A biweekly column about Jewish things.
“. . . that memory may their deed redeem when, like our sires, our sons are gone.”
—Concord Hymn, Ralph Waldo Emerson
On Yom Kippur, many Jewish eleven-year-olds try to fast for part of the day, even though the full stringencies apply only once they attain majority a few years later. Jewish parents will enforce this diluted fast (the children themselves can do as they please) to teach their children to be adult Jews, bnei mitzvoth—children of the commandments.
But teaching one’s children is itself a commandment, and like all commandments in Judaism, it addresses adults only. So anyone familiar with the solemn joy of a Jewish child’s graduation to Jewish adulthood should pause when she reads Deuteronomy 31:10–13:
And Moses instructed them, saying, at the end of every seven years, during the Sabbatical Year, during the Festival of Booths, when all Israel appears before the face of the Lord your God at the place he will appoint, read this Torah before all Israel, for them to hear. Assemble the people — men, women, and children, and the stranger in your midst, that they may hear and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and keep all the teachings of this Torah. And their children who do not know will hear and learn and fear the Lord your God all the days they live in this land that you are traversing the Jordan to possess.
Moses instructs only the leaders of the people to convene the Hakhel assembly. But when describing who should actually attend the gathering, the text is all-inclusive. Several medieval exegetes cite a passage in the Talmudic Tractate Chagiga to clarify that only the adults are formally obligated to come, though they must bring their offspring. But the text makes an extra effort to show that this exemption is technical. Children and adults, learned and ignorant, are similarly called to come and be awed.
The Talmudic Tractate Pesachim, which describes the laws of Passover, similarly encourages children to join in the holiday’s rituals, while technically exempting them from its rules. The tractate’s final chapter treats the Seder night, which begins the seven-day festival. The Talmud suggests that children, like their parents, should be obligated to drink four cups of wine. That cannot be so, one sage replies. Instead, youngsters are to eat sweets while listening to their parents recount the Exodus story.
Last year I mentioned this exchange in Pesachim to an older friend at yeshiva, asking where anyone could have gotten the idea that children were obligated to perform a bona fide commandment. He instanced Hakhel––according to him, these were both institutions of (his phrase) “memory formation.”
Maimonides’s discussion of Hakhel in his legal code quotes the above verses from Deuteronomy, then illustrates the ceremony: Trumpets are sounded, and from a large dais the king receives a Torah scroll from the High Priest and announces the covenant between God and his chosen people. The reading is from Deuteronomy: Moses’s valedictory address, which rehearses the dogmas of the Lord’s covenant and the blessings and curses requiting those who keep it or break it. All this is read in Hebrew, even if many of the gathered do not know Hebrew. Suchlike (Maimonides mentions converts) must “direct their hearts and their ears, listening with awe and fear, in joyous trembling, just as when the Torah was given at Sinai.” And then this: “even great and wise men, who know the whole Torah, must listen intently, and one who cannot hear what is said, should orient his heart toward it, for the Torah did not establish this except to strengthen his faith and the awe, as if even now he was being commanded.”
The assembled are commanded not so much to relearn what was said at Sinai as to absorb what it was like to stand there. Wise men are at no advantage and fools and children at no loss. All the living are equally distant from the miracle in the desert, all equally in need of reinforced faith.
When else are the wise and fools instructed together? The Passover Seder night, of course. “Even if we are all wise and understanding,” reads the Pesach Hagadah, the text of the Seder, “we are commanded to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” The retelling is one of the central commandments of the Seder night. We are particularly instructed to tell the story to children, even those who (in the language of the Hagadah) do not even know how to ask. “For on this night,” Maimonides writes, “were we, all Jews, redeemed by the Lord from bondage in Egypt.”
On this night. On Passover Jews do not just relearn their history or participate in a national remembrance. Rather, as Maimonides writes in the section of his legal code devoted to the laws of Passover, we make ourselves be seen (the Hebrew verb l’har’os is causal), as if now exiting the bondage of Egypt. We don’t rehearse the Exodus to inform ourselves but to transform ourselves. A second mechanism of this re-identification is the Passover feast itself, which we eat “in the manner of freedom,” and its mandatory four cups of wine––a commandment from which children are exempt, but into the spirit of which they are initiated.
Hakhel and the Passover night recreate the two essential moments in Jewish history: the redemption from Egypt, and the Revelation at Sinai. The Jewish tradition enthusiastically includes children in both—if not legally, then axiologically. The two rituals present different models of education. On the Seder night, adults both teach their children and rejoice with them. Fathers and mother are tasked with explaining and embodying. At the Hakhel assembly, adults and their young stand together before the king, who, acting as the agent of the King of Kings, reminds old and young Jews alike that before God, we are all children.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.