Since the days of Abraham (Gen. xv. 2), to possess a child was always considered as the greatest blessing God could bestow; and to be without children was regarded as the greatest curse. The Rabbis regarded the childless man as dead; while the cabalist in the Middle Ages thought of him who died without posterity as of one who had failed in his mission in this world, so that he would have to appear again on the planet to fulfil this duty.
As human imagination always occupies itself with the unknown, the embryonic or preliminary stage of child-life became the subject of fanciful legend and myth. The soul before birth is warned that it will be held responsible for its actions through life, and takes an oath to lead a holy life (Jellinek, "B. H." i.). Two guardian angels teach the soul the Torah every morning and display the glories of the just in paradise. In the evening hell is shown. As the memory of this would interfere with free-will, the child forgets all it has seen and heard in this stage. The depression in the middle of the upper lip represents the stroke by which this knowledge and wisdom are made to disappear. For this reason, too, children cry when they are born.
One of the oldest ceremonies connected with the birth of a child was that of tree-planting. In the case of a boy a cedar was planted; in that of a girl, a pine (Giṭ. 57a). Among the ceremonies observed for the protection of the new-born son was the reading of the Shema', and at times of Psalm xc. in the presence of the children of the community. This was usually continued every evening of the week but in some places took place only on the eve of the Berit Milah (see Circumcision). The custom of paying a visit to an infant boy on the firstSabbath of his existence ( = "peace-boy") was also of Jewish origin.
Male children received their "sacred" names on the occasion of the Berit Milah. The so-called "profane" name ("kinnui") was given on the Sabbath after the mother paid her first visit to the synagogue; this was accompanied by a feast termed Holle Kreish (see Perles, in Grätz Memorial Volume, pp. 24-26). Girls were given their names about a month after their birth, when the father was called up to read the Law, and the Holle Kreish was also celebrated on the return home.
In the case of the first-born the ceremony of "redeeming the child" (, Ex. xiii. 2-15) occurred on the thirtieth day. According to the author of "Ḥuḳḳot ha-Torah" (Güdemann, "Gesch. des Erzichungswesens und der Cultur der Juden," i. 93), it was customary in the thirteenth century for a father to vow his first-born son to the study of the Torah.
"Halakah," the custom of cutting a boy's hair for the first time, took place after his fourth birthday, when care was taken to avoid touching the "corners" (Lev. xix. 27). In Palestine this occurred on the second day of Passover; and it was considered a religious privilege for each of the friends and relatives to cut a few hairs. In Talmudic times it was also customary to weigh the child and to present the weight in coin to the poor.
For the lullabies with which mothers soothe their children to sleep see Cradle Songs.The Duty of Learning.
The various diseases to which the child was subject, especially in Palestine (, Gen. R. xx. [ed. Cracow, p. 374]), were included under "the difficulties of bringing up children." If the child died, it was said to be because of the sins of the parents. God Himself supervised the education of the prematurely deceased children ('Ab. Zarah 3b). If a boy remained healthy, he studied the Torah in order to be rendered fit for the priestly office, for which learning was a necessary condition. The Rabbis tell of many infant prodigies. Leo de Modena is said to have read the Hafṭarah at the age of two and one-half years. But generally they preferred promise rather than performance at so early an age. The regular curriculum was for boys to learn Scripture at five, Mishnah at ten, and to fulfil the whole Law at thirteen. In the times of the Temple youths took part in religious ceremonies at a very early age. In the Sabbatical year they were brought to the Temple when the king read Deuteronomy (Deut. xxxi. 10-12). A boy's religious life began in his fourth year, as soon as he was able to speak distinctly; for although the child was held to be free from religious duties, it was required of the father to accustom him early to fulfil them (). This was considered all the more desirable because of the belief that the prayer of a child was more readily heard by God. Girls, too, went to the synagogue at a tender age. The presence of children in the synagogue was often troublesome. The boys frequently played during worship; hence the Sephardim confined them to one place.
Certain rites were observed when the boy first went to School (see Education). "Children of the house [school] of the master" is a regular phrase in Jewish literature. Words of Scripture uttered innocently by them were viewed as oracles by the Rabbis. In the school, the boys had hours of recreation as well as of study. In play, the angel Sandalphon () was their patron; but there were few specifically Jewish Games, most of them being taken from the peoples among whom the Jews lived. Parents did not pamper their children, but treated them severely, slight corporal punishments by the father being allowed, though not recommended. Temperance, abstemiousness, and poverty were inculcated as virtues; and, even though any boy might enter the priesthood, all had to learn a handicraft and swimming.
The duty of providing for such education, as well as for circumcision, for redemption from the Kohen, for teaching of the Law, and, when the child was of the proper age, for marriage, was imposed by the Talmud upon the father. The synod of Asa imposed upon him, furthermore, the obligation to provide for the necessities of the child until his seventh year. It, however, strongly recommended the continuation of such provision until the child should have attained his majority (Ket. 49b).
Although enjoying all the protection of the law, the child was declared irresponsible by the Talmud, and had not to account for any mischief he might do. Nor was the father answerable for damages for injury due to such mischief; he was only morally responsible. This moral responsibility, however, ended when the child had attained his religious majority ceased to be a child, and became a "son of the Law" (see Bar Miẓwah)—namely at the age of thirteen. On this occasion the father pronounces the following benediction "Blessed be He for having freed me from this punishment." Actual legal responsibility on the part of the young man, however, began only with the age of twenty.
In later times little children were taken to the synagogue to sip the wine of the "sanctification cup" ("Kiddush") or to take part in the Simḥat. Torah ceremony. They participated in the Passover and Sabbath festivals, too, singing the "Praise" (, Ps. cxiii.-cxviii.). When a little older, the boy had to attend the synagogue and school regularly. He recited certain prayers ( and ). Indeed, he enjoyed almost all the rights of majority long before the day of his becoming "the son of the Law."
- S. Schechter, Studies in Judaism, pp. 282-312, Philadelphia, 1896, from which this article has been condensed;
- L. Löw, Lebensalter.