Although youngsters are not fully obligated in the commandments until the age of bar or bat mitzva, younger children are also expected to fulfill the commandments according to their ability and understanding. Their parents are obligated to raise them in the ways of the Torah, so that when they become independent they will be fully capable of carrying out the Law.
This obligation is known as the commandment of “chinukh”. Today we usually translate this word as education or instruction, and this seems to be one meaning it has in Scripture. When Avram had to save Lot from his captors he sent out his “chanikhav”, his disciples. (Bereshit 14:14.)
In other places in the Torah the word would be better translated as “inauguration” or “dedication”. For instance, the Torah mentions the chanukha of the altar (Bamidbar 7:10), and this is the source of the name of the Chanuka holiday. Also mentioned is the chanukha of a new house. (Devarim 20:5.)
Both senses of this word find expression in the rules of chinukh. Parents need both to teach the child how to perform the mitzvot, and also accustom the youngster to actually carry them out.
On the education side, parents are called on to say grace after meals for their children, in order to teach them how. This doesn’t accustom the child to the mitzva, because the child is not himself saying the blessing and an adult can’t fulfill the obligation to say grace by having someone else say it, unless that other person also ate (SA OC 167:19.This does not apply to adults - Mishna Berura 167:93, see Rosh HaShana 29b.)
Another example is fasting on Yom Kippur. Young children are educated to fast a little bit, for a period of time that makes them conscious of the fast but is not oppressive. This teaches them but doesn’t “inaugurate” them in the mitzva, which is only fulfilled if no food is eaten from sunset to the following nightfall (Yoma 82a, SA OC 616:2).
Yet in other places we find that children must fulfill mitzvot exactly as adults do. For example, our Sages learned some of the rules of sukkah from the sukkah which Queen Heleni built to accustom her sons to this mitzvah (Sukkah 2b and Ritva). And the Mishna Berura rules that the four species given to a child should be completely kosher – although the child can learn how to hold and wave them even if there is a slight defect (Beur Halakha 657).
Another example: The Talmud relates that Shamai made a sukkah for his infant son (Sukkah 28b). This initiates the child into the performance of the mitzva, but doesn’t teach him anything.
Difference between Children and Adults
Which of these two aspects, education and inauguration, is more important? It seems that there is a difference between children and grownups. Regarding children, education is the most important thing. We see this from the case where there is a conflict between the two aspects, namely saying a blessing for someone who is unable. In this case saying the blessing encourages education but contradicts inauguration; we just learned that we say a blessing for a child but not an adult.
For a child, we say the blessing because the most important thing is education. In time, the child will learn to apply his or learning in practice.
But for adults, who are already obligated, the most important thing is the actual performance of the mitzva. So while it is important to educate adults, this cannot generally supercede their actual obligation. Indeed, for an adult allowing “teaching” to supercede “doing” can have a negative educational message, because it may seem to diminish the importance of actual performance of the commandments.
Active and Passive Education
According to many authorities, the principal responsibility for educating the children is on the father; the mother’s obligation is much less (see Magen Avraham and Machatzit HaShekel, Orakh Chaim 353:1). We can understand this distinction slightly differently: We may say that the father is charged with educating the child actively, and the mother passively.
While the education of children is a paramount value, ultimately the child must teach himself. An essential part of any educational process is to allow the person to internalize what he or she is being taught, to try it out, to see how it fits the individual personality. This aspect is compromised when the educator is constantly looking over the shoulder of the student and checking his or her behavior. We could say the while the father is charged with the active education of the child, the transmission of specific knowledge and values, the mother is charged with the passive aspect, supervising the child as he or she experiments with learning and internalizes it in a personal and relevant way.
Rabbi Meir has completed writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. It will hopefully be published in the near future.