The Soul of Parenting: Tzitzit Tug of War

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There is a famous dispute in the first Mishnah of Bava Metzia about two people who find a garment and each one claims that it belongs to him. “If two people came to court holding a garment, and this one, the first litigant, says: I found it, and that one, the second litigant, says: I found it; this one says: All of it is mine, and that one says: All of it is mine; how does the court adjudicate this case?” The Hebrew language of the Mishnah is actually “two people holding a tallit,” the word used for a garment, or a prayer shawl to which tzitzit are attached (from which is derived the expression tallit katan, the undergarment with tzitzit that men traditionally wear). The image is called to mind whenever I hear of parents who get into a tug of war with their sons about wearing tzitzit. Parent: “Tzitzit is a mitzvah and you have a responsibility to wear them!” (If this were a texting message it would be in all caps.) Son: “But they’re uncomfortable and it’s too hot out, and none of the other guys wears them. What difference does it make if I wear them – no one can see them anyway!” Two litigants, each pulling the tallit in their own direction.

This tug of war plays itself out in lots of homes between parents and children battling out expectations about religious observances, which for the sake of this discussion let’s restrict to the issue of clothes, be they tzitzit or a kippah. Let me say at the outset, that there can’t be a one-size-fits-all kind of answer; that’s not what the art of parenting is all about. One has to know one’s child and oneself and so the answers may be a little different for each of us. But I’d like to suggest different ways of thinking about this issue, including concerns that are developmental, halakhic and educational.

In most cases, children who do not want to comply are not actually rebelling against a particular principle. (In all my years in education, I’ve only come up against a couple of boys who refused to put on tefillin because they honestly, albeit misguidedly, felt that using leather that came from animals was unethical.) Rather, kids say no for a whole variety of reasons, not least of which is that they are trying to find their way, and saying no is an entirely appropriate developmental way of asserting their independence. Of course, a five year old who doesn’t want to put on a kippah is different than a seventeen year old and so parental discussions and responses will need to be different as well. Just because a young child doesn’t want to conform does not mean that they are headed off the derech and neither does it mean that one needs to get into a tug of war. To be sure, one needs to play up the positives about why it’s a privilege and source of pride to wear these garments, but if a young child is not yet ready, then there is still time—even though all of your friends kids are wearing them already.

Before deciding how to react, parents should first explore with the child, if he is old enough, the reason for his noncompliance. Consider, for example, the parent who discovered that their son’s complaint that the kippah (or tzitzit) was uncomfortable really was, well, uncomfortable, because, unbeknownst to the parents, the boy had sensory issues that manifested themselves in not being able to wear certain kinds of clothing. I vividly recall when I was younger that I simply could not wear a hat in the winter time (or any time) despite my mother’s protests about how cold it was outside. I constantly felt the thing on my head like a weight bearing down on me, and it was an ever-present distraction. We often fought about that hat – she made me wear it, and I put it in my pocket when I left the house. Of course, the objection could be some other concern too, such as embarrassment, forgetfulness, or just plain laziness. It’s important to first analyze the cause before the symptom.

Another factor to consider is the halachic one, namely, what does Jewish law actually require of a young person at this stage of their lives. We live in communities where there are a whole lot of norms, customs and expectations that don’t have as much to do with halacha, or Jewish law, as much as they have to do with social norms, or what it “means to be frum” in our neighborhood or community. These are not practices to be taken lightly but neither are they necessarily the altar upon which we should be prepared to sacrifice our child’s religious commitment. Wearing a kippah, for example, is a custom, not a law from the Torah. The gemara (Shabbat 156b; Kiddushin 31a) explains that a scholar would always keep his head covered and that custom then developed differently over the centuries into a custom where men did and did not cover their heads when they were out and about. It thus becomes difficult to say at what age a young boy is obligated to wear a kippah, especially given that it is not a mitzvah. Theoretically it would thus seem to be unnecessary, if one needed, to go to war over a kippah if the child was adamant for some reason. In a somewhat similar vein, the Torah does obligate one to wear tzitzit but that is only if you own a four-cornered garment. Because we don’t wear such garments any more, our clothes are not obligated in tzitzit. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:11) and others maintain that a particularly punctilious or pious person will nevertheless go out of his way to fulfill the mitzvah and hence we create four-cornered undergarments that will obligate us to wear them. In theory, however, it is a custom and while Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:4) identified it as a binding custom since it has become a norm, one needs to ask whether one needs to go war with a son who is not feeling particular pious or punctilious.

Educationally, then, we need to devise strategies that will find the balance between being authoritarian and being too permissive and so, above all, you need to know the halachah and know your child (not just your own needs) to get a sense of how far you should be pushing the envelope. Compromise is always a good beginning. Witness, for example, one reader, Meira Schneider-Atik who wrote:

“My sons have sensory sensitivities. They don’t like wearing the kippot srugot that I make for my husband. But one day, I noticed that my younger son did like wearing larger silk kippot found at his preschool. So I started making extra-large kippot for him and he liked wearing them. Then my older son asked me for an extra-large kippah too. I happen to think those kippot are cute and if they allow my boys to wear kippot comfortably, then why not?

B”H, we live in a community that sees these things as novelties. But I’ve had to deal with well-meaning relatives who think that my boys shouldn’t be wearing such eyesores and that I should give them no choice but to wear the standard kippot. First, those extra-large kippot that I make are not eyesores. Second, as long as my boys prefer the larger ones, I don’t think it’s worth it to force that issue. Why shouldn’t they be comfortable?”

I’ve heard from other parents who took their child to the store and let him pick the kind of kippah he wanted to wear. Alternatively, unlike me, some kids may prefer wearing a baseball hat and, if so, then why not? Alternatively, with a young child for whom the obligation to educate him may not even be relevant until the age of six or above, why not agree that it must be worn during meals but that you will it let it go when the meal is over.

As for something like tzitzit where it might be harder to come up with a creative compromise, then one needs to make a decision about how important it is in the scheme of things relative to your child’s continued religious development. Someone I know once called this the low hanging fruit of religious confrontation. In other words, there are bigger battles to be had and other mitzvot where it might be more important to draw a red line in the sand. While one can engage in discussion with one’s son about why it is an important custom, why the Rambam thinks one should be punctilious, about what it does spiritually for you or your spouse as an adult, why Rav Moshe thought a custom should be binding or any other rationale you can come up with, the bottom line is that, in some cases like this one, it might be better to pretend you didn’t see his tzitzit hanging on the doorknob after he left for school.

The Mishnah says that when two people walk into court both holding a tallit, the rule is that each gets half since each has an equal claim. In the case of religious education, however, sometimes a half of a tallit does not lead to a half mitzvah. Sometimes, it’s worth giving up your own claim so that your child will get the entire garment and hopefully come to appreciate it one day as his very own. Dr. David Pelcovitz once told me a story of a young man whose father did battle with him regularly about leaving the house wearing tzitzit. And so the son took them with him when he left the house but put them in a box outside where he picked them up again at the end of the day before reentering the house. Years later, the son became a father and one day his own child came home from kindergarten very excited. “Abba, I learned to say a bracha on tzitzit today! Can you take yours out so that we can say the bracha together?” The son then called his own father and apologized for the ruse and the opposition of his youth and concluded, “You can be sure that today is the last day that I won’t be wearing tzitzit.”

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.