Maimonides, in the third section of the first chapter of Hilchot Talmud Torah (The Laws of Torah Study), seems to imply something out of the ordinary. After describing the biblical obligation a father has to teach his son Torah,1 he writes, “Someone who was not taught by his father is obligated to arrange for his own instruction when he recognizes [this].”2

The words we would expect in place of “recognizes” would be something like “when he comes of age.” Generally, a child is not obligated to observe the mitzvahs (more on this below), and this language seems to strongly imply that the obligation to study Torah would be applicable to the son as soon as he becomes aware of his lack of instruction, even before he comes of age at 13.

Indeed, the third Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, makes this very deduction, writing that the language “when he recognizes” may be taken to mean that in Maimonides’ opinion, the child is biblically obligated to study Torah.3

The problem with this is that a child is generally not obligated in the Torah’s precepts. This is because a child is too young to be held responsible for following Torah’s laws and is therefore not halachically liable.4

However, the rabbis did institute that from the age a child begins to “comprehend,”5 the child is rabbinically obligated to fulfill the Torah’s precepts. This way, the child will be familiar with the details of the laws and will possess the ability to properly fulfill all obligations when he or she comes of age.

So which is it? Can or can’t a child be obligated?

In order to shed light on this, we must explore the general obligation to educate a child in the performance of mitzvahs.

(Before we proceed, it is important to note that, according to Maimonides, the biblical obligation for a father to study with his child is separate from the general rabbinic obligation of education. According to Maimonides, the verse “And you shall study them and take heed to perform them”6 teaches a separate biblical obligation to teach one's son.)

A Disagreement Regarding Education

Regarding the obligation to educate one’s children in the observance of the commandments, there exists a fundamental disagreement.

Rashi7 and Nachmanides8 explain that the child himself is not obligated; rather, the father has an obligation to educate the child. This fits well with the principle quoted above that a child has no personal responsibility until the age of 13 (or 12 for a girl), and both commentators would certainly disagree with Maimonides’ implication that a son may have a biblical obligation to study.

Others explain the mitzvah of chinuch differently. Tosafot9 and Rabbeinu Nissim10 (known as the Ran) explain that the child is obligated.

This disagreement is not simply semantics; it affects the ability of a child to perform certain mitzvahs for someone else. In some scenarios, if multiple individuals are obligated to perform a certain mitzvah, one individual is able to perform it for all present. The classic example of this is kiddush on Shabbat and festivals; one individual may recite the kiddush, and all present listen and are thus able to fulfill their obligation.

However, this only works if the obligation of the individual reciting is on par or higher than those listening. If the individual reciting has a lesser obligation (for example, rabbinic vs. biblical) or no actual obligation at all, then he or she would not be able to cover another's obligation.

Back to our case of a child's obligation. If the child has no obligation, then the child would not be able to satisfy an adult’s obligation. So according to Rashi and Nachmanides, a child would not be able to exempt an adult, as the child does not actually have an obligation.

However, Maimonides writes that a son is able to make a blessing for his father (in a case when the father’s obligation is only rabbinic), so clearly he agrees with Tosafot and the Ran that a child does have a (rabbinic) obligation.11

According to these authorities, we have not resolved the issue above. We have a bona fide rule that a child cannot be obligated, even if the child is of an age when he may be able to understand possible ramifications. So (1) how can children be obligated to fulfill the Torah’s precepts before bar or bat mitzvah? And (2) how can a boy be biblically obligated to educate himself in Torah, in the case of a father who did not teach him?

Being Integral Creates Obligation

We find in Jewish law that necessary preparation for the performance of a mitzvah can be considered like part of the mitzvah itself. So constructing a sukkah, or acquiring a lulav and etrog before Sukkot, is considered, to some degree, as part of the mitzvah—so much so that according to the Jerusalem Talmud, one should recite a blessing over these preparations.12

In these cases, we are talking about necessary preparations, which are considered a part of the mitzvah but not the actual mitzvah itself. During the actual performance of the mitzvah, the preparation is no longer needed; it was only necessary to get to this point.13

However, in the case of the father’s obligation to educate the child in the performance of the mitzvahs, this goes a step further. Here, without the active participation of the child, there can be no fulfillment of the father’s obligation. This is not merely preparation; the child is integral to the actual obligation.

The Rebbe suggests that even though the child has no actual obligation, since the father can only fulfill his obligation through the child, it is as if the child is in a certain way obligated, too.

So it turns out that the obligation of a child to fulfill the mitzvahs does not start as the child’s obligation. It is a de facto obligation, because the only way the father can fulfill his obligation is directly tied to the child.

An example of this is found in a Tosafot in Tractate Rosh Hashanah.14 In the Talmud there, Abaye stated that regarding the obligation of a woman to be joyful on festivals by attending the pilgrimage to Jerusalem,15 “her husband causes her joy.” This is taken to mean that the woman herself does not have an obligation to be joyful (since it is a time-bound mitzvah, and women are generally exempt from such mitzvahs). Rather, her husband has an obligation to cause her to be joyful—as Rashi comments—by purchasing her clothing.

The problem with this, as Tosafot points out, is that in Tractate Chagigah, Abaye seems to clearly state that a woman does have an obligation to join the festivities in Jerusalem. While discussing the appropriate age at which a child should go up to the Temple, the Talmud inquires, “Who brought the child to Jerusalem?” In anwer, Abaye says, “To here (Jerusalem), as his mother is also obligated to rejoice on the festival, his mother brought him.”16

Tosafot articulates the seeming contradiction: It seems clear from the Talmud in Chagigah that in Abaye’s opinion a woman does does have an obligation to attend the pilgrimage festival, so why in Tractate Rosh Hashanah is Abaye quoted as saying that “her husband causes her joy,” i.e., she does not possess her own obligation!?

To resolve this, Tosafot writes that she indeed does not have her own obligation; in Tractate Chagigah, when the Talmud refers to “her obligation,” it is really referring to the husband's obligation. However, since the husband has an obligation to cause her joy, this is referred to as her obligation.

Since the husband’s obligation to cause his wife to rejoice can only be fulfilled by his wife, it is considered in a certain way as if she too has this obligation, even though it is really her husband's obligation.

Similarly, even though it is the father who is obligated to educate his child, since it can only be accomplished through the child, it is as if the child too has an obligation.

With this, we can resolve the two questions above.

Regarding the general obligation to educate a child, the rabbis did not impose any obligation on the child. This begins purely as an obligation of the father. However, since the child must be directly involved, it is as if the child too has an obligation. And apparently this level of obligation is enough to enable the child to exempt the father's obligation in specific cases (such as a child making certain blessings for his father, according to Maimonides).

The same holds true with regard to the biblical obligation for a father to teach his son Torah. Since the father’s biblical obligation cannot be satisfied without the son’s involvement, the son is a full and active participant in this obligation, this is tantamount to him being obligated himself. Therefore, if the father does not fulfill this obligation, it is up to the son to make amends as soon as he becomes aware of the deficiency. He must do all in his power to obtain the skills necessary to study.

The Inner Dimension - Torah is Unlimited

In a talk on the holiday of Shavuot 5718 (1958), the Rebbe suggested a possible explanation as to why there is biblical obligation for the father to teach his son Torah (which can then be transferred to the son, as explained). How is this different from the general obligation to educate a child, which is merely rabbinic in nature?

He explains that mitzvahs are by nature limited. Mitzvahs must be carried out at certain times and in certain places—they have many conditions. Torah study, on the other hand, is unlimited. (Even though there are various external factors that may limit the study of Torah—places and times when it is forbidden—Torah itself transcends limitations.)

Based on this principle, the Rebbe suggests that the reason why there is a particular biblical obligation regarding Torah study, but not regarding the other mitzvahs, is due to the nature of Torah.17 Since Torah is by nature unlimited, it is therefore applicable even to a minor.18