Early-Childhood Education in the Sukkah


Sunday, October 1, 2017


From a parental perspective, Sukkot represents one of the "easier" holidays. It's not that difficult to excite our children about Sukkot. After all, Sukkot in and of itself is exciting. Our children participate in the building of the Sukkah. We hang the decorations that they painstakingly create. Some families even laminate their children's artwork and save it from year to year. And of course we cannot forget the many meters of chains that our children build and hang as Sukkah adornments.

Yet, from a halachic perspective, we must wonder: Is there an obligation to ensure that our children sit in the Sukkah? Is Sukkot similar to Pesach, where education plays a primary role in the Seder? Or, is it like other holidays, where we want our children to grow into devoted Jewish adults, but their presence is not a fundamental aspect of the chag, and they sit in the Sukkah for educational purposes only?

The answer to this question lies in the curious language we find in a fascinating Mishnah in Sukkah. In the Mishnah (Sukkah 2:8) we find a seemingly curious contradiction and an interesting story.

     נשים ועבדים וקטנים, פטורים מן הסוכה. קטן שאינו צריך לאמו, חייב בסוכה. מעשה וילדה כלתו של שמאי הזקן ופיחת את המעזיבה וסכך על גבי המטה בשביל הקטן.
    Women, slaves and minors are free from the obligation of sukkah, but a minor who is not dependent on his mother is bound by the law of sukkah. It once happened that the daughter-in-law of Shammai the Elder gave birth to a child and he broke away the plaster of the roof and put sukkah-covering over the bed for the sake of the child.

The first section of the Mishnah seems self-contradictory: At first glance the Mishnah seems to exempt minors (children) from sitting in the Sukkah – as we would expect. Women and slaves are exempt because sitting in the Sukkah is a מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא – a positive time-bound commandment – from which women are exempted. Minors are exempted from all mitzvot, including the commandment to sit in the Sukkah. But then the Mishnah teaches us that, "a minor who is not dependent on his mother is bound by the law of Sukkah."

 The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) offers a proof from a verse to prove that children are obligated to sit in the Sukkah, based on the verse,

    בסכת תשבו שבעת ימים כל האזרח בישראל ישבו בסכת -ויקרא כג:מב
    You shall dwell in Sukkot for seven days; all of the citizens in Israel shall dwell in Sukkot (Vayikra 23:42)

The Gemara quotes a Baraita that teaches us that the word כל – "all" – specifically teaches that children are included in the obligation to sit in the Sukkah. Later, the Gemara (28b) wonders how this is possible. After all, aren't children exempt from all Torah commandments? Why do the Mishnah and the Beraita seem to suggest that the Torah actually obligated children to sit in the Sukkah?

The Gemara concludes that indeed, the obligation to sit in the Sukkah is in fact, only a derabannan – a rabbinic obligation – placed upon a קטן השגיע לחינוך – a child who has reached the age of education. The Mishnah does not introduce a fundamental obligation. Rather, it is only teaching us that we must bring out children out into the Sukkah in order to educate them so that they properly fulfill the mitzvah when they reach maturity.

Yet, the language of both the Mishnah and the Beraita don't seem to be addressing only an "educational" obligation. Rather, they seem to suggest that a child has a fundamental obligation from the Torah to dwell in a Sukkah. Moreover, the story about Shammai seems strange: why would Shammai break the roof over an infant to ensure that the child slept in a kosher Sukkah? What possible educational benefit can there be for a tiny baby?

Based on these questions as well as other evidence, Professor Yitzchak Gilat (see Perakim B'hishtalshelut Hahalachah p. 23) suggests that in the times of the Mishnah it was widely accepted that a child who had reached the age of education was considered fully obligated in a number of time-bound commandments, including fasting on Yom Kippur, the donning of Tefillin, and the obligation to sit in the Sukkah. He also suggests that during that era, there was no set age of adulthood. Rather, every child became an adult at a different age, based on that child's unique biological development. Centuries later, during the Talmudic era, Chazal sought to standardize the age of adulthood at the now familiar twelve for girls and thirteen for boys.

Professor Gilat's theory raises interesting questions: How could the Tanaim feel that children – even young children – are obligated to perform mitzvot they did not fully understand? When Shammai ensured that his infant grandson slept in a Sukkah, who actually fulfilled the mitzvah? Can an infant even be "commanded"?

Halachically, we follow the conclusion of the Gemara: Children are not obligated to sit in the Sukkah or perform any other mitzvah on a Torah level (see Peninei Halachah Sukkot 3:12). We teach them due to the obligation of chinuch – the need to educate them now for when they grow older. Yet, when we think about it, our behavior, outlook and actions follow the teaching of the Tanaim. We don’t think about our children's mitzvot as educational; we treat them as if they themselves are obligated to perform the mitzvah. We don’t just "teach" our children to sit in the Sukkah; we expect them to do so, just as we do.

When we look a bit deeper, it seems that we educate our children to much more than just making decorations and Sukkah chains. As we train our children to fulfill mitzvot from a very early age, we continue the tradition that the Tanaim established so many years ago.