Kids in the Kongregation on the High Holidays

Every year, as we prepare for the High Holidays, child care is on the list of offerings at congregations. I’m not referring to Junior Congregations or Teen Minyans, but rather, real child care. Parents want to attend to hear the Shofar blasts and participate in the services, but it can pose a challenge when they have babies and/or young children in tow. Babies and toddlers need to eat, be changed, don’t always sit still, and often don’t sit quietly- so why bring them at all?

In the second of our Double Parsha this week, Vayelech, the Torah advances the Mitzvah of Hakhel – The Septennial event whereby all the people of Israel come to the Temple in Jerusalem to listen to the King of Israel read from the book of Deuteronomy. From this Mitzvah we can take direction on how to view bringing young children to services.

Deuteronomy 31:12

הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְוָ֣ה אֱלֹיכֶ֔ם וְשָֽׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ 

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.

The Talmud in Tractate Chagigah 3A asks our question and answers cryptically:

Chagigah 3A

״הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף״. אִם אֲנָשִׁים בָּאִים לִלְמוֹד, נָשִׁים בָּאוֹת לִשְׁמוֹעַ, טַף לָמָּה בָּאִין? כְּדֵי לִיתֵּן שָׂכָר לִמְבִיאֵיהֶן. אָמַר לָהֶם: מַרְגָּלִית טוֹבָה הָיְתָה בְּיַדְכֶם, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם לְאַבְּדָהּ מִמֶּנִּי? 

They said to him that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya interpreted the following verse: “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones” (Deuteronomy 31:12). This verse is puzzling: If men come to learn, and women, who might not understand, come at least to hear, why do the little ones come? They come in order for God to give a reward to those who bring them, i.e., God credits those who bring their children to the assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: This good pearl of wisdom was in your hands, and you tried to conceal it from me.

Why does G-d give a reward to those that bring their young children to shul? And why does Rabbi Yehoshua find this teaching so insightful?

The Ben Yehoyada otherwise known as the Ben Ish Chai of Baghdad (1835 – 1909) writes that even though the children will not understand the sermons and be able to attend to the Torah Readings, nevertheless simply being in the holy atmosphere of reverent prayer and holiness will make a lasting impact on the young child.

It is specifically Rabbi Yehoshua who praises this teaching because we are taught elsewhere that the mother of Rabbi Yehoshua used to bring her infant to the Study Hall in his crib so he could inhale and imbibe the wisdom of the scholars present. Rabbi Yehoshua credited his mother for his success in Torah scholarship because of those early childhood visits. 

Therefore, it is praiseworthy and worthwhile to expose our young children to services. While effort must be expended to not allow the children to disrupt those deep in prayer, it is Talmudically prescribed that exposing our young kids to holy services and wisdom which will impact them throughout their lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence