Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Va'etchanan

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parashat Va'ethanan 5758/1998 (Shabbat Nahamu)

On the Sabbath Rest of the Son and Daughter

Dr. Israel Zvi Gilat

School of Social Work

The Ten Commandments in this week's reading mention the proscription against doing work on the Sabbath: "You shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements..." (Deut. 5:13). An identical formulation of this proscription appears in the Ten Commandments in Exodus (20:9).

The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (Jethro, 7, Horowitz-Rabin ed., p. 230), asks what son and daughter are referred to here: "You, your son or your daughter. That is, the minors. Or perhaps it means the grown ups? You must reason: Have they not already been forewarned themselves? Hence what must be the meaning of: You, your son or your daughter? The minors."

Thus we conclude that the logic of warning the father about his minor son and daughter resting on the Sabbath is because the minors themselves are not forewarned against doing work according to the Torah. This distinction ostensibly appears in the Mekhilta of R. Simeon bar Yohai (Jethro, 20.10, Epstein-Melamed ed., p. 151), as follows: "So that a man not say to his son, who is a minor, bring me a certain vessel from the market, or bring me a certain food from the market. If minors come to put out a fire, one does not let them, for they too are commanded to rest. Lest you think he must follow behind children to see that they do not break earthenware dishes.... Hence the Torah says "You," to teach us that just as you do or refrain from your own work by your own decision, so they, by their own decision, do or refrain from their own work."

Thus, aside from the difference between minor children whose father is forewarned concerning their duty to rest on the Sabbath, and older children whose father is not forewarned regarding their Sabbath rest, there is also another, less obvious distinction which the Midrash is making: between a father and any other grown-up person. The father is commanded concerning the Sabbath rest of his minor children, whereas other persons are not commanded regarding the work of minors who are not their offspring.

Mekhilta of R. Simeon bar Yohai, however, alluded in passing to the mishnah, Shabbat 16.6, which distinguishes between the Sabbath rest of minors and of gentiles as follows: "If a gentile comes to extinguish a fire, one does not instruct him: 'Put it out,' or 'Do not put it out,' because his Sabbath rest is not their responsibility. But if a minor comes to extinguish it, one does not permit him, because his rest is their responsibility." It follows from this mishnah that the warning about Sabbath rest is not addressed only to the minor's father, but to any adult Jew. How can we explain this, in light of our inference that only a father is commanded regarding the Sabbath observance of his own son?

The logic of distinguishing between a gentile and a minor who comes to put out a fire apparently lies in their respective degree of dependence and obedience. The gentile, who can think for himself, intends to benefit himself when he puts out the fire; therefore he acts on his own initiative. A minor, in contrast, does not think for himself and puts out the fire to please an adult Jew. As Meiri wrote in Beit Ha-Behira on Tractate Yevamot (114a, Dickman ed., p. 437): "If a gentile comes to extinguish a fire, one does not tell him to put it out, or not to put it out, for when he takes an action, he does it for himself, either to repay a good deed, or because he fears for his own house which is nearby. Thus, he is not acting at the behest of a Jew, and his Sabbath rest is not our responsibility" (compare Albeck edition, pp. 426, 428).

In other words, if a gentile were acting and doing work at the behest of Jews, then they would be responsible concerning his Sabbath rest. Indeed, Talmudic sources explain in the name of R. Johanan that the law pertaining to a minor who comes to extinguish a fire follows because he "acts on his father's accord." This is explained by Rashi: "The youngster looks at his father and sees that it is convenient for him to do so; and his father stands over him, as if commanding him to do it..." The major posekim, however, such as Rif and Rosh, do not explain the halakhah this way, apparently because they were of the opinion that the main point was not the biological father's presence, but the fact that the minor would listen to any adult, even if not his father (cf. Beit Yosef, Orah Hayyim 334 and 343).

The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Cohen of Radin, sensed this difference of approach between the Mekhiltas, on the one hand, and the Mishnaic and Talmudic sources, on the other. His Mishnah Berurah on the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 334, in Sha'ar Zion 54 notes: "In my humble opinion, in the case of a fire in the father's home the father is obliged by a commandment from the Torah to oppose his son [if he wants to extinguish it], since the child acts on the father's behalf, so that he not transgress the commandment, "You shall not do any work ..., nor your son or your daughter." In the case of a fire in someone else's home, the other person is obliged at least by Rabbinic proscription to oppose a minor who wants to extinguish the blaze. For the Gemara discusses why it is permitted in the case of a non-Jew, and teaches that the gentile acts on his own behalf; but this is not the case with a minor..."

The opinion of the Hafetz Hayyim that there is only a Rabbinic mitzva to stop a minor from Sabbath work is based on the view presented in the Talmud and essentially accepted by later halakhic scholars, that a minor is not obliged by the positive commands, and there is no need to keep him from violating a proscription according to the law of the Torah. However, the father has special responsibility for his minor son's Sabbath rest, even though the son himself is exempt if he performs work on the Sabbath. This is perceived by the Mishnah Berurah as one of the Biblical commandments devolving on the father in his capacity as the parent responsible for raising his children.

Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, however, ascribes to the same verse the duty of the male and female slave and the servant to rest on the Sabbath, as follows: "...'Your male and female slave.' That is, those who are Jews. That is how you interpret it, but perhaps it is not so, but refers to the uncircumcised slave? When it says, 'In order... that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed' (Ex. 23:12) it obviously refers to the uncircumcised slave. Hence, whom does Scripture mean here when it says, 'Your male and female slave'? Those who are circumsised. 'And the stranger,' meaning the righteous proselyte."

Thus we see that the Jews were warned concerning the Sabbath rest of their male and female slaves who have entered the Covenant and to proselytes, who are themselves obliged to rest on the Sabbath and are warned not to do any work. Nevertheless, the children of Israel are warned concerning their Sabbath rest, i.e., that they not lead them into error and cause them to violate the Sabbath.

Moreover, many proscriptions in the Torah have been interpreted in the Talmud and Midrash as directed not only at the actual person committing the transgression, but also at the accessories. Two examples can be cited from Sifra: 1) "'The following you shall abominate ... they shall not be eaten' (Lev. 11:13). This is to apply the precept equally to one who eats these things as well as to one who feeds them to others." (Sifra, Shemini, 5.1, Weiss ed., p. 50a; Ibid., 12.1, p. 57a). 2) "'They shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry' (Lev. 21:7). This indicates that the woman was adjured through the man." Also we find that Bet Din (the rabbinical court) is forewarned regarding defilement of the priests (Sifra, Emor, 21.13), "so that the [Temple] worship be done properly" (Sifre, Numbers, 116, Horowitz ed., p. 132). Likewise the court is forewarned concerning a person not passing his son or daughter through fire to Molekh (Sifre Deuteron, 171, Finkelstein ed., p. 218). It is also forewarned concerning a blood avenger killing a manslayer who has fled to a city of refuge (Ibid., 183, p. 225), and concerning a person taking back his wife "after she has been defiled (by marrying someone else)" (Ibid., 270, p. 291). The true object of all these warnings are the perpetrators themselves; nevertheless others were also forewarned not to lead them into error, and even to try to prevent them from transgressing.

Similarly, perhaps we can say that the numerous warnings made in regard to transgressions of minors are not to indicate that minors are exempt from these proscriptions, but to indicate that the adults are to take care not to cause the minors to err. For example, the proscription concerning defilement of priests is interpreted as follows: "'Speak ... and say' (Lev. 21:1)--to caution the adults regarding the minors [that priests who are minors not defile themselves also]." Sifra (Emor, 1.1, Weiss ed., p. 93b), also comments on this verse: "'Speak ... to the sons of Aaron and say to them'--even to the minors." In other words, priests who are minors are themselves bound by the proscriptions regarding defilement of priests. So why are these warnings repeated with regard to minors more than adults? Because minors do not have sufficient intelligence to distinguish between what is proscribed and what is permitted, and they do not have the strength to hold their own and stand up to someone who tries to make them commit a transgression.

Were it not perhaps too daring a view, I might suggest that the proscription concerning the Sabbath rest of minor children is made the responsibility of the father not because minors are exempt from resting on the Sabbath, just as one cannot say that the commandment on owners regarding the rest of slaves and converts is because the latter are themselves exempt from the proscriptions concerning the Sabbath, but because minors, like slaves, are dependent on others for their sustenance, and there is a danger that they might err and commit a transgression if the father were to instruct them to violate a proscription concerning the Sabbath (cf. Nahmanides' commentary on the Torah, Ex. 20:9, Chavel ed., p. 402, regarding male and female slaves).

The same applies to the warning given the children of Israel regarding the Sabbath rest of the proselyte. Even though the proselyte is in all respects a free person, since he is more dependent on those around him than other Jews, there is a fear that he be led into error concerning the proscriptions of the Sabbath more than others. Nevertheless, adults are not cautioned regarding minors "who do or refrain from their own work on their own initiative," as we read in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, just as one adult is not held responsible for the Sabbath rest of another adult acting on his own initiative.

Thus, the proscription concerning the Sabbath rest of minors, according to the approach reflected in Tannaitic literature, is not a parental command placed on the father, rather a general proscription placed by the Torah on any Jew not to take advantage of the weaker position of minors and cause them to desecrate the Sabbath. Therefore the mishnah in tractate Sabbath does not distinguish between a minor who comes to put out a fire because he was commanded by his father and a minor who puts out a fire because he was commanded so by some other person.

In the time of the amoraim, however, when minors were declared exempt from all the commandments until they came of age, it made no sense to ask adults to prevent minors from doing Biblical prohibitions or to place the proscription concerning the Sabbath rest of minors on all Jews. Thus, the Sabbath rest of minors became a particular responsibility placed only on the parent. Rabbi Johanan, an amora from the Land of Israel who wondered in Tractate Yevamot (114a) of the Babylonian Talmud whether one was commanded to prevent minors from violating Torah proscriptions, did not decide the question on the basis of the case of a minor who comes to extinguish a fire in Mishnah, tractate Sabbath, since, as he explained there, the minor was acting "on behalf of his father." As we have already said, the major posekim either ignored Rabbi Johanan's reasoning or were hard pressed to explain it.

Note: On the obligation of a minor to observe the commandments before coming of age, see Rabbi Y. D. Gilat, Perakim be-Hishtalshelut ha-Halakhah (Bar Ilan University, 1992), 19-31, and the sources cited there. Also see my article, "Al Mi Mutelet ha-Hova le-Hanekh et ha-Ben ha-Katan le-Kiyyum Mitzvot?" Sidra 11 (1995), 21ff.