by R. Daniel Mann
Question: Is it a mitzva to care for one’s own children: feeding, changing diapers, getting them to bed, etc.? If so, what is the source? Does it apply equally to men and women? If it is not a mitzva, wouldn’t any mitzva take precedence over such activities?
Answer: [Last time we saw that even if taking care of one’s children were not a mitzva, it would be a proper, central reality of life, to be done even when it takes away from one’s ability to perform certain mitzvot and delays others. Now we will see sources that indicate that it is a mitzva in its own way.]
The gemara (Ketubot 50a) states: “‘Praiseworthy is one who guards justice, who does tzedaka every moment’ (Tehillim 106:3). Is it possible to do tzedaka every moment? Our rabbis in Yavneh said that it refers to one who supports his sons and daughters when they are young.” Let us consider two difficulties in this gemara: 1. Why is supporting one’s own children considered tzedaka? (The gemara’s next opinion attributes the pasuk to raising orphans). 2. How is supporting one’s children “every moment”? Rashi answers both questions: 1. It is talking about an age at which there is no full obligation to support. The support of close family members should actually has tzedaka precedence over others, unless there is a halachic obligation (e.g., a husband to a wife) (Shulchan Aruch, YD 251:3). 2. “Always, day and night, they are his responsibility.” I understand “day and night” that it is not just giving money, which one can do in a moment, but that whatever needs arise can and often do fall upon him.
The gemara (Makkot 8a) says that a father is exempt from the consequences of injuring his son while disciplining him because it is a mitzva. It does not make sense that discipline is a mitzva and positive elements of child-rearing are not. Thus, we have another indication of a mitzva to raise children.
However, one will not find this mitzva in of the “lists of mitzvot,” as it is not a free-standing mitzva. The Rambam (Avel 14:1) lists several acts of kindness as Rabbinic positive mitzvot, including visiting the sick, comforting mourners, involvement in a funeral, and escorting a guest, among other acts. He concludes: “Although all of these mitzvot are of Rabbinic origin, they are included in ‘v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha’ (You shall love your friend like yourself) (Vayikra 19:18).” This formulation is paradoxical. On the one hand, if these mitzvot are Rabbinic, they are not from the Torah, but on the other hand, they are included in a mitzva of the Torah! This apparently means the following. The Torah requires one to do his fair share of acts of kindness. One person could fill his whole kindness quota on, say, visiting the sick, and never take part in funerals or have guests. Therefore, the Rabbis instituted an independent obligation in each of the matters listed.
Actions of raising children are not on the list above although the Rambam does mention applications elsewhere in his work (Matanot Ani’im 10:16 for one). It is possible the list is not exhaustive. It is also possible (see part I) that not only the Torah but even the Rabbis left these matters for a person to do voluntarily, in principle, even though practically, from a human perspective, they are activities that are incumbent upon him. Indeed, if one is not able (for various reasons) to do a lot of the caring for children, he/she can arrange for others (e.g., pre-school, day care) to take major parts in providing the child’s physical, educational, and emotional needs. However, when a mother or father acts normally, which includes a tremendous amount of work raising his children, this is a fulfillment of “v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha.” This fundamentally applies equally to men and women; in practice, reason and practicality should inform a family how to share these responsibilities. It is unlikely that a father will have to miss putting on tefillin one day because he is too busy tending to his children. But he might legitimately put them on later and miss minyan because a child is sick.