Absolution from a Child’s Sins

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Toldos

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: What is the origin and rationale behind a father reciting a blessing for absolution of his son’s sins?

When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, raising livestock. (Genesis 25:27)

Yaakov and Esav were born and raised together in the same household. However, they turned out to become diametric opposites of each other. While one may be inclined to think that Yaakov succeeded because he was sent to enrichment classes and took after after-school lessons, the Medresh (Bereishis Rabbah 63:10) informs us that, in fact, until the age of thirteen, both Yaakov and Esav, received the same education and upbringing. 

“…And the youths grew up” (Gen. 25:27). Rabbi Levi made an analogy to a myrtle and wild rosebush which grew next to each other; when they had grown, one gave forth scent and the other thorns. So too with these, for thirteen years they both went to school and came back from school, but after thirteen years this one went to study-houses and this one went to idolatrous temples. Rabbi Elazar said, until thirteen years a person needs to take care of their children – from this age onwards, they need to say “Blessed is the one who has exempted me from the punishment of this one.” 

After the age of bar mitzvah, Yaakov and Esav were given more autonomy – and that is when they truly began to diverge in opposite directions. Nonetheless, Yitzchak was able to claim to God that he fulfilled his responsibility by providing his children with a proper chinuch (Jewish educational background) and endeavoring to guide them in the ways of God. This is indeed the origin of the blessing that a father recites upon his son reaching bar mitzvah: “Baruch sheptarani me’onsho shel ze – Blessed are You, for relieving me of his punishment.” While the Rema (O.C. 225:2) was not comfortable invoking God’s name as one would do in a bona fide blessing, the Maharil (citing the Mordechai) and the Gr”a believed that that the aforementioned medresh provided sufficient basis to do so (see Mishnah Berurah 225:8). 

Interestingly, the Levush understands that prior to reaching bar mitzvah age, it is actually the child who suffers on account of his fathers sins. However, the standard interpretation is that it is the father who would incur punishment for neglecting to properly raise his child and is thus expressing relief for being released from this liability (Magen Avraham 225:5). (The Machatzis HaShekel, however, suggests that the Levush’s interpretation can still be reconciled with the text of the blessing: So long as the child is suffering on account of his father’s deeds, the father falls out of God’s favor. Thus, when the child reaches bar mitzvah, the father need only to account for his own actions and will not be judged on account of the inadvertent spiritual harm that trickles down to his child.)

R. Mordechai Carlebach reports that he heard a third elucidation of the aforementioned Medresh: When a father recites baruch shepatrani he is not thanking God nor is he expressing relief. Rather, he is acknowledging that he faithfully fulfilled his responsibilities toward his child. The father does not simply throw in the towel and declare, “Junior, you’re someone else’s problem now!” Rather, he is taking stock of the years of toil and sacrifice that he dedicated to his child which, God willing, will ensure that he walks in the path of Torah (We may suggest that this is similar to how some, such as Rav Kook, conceptualized the mitzvah of vidui ma’aseros – not as a confession, but as an acknowledgement of even one’s positive accomplishments.) 

With our deeper appreciation for the blessing of baruch shepatrani, we may now wonder why it is only the practice for the father to recite the blessing and not the mother. Afterall, the Talmud (Sukkah 2b) ostensibly indicates that women also have an obligation to educate their children in the ways of Torah:

Rabbi Yehuda said: There was an incident involving Queen Hilni in Lod where her sukkah was more than twenty cubits high, and the Elders were entering and exiting the sukkah and did not say anything to her about the sukkah not being fit. The Rabbis said to him: Is there proof from there? She was, after all, a woman and therefore exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah. (Consequently, the fact that her sukkah was not fit did not warrant a comment from the Elders.) Rabbi Yehuda said to them in response: Did she not have seven sons (and therefore require a proper sukkah)? And furthermore, she performed all of her actions only in accordance with the directives of the Sages.

The Gemara seeks to prove that a sukkah can be higher than twenty cubits due to the fact that Queen Hilni, who was a virtuous woman, was willing to seat her sons in such a sukkah. Numerous commentators and authorities infer from this passage that a woman is obligated in the mitzvah of educating one’s child similar to a father (e.g. Rashi, Chagigah 2a, s.v. Ai Zehu. See also Gilyonei Hashas on Sukkah 2b). In light of this, it remains difficult to understand why the mother does not also recite the blessing of baruch shepatrani.

The Talmud in Nazir (29a), however, indicates that the mother does not play a halachically obligatory role in the chinuch of her child. This is implied from the fact that a father may impose a nazarite vow (a special form of abstinence) upon his son, whereas the mother is not empowered to do so.

To reconcile these two Talmudic passages, R. Carlebach suggests that there are, in fact, two levels to the mitzvah of chinuch: (1) The first tier, which is shared by both the mother and father, consists of a general mitzvah to train their child to recite blessings, pray, observe Shabbos and to accustom himself to adhering to the commandments that he will be responsible for as an adult. (2) The second tier, which is solely incumbent upon the father, is the responsibility to ensure that his child lives a Torah observant lifestyle. Practically, this enables the father, should he deem it necessary, to impose additional restrictions on his child, such as a nazirite vow. Furthermore, as a result of bearing responsibility for his child’s actions, he also must bear the consequences of his child’s misdeeds. For this reason, it is the father alone who recites the blessing of baruch shepatrani. This blessing is not simply an expression of relief for fulfilling a general mitzvah – otherwise, every man may as well say it after wearing tefillin every day! – rather it is an acknowledgment that the father put in a good-faith effort to raise his child according to the precepts of our Torah.

My prayer is that every parent who sacrifices and dedicates themselves to raising their children according to the Torah should merit to see their children follow in the ways of our forefather Yaakov who accepted and built upon the foundation that his father Yitzchak and mother Rivkah provided for him.

(Postscript: R. Carlebach reports that R. Moshe Feinstein suggested that a woman does not recite baruch shepatrani, since the blessing is recited during Torah reading, which is exclusive to male participation. However, he questions this idea on the basis that the blessing of baruch shepatrani is not inextricably bound to the time of Torah reading. See Divrei Malkiel O.C. no. 4).

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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