Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVII,
Parshas Kedoshim, p. 233ff.; Vol. XXXV, p. 61ff.

Bar Mitzvah , the Jewish term for coming of age, literally means “one obligated to fulfill the commandments.” Before Bar Mitzvah, a child also observes mitzvos, but this observance is termed merely chinuch, “training,” for the child is considered to lack the maturity to accept the responsibility for his Jewish practice.

Indeed, with regard to the observance of mitzvos as chinuch, there is a difference of opinion among our Rabbis regarding the extent of a child’s responsibility. Rashi1 and the Ramban2 maintain that the child is not responsible for his observance even according to Rabbinic law. The obligation of chinuch is incumbent on the child’s father; he must train his child to observe, but the child himself has no obligation whatsoever.

Tosafos3 and Rabbeinu Nissim4 maintain, by contrast, that when a child comes to the age when he is fit to be educated, he himself becomes responsible — according to Rabbinic law — to observe these mitzvos.

To illustrate these contrasting views: According to Scriptural law, one is not required to recite the Grace After Meals unless one ate a portion of bread that is thoroughly satisfying. Our Sages, however, were stringent and imposed a requirement that Grace be recited as long as one has eaten an amount of bread equal to the volume of an olive. They also required a child to recite grace as chinuch.

One of the principles of Jewish law is that one who hears [a blessing] is considered as having recited it himself.5 Thus one can fulfill one’s obligation for grace by listening to it being recited by another person, provided that person is also obligated to recite grace.

An adult who has eaten to the point of satisfaction cannot fulfill his obligation to recite grace by listening to grace recited by a child, for the adult is obligated to recite grace by Scriptural law, and there is no such obligation incumbent on the child. The question arises, however, with regard to an adult who ate only a small portion of bread, and whose obligation is Rabbinic in origin. Can he fulfill his obligation by listening to grace recited by a child?

According to Tosafos and Rabbeinu Nissim, since the child is himself obligated by Rabbinic law to observe the mitzvah, an adult whose obligation is Rabbinic in origin can fulfill his obligation by listening to his blessings. The Ramban and others who follow his approach6 do not allow a child to discharge an adult’s responsibility, even if that responsibility is Rabbinic in origin. For they maintain that the child himself is not obligated at all; the obligation rests on his father.

The Rambam does not explicitly mention the above issue. Nevertheless, since he rules7 that when a father has not eaten his fill, a son can discharge the obligation of grace on his behalf, we can assume that he follows the approach of Tosafos and Rabbeinu Nissim which maintains that the responsibility is the child’s alone.

This concept is also reflected in the Rambam’s wording in several sources. For example, in Hilchos Tzitzis,8 he states: “According to Rabbinic law, a child who knows how to wrap himself [in a garment] is obligated [to wear] tzitzis to train him in the observance of the mitzvos. ” Similarly, in Hilchos Berachos,9 he writes: “Minors are obligated by Rabbinic decree to recite grace to train them in the observance of the mitzvos. ” This choice of wording10 indicates that the Sages placed the obligation on the child himself.

The approach of the Rambam, Tosafos, and Rabbeinu Nissim raises a fundamental question: A child’s coming of age is not merely a chronological phenomenon; it is a result of his achievement of a degree of intellectual and emotional maturity. Until he reaches that age, he is unable to take responsibility for his conduct, and afterwards, he is considered mature enough to do so. How, then, can the Sages impose responsibility on him? To refer to an expression of the Talmud: “Can a child be held responsible to fulfill an obligation?”11

This question can be answered through the introduction of a related concept. Our Sages discuss the concept of machshirei mitzvah, the performance of tasks that are necessary to enable a mitzvah to be performed. For example, if a child must be circumcised on Shabbos, and there is not a proper knife available, Rabbi Eliezer permits one to carry a knife through the public domain (even though this violates the prohibitions against labor on the Shabbos).12 And furthermore, he even permits a knife to be fashioned. For according to his opinion, just as the performance of the mitzvah itself supersedes the Shabbos laws, so, too, does the performance of any activity necessary to enable that mitzvah to be performed. Although Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is not accepted as halachah, even the Sages who differ do attach a measure of importance to machshirei mitzvah.

To cite another example: The Jerusalem Talmud13 states that before building a sukkah or making a lulav, one should recite a blessing praising G‑d for “sanctifying us with His commandments and commanding us to make a sukkah” or “a lulav. ” Although the mitzvah is to dwell in the sukkah or to take the lulav, since it is impossible to fulfill that mitzvah without first making the sukkah or the lulav, the preliminary activity is important enough to warrant the recitation of a blessing.

The extension of the scope of a mitzvah applies also to people as well as to activities. For example, a person who is not capable of studying the Torah on an advanced level should set aside a certain amount of time every day for Torah and devote the majority of his efforts to earning a livelihood, supporting not only himself and his own family, but other Torah scholars,14 giving them the opportunity to study the entire day.15 The person who supports the scholars is given a share of their merit, and it is considered as if he studied himself.

To cite an even further extension of this concept: Women are not obligated to study the Torah. Nevertheless, if they help their husbands and sons to study, they are given a share in the performance of that mitzvah,16 for it is their assistance that makes this study possible.17

The above concepts can also be related to the mitzvah of chinuch. It can be explained that the mitzvah is incumbent on the father. Nevertheless, the child is an active partner in the mitzvah, for after all, the father’s mitzvah involves the child’s observance. It is not merely, as in the instances mentioned above, that without the child, the father could not observe the mitzvah of chinuch, but that the mitzvah incumbent on the father is that his child should perform mitzvos. And so, as a result of the father’s obligation, the child is also considered obligated.18

To explain the concept from a slightly different vantage point: Since the father is obligated to train his child in the observance of the mitzvos, there is an obligation binding the child to observance. Although it is the father’s mitzvah that requires him to observe, the child can still be considered as obligated.

To cite a parallel: Our Sages19 state that a woman is obligated in the mitzvah of bringing festive peace offerings on the three pilgrimage festivals. Rabbeinu Tam20 explains that the obligation to bring a festive peace offering is incumbent on the husband. Nevertheless, since the husband’s rejoicing must encompass his entire household, a woman is also considered obligated21 with regard to this sacrifice.22

Another more telling illustration of this principle can be seen from another ruling by the Rambam. In Hilchos Talmud Torah,23 the Rambam writes: “[A child] who was not taught [Torah] by his father is obligated to teach himself when he appreciates [the importance of knowledge].” Noting that the Rambam uses the term “when he appreciates,” and not “when he attains majority,” the Tzemach Tzedek24 writes — in wonder — that it appears that the Rambam maintains that there is an obligation on the child.

Based on the above principle, we can appreciate the Rambam’s ruling. The mitzvah incumbent on the father is “And you shall teach them diligently to your children,”25 requiring the child’s active involvement. Accordingly, the obligation of that mitzvah is also extended to include the child as well.26

On the verse:27 “Set up marking posts for yourselves,” the Ramban28 explains that the mitzvos we observe in the present era are merely preparatory steps, chinuch, for the ultimate observance of the mitzvos which will take place in the Era of the Redemption. They prepare not only ourselves, but also the world at large, readying it for that ultimate era; may it come soon.