Our forefather Jacob showed special favor to his son Joseph,1 the firstborn of his favored wife Rachel. He taught him all of the Torah he had learned in the yeshivah of Shem and Eber,2 and he purchased fine wool and made him a special coat. This favoritism caused his brothers to be jealous of him. Eventually, this jealousy turned into hatred, which led to their selling Joseph into slavery. The result of this was the exile and slavery of the Jewish people for hundreds of years.

Our Sages3 draw from the story of Joseph and his brothers that it is improper to show favoritism to one child over another. In the words of the Talmud: "As a result of the favoritism that Jacob showed to Joseph by purchasing him fine wool that weighed two sla'im [an ancient measure], his brothers were jealous of him and this resulted in our forefathers descending into Egypt."

This article will focus on the lessons from the Torah regarding proper childrearing and education.

When to Start?

  • The impact that parents have on a child begins even before the child is born The impact that parents have on a child begins even before the child is born. For this reason, mothers should be particularly cautious to eat kosher food when pregnant.4 See Laws of Childbirth for more information.
  • One may not encourage children to transgress any negative commandment, even when they are very young.5 For this reason, one may not feed one's child non-kosher food.6
  • When a child is old enough to understand the concept that some things are forbidden, one should train him or her not to transgress the negative commandments. For example, one should encourage a child not to engage in activities that are forbidden on Shabbat, not to speak in inappropriate ways, etc.7
  • The training for the positive mitzvot begins at the age that is appropriate for each mitzvah. For example, when a child is able to listen to Kiddush and understand the concept of Shabbat, he or she should be trained to listen to Kiddush.8

Stages in the Educational Development of a Child

Brit / Baby naming: Some are particular to wash neggel vasser (the ritual hand-washing upon arising in the morning) with their children from a very young age. With girls, they begin after the baby is named. With boys, they begin after the brit milah (circumcision).9

When the child begins to speak: It is proper to teach the child to recite verses of Torah.10

Third birthday for boys: The age of three is considered an age of greater understandingThe age of three is considered an age of greater understanding.11 It is for this reason that many have the custom of postponing the first haircut of boys until their third birthday. Their first haircut (known as "upsherinish") is then a learning experience in which the boy is taught that the peyot (sidelocks) may not be shorn. At this age, it is customary to train boys to wear a kippah and tzitzit.12

Third birthday for girls: Girls should be trained to light Shabbat candles from a young age, at least from the age of three, or even earlier if appropriate.13 And at this age girls are taught to keep the basic rules of tzniyut (modesty in dress).

From the age of three and up: Both boys and girls should be trained to say berachot (blessings) before and after eating and to recite the Shema in the morning and evening.14 It is also considered appropriate to begin to teach a child how to read Hebrew from this point.15

The age of nine is the appropriate age to begin training children to fast on Yom Kippur. At first they should fast for several hours. If the child is healthy and strong, he or she is permitted to fast a full day from the age of eleven. If the child is weak, her or she need not be trained to fast for a full day prior before reaching the age Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Rather, the child should fast for several hours according to his or her strength.16

A boy at age twelve or a girl at age eleven who makes a vow, and understands the concept of making a vow to G‑d, must keep it. A vow made by a child under this age is not considered valid. Nevertheless, parents should train their children from a young age not to make vows.17

The age of thirteen for a boy and twelve for a girl is when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah and are obliged to fulfill all of the mitzvot as an adult. (See The Laws of Bar Mitzvah for more on this topic.)

Milk and Meat

Regarding the age to begin training a child to wait between consuming meat and milk, I have heard the following guidelines from Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein of Bnei Brak18:

  • Very young children do not need to wait between eating meat and milk. However, it is best to feed them something else in between.
  • For children from three to five it is sufficient to wait one hour between consumption of meat and milk.
  • Children age six and older should wait six hours (or at least three hours) between consumption of meat and milk.

Teaching Tips

  • Even if a child does not easily understand the material being taught, he should not be removed from the class. Rather, he should sit with the others and perhaps he will begin to understand with time.19 Of course, a child with special needs should be in an appropriate setting and/or should be provided with the necessary support within the classroom setting so that he will eventually benefit from the instruction.
  • One should not punish a child with expulsion or suspensionIf at all possible, one should not punish a child with expulsion or suspension, as this causes him to waste time that could have been spent studying Torah. Although the suspension can be viewed as a step towards increased learning, this does not necessarily prove to be the case.20
  • A teacher should, obviously, not show favoritism to one student over the others.21 Despite this, a teacher may organize a competition in the class and reward students with prizes for academic excellence. While this may cause some jealousy, it is still appropriate, as this envy will spur the others to greater achievements.22

Choosing a Teacher

  • When choosing a teacher for a child, it is better to choose one who is particular to teach the material correctly, even if he teaches at a slower pace, rather than one who teaches at a faster pace but is not particular about teaching all the details correctly.23
  • If a teacher is delinquent in his task of teaching – for example, he leaves the classroom to take care of private matters, or he completes other work while in the classroom – he may be dismissed without notice.24
  • A teacher should be G‑d fearing, an expert in the material being studied, and precise in his teaching.25
  • Although according to the letter of the law it is permissible to replace one teacher with a better teacher, it is customary not to do so as long as the first teacher is doing an adequate job.26

Teaching Children to Go Beyond the Letter of the Law

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that it is proper to educate children to go beyond the letter of the law in fulfilling their religious obligations.27

In a similar vein, our Sages teach that one should train one's children not to lie at all, even though under certain circumstances it may be permissible for adults to tell untruths. See Telling the Truth and When it is Permissible to be Less than Honest.