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In some biblical sources cited below, the description of punishment as "using the rod" may originally have been meant literally as corporal punishment, but the principles that employ that expression may be applied to other methods of discipline. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).

Based on numerous sources and stories found in the Bible and Talmud, certain educational and moral concepts have been developed to help guide Jewish parents to properly bring up their children. A few will be presented here, in brief form.

jewish parenting sourcesAvoid Favoritism

A Jewish parent must be sensitive to be consistent and fair with all his or her children. Favoring one child over the others can have dire consequences (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Shabbat 10b). This was demonstrated in the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, where Jacob, the father, favored Joseph over all the other children (Genesis 37:3-4), and this helped to lead the Jews to the slavery in Egypt, according to this talmudic passage. Even though this favoritism might have been justified from Jacob's perspective (that is, he never really wanted to marry anyone but Rachel from the beginning, and Joseph was Rachel's firstborn), a parent should never openly show favoritism or any inequality between children. The consequences can be catastrophic.

A parent should not promise something to a child and then not deliver on that promise (BT Sukkah 46b). If a parent is not absolutely sure that a promise will be kept, it is better not to make the promise in the first place, as the frustration, disappointment, and anger by a child over this act causes great and unnecessary hardship.

Discipline with Flexibility

Another Jewish educational principle involves disciplining a child. Though it is clear that not disciplining a child at all is not a Jewish idea, as sparing the rod completely yields disastrous results (Proverbs 13:24), implying hatred for a child, knowing how and when to discipline and using the rod sparingly is crucial.

There must be a combination of caring and compassion on the one hand and of strict justice on the other hand, or, as the Talmud puts it, "pushing away with the left hand while drawing closer with the right hand" (BT Sanhedrin 107b). A good parent also knows when to be flexible, as the Talmud states that a person should never be as inflexible as a cedar tree but pliable as a reed (BT Ta'anit 20a).

Match the Treatment to the Individual Child

Possibly the most important educational principle for a Jewish parent to adhere to is the notion of bringing up each child according to his or her unique personality, character traits and talents (Proverbs 22:6).

To demonstrate this, Samson Raphael Hirsch (in his commentary to Genesis 25:27) asks a simple but difficult question. We can understand why one of Abraham's children, Yishmael, went off the proper path, since although he had Abraham for a father, his genes and environment were somewhat tainted by having the maidservant Hagar for a mother. However, how is it possible to understand why one of Isaac's sons, Esau, went off the proper path? After all, both parents, Rebecca and Isaac, were righteous, and the home environment was a proper Jewish one?

Hirsch answers that a clue is provided by the verse (Genesis 25:27) that says that the brothers Esau and Jacob grew up, and only then it indicates that Esau was a hunter while Jacob dwelt in the tent (of study [according to a rabbinic story]). It is clear, according to Hirsch, based on this verse, that both Esau and Jacob, born as twins, were raised in precisely the same environment and with the same methodology.

Rebecca and Isaac raised both of their children identically, and that was their mistake. They did not take into account that Esau possessed a different personality from Jacob and needed his own special environment in order to be raised to become a righteous human being. Esau rebelled against this upbringing, which did not suit his personality and temperament and turned to the evil path. Had Isaac and Rebecca realized Esau's unique personality traits early on, they could have raised him differently and he could also have become righteous like Jacob.

Fulfill Your Responsibilities to Your Children

Finally, the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 29a) indicates that there are certain obligatory responsibilities that a father must provide for a child in order to be considered a proper Jewish father. Among these are giving a son a ritual circumcision, redeeming a firstborn (where applicable), teaching a child Torah, marrying off a child (which indicates once again that the parental responsibility continues after bar [or bat] mitzvah), [and] teaching a child a trade by which the child can eventually earn an income. According to some opinions, a parent must also teach a child how to swim.

With these skills and the proper educational environment using the principles outlined here, a Jewish parent can reasonably hope that such a child will grow up to be the kind of Jew every parent will be proud of.

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Rabbi Nachum Amsel earned his rabbinical ordination and a doctorate in education from Yeshiva University. He is Director of Education for Hillel in the Former Soviet Union.