What is the meaning of [the Mishnah:] “All obligations of the son upon the father”? Shall we say, all that the son is obligated to perform for his father? Are then women [i.e., daughters] exempt? But it was taught: Every man [his mother and his father you (plural) shall fear] (Leviticus 19:3). I know this only of a man. Whence do I know it of a woman? When it is said: Every man, his mother and his father you (plural) shall fear—behold, two are [mentioned] here. Rav Yehudah said: This is the meaning: All obligations of the son [that fall] on the father to do for his son, men are obligated but women [i.e., mothers] are exempt. We learned in the Mishnah what our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: The father is obligated with respect to his son to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a trade. Some say, to teach him to swim also. R. Yehudah said: He who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him banditry. Banditry! Can you really think so! Rather, it is as though he taught him banditry.
Becoming a parent is arguably the largest single obligation a person undertakes in his or her lifetime. But what does it entail? What do we owe our children? Every parent parents differently, and many of us look over our shoulders at how others parent and wonder if we are missing something essential. Talmud is highly invested in communal continuity and successful families.
The Mishnah tells us, “All obligations of the son upon the father, men are obligated but women are exempt.” There are two ways to understand this statement: First, Mishnah intends obligations of the son toward the father; second, obligations of the father toward the son. Gemara discards the first possibility because the exemption of women would suggest that only sons, and not daughters, have such obligations—after all, Mishnah specifically exempts women. The Gemara goes so far as to quote the verse someone might bring to “prove” that the Mishnah intends obligations of the child toward the parent: Leviticus 19:3, which ostensibly speaks only of a man. Yet the very same verse employs the plural form of “you” which Gemara understands to include daughters as well as sons.
This opens the way for Rav Yehudah to assert that the obligations of which the Mishnah speaks are those of the father to do for his son. Rav Yehudah explains that fathers are obligated toward their sons, but mothers are not. This immediately raises several questions: Why are mothers not obligated? What are the obligations of a father (and mother) toward a daughter? Here the wide cultural gap between the rabbinic era in both Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia, and our own time, is keenly evident. Daughters were, in large measure, financial liabilities to be married off well. They did not participate in the religious, economic, or cultural life of the community as sons did.
Consider the list Rav Yehudah supplies of a father’s obligation toward his son: Circumcision, redemption of the firstborn (pidyon ha-ben), Torah learning, marriage, and training to earn a livelihood. An anonymous source adds one additional item: swimming. When the Rabbis provide a list of this sort, several possibilities lie behind it. The list might be exhaustive: these are the only hard-and-fast obligations of a father toward his son. Alternatively, the list might be a sampling, and it remains for us to analyze what principles or values generated the list—and extrapolate to other items that properly fit the list. Or, the items on the list are symbolic, each representing a category that remains to be fully fleshed out. Noting that the basics of food, shelter, and clothing are not stipulated, let alone anything connoting love and respect. I suspect that the last perspective fits. Circumcision and redemption are the entry points of the child into the community: they symbolize the child’s identity as a Jew among non-Jews, and as a Jew in the local Jewish community and larger Jewish world, connecting the child to the on-going ritual life of the Jewish people. Torah learning nurtures the child’s spiritual life and ability to derive spiritual meaning and strength from tradition. Marriage hopefully assures the son’s emotional and social well-being. A livelihood provides the means to economic security and well-being. Swimming is a curious and marvelous addition: A parent should teach a child the skills needed to stay afloat and protect oneself in a dangerous world.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Gemara, unsurprisingly, distinguishes the obligations of fathers and mothers to their children, as well as those owed sons and daughters to their parents. Do you think there is any reason to make such distinctions in the 21st century? If you were asked to draw up your own list of essential obligations of parents in the 21st century, what would you include and why?
- There is a set of social skills Talmud values but does not instruct parent to instill in their children as a matter of obligation—after all, how can you require parents to instill character traits in their children. Among them are: self-confidence, honesty, trustworthiness, cooperation, compassion, generosity, tenacity, patience. What effective means do you recommend for transmitting these values?
- Daniel Goleman, psychologist and pioneer in the realm of Emotional Intelligence, describes how a teacher in Spanish Harlem taught second-grade students (many of whom had suffered trauma) to focus their attention for learning by using a meditative breathing technique. You can hear Goleman describe it here. Should parents teach this to their children?