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SIDIC Periodical XIV - 1981/2
The Family: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Pages 16 - 20)

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The place of the family in Jewish tradition
Lea Di Nola


It has always been true that the worth of an individual, and therefore of society, depends largely on the strength of the family. The Jewish people has ever been aware of this and has looked to the ideal of a good family life which, all through its history, it has endeavoured to create and uphold.

Just as we cannot live without breathing, so also, in Jewish thought, we cannot live without the family: to belong to a family where each one in turn assumes the roles which the passing of the years assign, is part and parcel of our human condition. This is confirmed in the Bible: "And God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). After having created man, God saw that a creature, endowed with reason and feelings, could not bear being alone, and so he created a new being, not formed as was Adam from the dust of the earth, but from a nobler material which was already living: "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23).

By creating two sexes God established the family with the aim of perpetuating the human race but also of satisfying the spiritual and emotional needs of man, the need of having a companion and helper to support him in his struggles and comfort him in life's difficulties. In the family therefore, the woman is "man's helper and not his slave" 1 illustrating the fundamental equality of the married couple in the sight of God who has made both of them in his own image and likeness. They are two distinct parts of one single being, each one being equally important to the other, with love as the basis of their relationship. Thus was marriage instituted in an atmosphere bespeaking deep feeling and poetry. Our Rabbis have said, in fact:

"Whenever a man and a woman enter marriage in purity to build a pure Jewish home, the Divine Presence rests on their chupah".2


In antiquity each family placed a great deal of importance on its genealogy. In order to show one's belonging to a family or a tribe, an individual had to prove that he or she was directly descended from the ancestors of the group. This was so above all for the priests who, in order to justify their right to perform their sacred duties and to have certain privileges, had to be able to document the purity of their origin. Accordingly the bible has long genealogies which link various personages to the patriarchs of old.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent dispersal of the Jewish people it was naturally no longer possible to be able to produce documentary evidence of one's descent. Even by this time, however, it had already become difficult to trace one's family tree on account of marriage among the different tribes and the confusion resulting from population changes, the first Babylonian exile and the weakening of religious observance. Many of the sages of the talmudic era, notably Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir, descended from families which were unable to trace back their ancestry and the Mishnah established the principle that

"the bastard that is learned in the Law precedes the High Priest that is ignorant of the Law" (Horayoth 3, 8)

with the evident aim of demonstrating that the study of the Torah and piety were more important than family trees.

In Judaism however, the genealogy is important from the point of view of the theological concept known as Zekhut Avot (the merits of the fathers) whereby descendants benefit from the just deeds of their ancestors. Such a concept is frequently recorded in the Bible and in rabbinics with regard to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, sometimes also in reference to the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Lea whose deeds, through the Lord's favor, were attributed to the people of Israel. This doctrine of the merits of the fathers has its counterpart in the idea of the uprightness of a son favorably influencing the destiny of a deceased father.

"Real communication with the dead is through their virtue. The real reply of the living is again their virtue. It becomes a bridge thrown across the abyss of the grave. In this way the hearts of fathers and sons beat in unison for all eternity".3

Family Education

One of the cohesive forces which has enabled the Jewish people to survive for so long has been its perseverance in transmitting from one generation to the next obedience to a way of life regulated by the observance of precepts and of a high moral discipline. There exists in the ideal Jewish home a sense of security created by the fact that each member of the family knows his or her role. The child is therefore conscious of what is expected of it, knowing that it can count on its parents and relatives for any help it may need.

In this concept of life the education of the Jewish child is of the utmost importance and the Jewish woman in her family circle is dedicated to the initial education of her children, enjoying the satisfaction of being the first to transmit to her little ones the teachings and values of Judaism. In these early years the mother is, in fact, the one who, through her love, gives support and security to her children, being directly responsible for their education. As they begin to grow older, the father will take over the duty of instructing his sons while the mother will continue to look after her daughters until they are married.

"He that learns as a child, to what is he like?" asks Pirke Avoth. "To ink written on new paper",' that is to say that children absorb everything they see and hear whether it be good or bad. Parents who are responsible for them therefore, should watch over their own manner of acting and constantly educate and instruct their offspring, trying to discover what are their needs and taking their questions and their curiosity into account. The Torah insists on this essential duty of parents:

"You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul... You shall teach them to your children, talking to them when you are sitting in your house and when you are walking by the way... that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth". (Deut. 11:18-21)

And again:

"When your son asks you ... you shall say to your son... (Deut. 7:20, 21),

phrases which indicate the obligation of fathers to instruct their children, not only when they show interest or are sufficiently intelligent to ask questions, but also, as the Passover Haggadah expresses it, when your 'son does not know how to ask' you must yourself awaken the need so that he can be given the explanation.

The sages of the Mishnah state that a father is obliged to teach his son six things, three of them of a spiritual and three of a practical nature: 1) through the covenant with Abraham the necessity of living according to an ideal other than the satisfying of one's own instincts, 2) through memorial of the Exodus a love for freedom and the dignity of the human person, 3) through the study of the Torah and the remembrance of Sinai the importance of spiritual freedom and of moral behavior, 4) teach him a trade, 5) find him a wife, 6) teach him to swim so that he may also learn how to cope with critical or unexpected situations. Thus, trained both spiritually and bodily, the young person is prepared to face the future which, although inevitably hard and difficult, will be elightened by humanitarian and noble ideals and by a limitless trust in the Lord. Children are thus a blessing, a richness and a heavenly grace and, for both family and nation, a promise for the future.

A midrash on the Canticle of Canticles records than when Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them:

"Shall I without further ado give you the Torah? Nay, bring me bondsmen, that you will observe it, and I will give you the Torah". Israel: "0 Lord of the World! Our fathers are bondsmen for us". God: "Your fathers are my debtors, and therefore not good bondsmen... Bring me good bondsmen and I will give you the Torah". Israel: "Our prophets shall be our bondsmen". God: "I have claims against them... Bring me good bondsmen and I will give you the Torah". Israel:

"We will give Thee our children as bondsmen". God: "Well, then, these are good bondsmen, on whose bond I will give you the Torah." 5

In order, however, to deserve this trust, to be worthy of the task confided to them, Jewish youth should be conscious of their duties as children, as adults and as citizens. First of all, they must respect and obey their parents, kibbud Au va-Em, as prescribed by the fifth commandment. This is considered as a fundamental principle of human law and as an indispensable element of divine law. The phrase which we usually translate honor thy father and thy mother does not, according to Rav Prato, fully convey the meaning of the verb kabbed, which includes the concepts of honoring, respecting, venerating, loving, glorifying concepts which are not synonyms since each one has its own meaning which justifies the obligation imposed on children according to rabbinical interpretation. Our masters have taught, in fact:

"The obligation of kibbud Au va-Em does not even cease with their death, while during their lifetime children should not sit in their parents' places, nor speak before they do, not contradict nor interrupt them. When they become old their children should procure their complete livelihood for them, serve them at table, feed them, clothe them, help them up when they fall, lead them on their way, always with a cheerful heart and expression of face. They must be spoken to gently and respectfully, and all our time devoted to them. If however one's parents should be incorrigible sinners, their children should not treat them badly, speak ill of them nor humiliate them. Their memory should be dear and sacred to them, and after their death they should say: 'my venerated father (or mother) of blessed memory. 6

The Bible which, as a guidance for life, foresees all possibilities, considers also the case of

"a man (who) has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother... then (they) will take hold of him and bring him to the elders of the city... Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so shall you purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear". (Deut. 21:18-21)

According to the interpretation given by the jurists of the Talmud, it seems that this passage was not intended to be applied literally but as a deterrent.

Ahead of its time, the Talmud gave a real lesson in education within the family setting, adopting the wise principle of consistency in teaching, accepted today as a basis for all modern educative methods, in the interpretation of the phrase: "he will not obey our voice". The sages explain it thus: The word voice in the singular indicates that the voice of father and mother should be heard to say the same thing, otherwise, if the teaching of the father should differ from that of the mother, any erorr in the action of their son should be attributed to them and the son should not be held responsible for his evil conduct.

Through an affectionate and perceptive vigilance, proper correction and a wise influence, parents can fulfil the intention of the Bible, that is to say, not bring a rebellious son before the judge, but rather act in such a way that does away with the need for drastic measures. Rebellious children, in fact, are the results of broken or disturbed families, while on the contrary, the atmosphere of a peaceful household is conducive to the harmonious growth of well integrated young people. The value of traditional Jewish family life is undoubtedly confirmed by the surprizingly low incidence of juvenile delinquency in the Jewish community, at least up until these modern days of permissiveness. The wise men of old, in fact, established that

"there never has been nor will there ever be a case equal to that of the rebellious son".7

Shalom Ha-Bayit A Peaceful Home 8

The concept of peace is dearly loved among Jews, the traditional Jewish expression to describe domestic happiness being shalom ha-bayit a peaceful home. The selfsame greeting Shalom! is given to guests, to one's friend, to one's acquaintances met in the street. So great is the peace that should distinguish a house in which the Divine Presence is felt that all through the ages the Jew has looked upon it as a little sanctuary. In order to build it, however, certain characteristics are necessary which concern either the observance of religious precepts or the interrelationships of those who dwell in the home become a sanctuary. It is no easy matter to create an atmosphere of peace and of love among persons who have very determined characters, different habits which spring from families of diverse backgrounds, customs or traditions or among persons of different generations with their own aspirations, rights, their own need to be cared for or affirmed. Shalom ha-bayit is not, in fact, an idyllic state. Paradoxical as it may seem, true shalom is found right there where people differ in so many respects behavior, aspirations, desires there where love does not spring forth spontaneously and where anger easily flares up. It is precisely here that a genuine desire for achieving peace is put to the test. Those who really love and wish for peace do their utmost to attain it. If provoked one should not permit oneself to be overcome by the temptation to react violently or quarrelsomely, but, by imposing self control, should strive to re-establish a quiet atmosphere and peacefully resolve differences. If it is difficult to maintain peace everywhere else, it is all the more difficult to maintain it within one's own family.

Mordecai the Just, ruler of the Sanhedrin, was called "the greatest among the Jews, second only to the king" and was universally respected and loved by the people. The last homage that was paid to him made him truly great: "he established peace among all his children". Children, as we know, are not all equal, nor are they all equally receptive to their father's words. Humanly speaking, one always feels more drawn towards the obedient child or the one more conformed to our own ideas. But although it is much more difficult to establish a relationship of peace with those children who reject or contrast parental advice, it is precisely here that Shalom ha-bayit comes into play as do the precepts of the Bible and the teachings of our masters. They know that self control is difficult, that to teach someone how to live is likewise a difficult thing; it is not easy to bring up children, to live together in society, to fulfil one's duties towards the State and one's own people as well as towards the whole of humanity. All these things present their own problems but everything can be faced and overcome if one has a real will for peace. The family founded upon this basis of truth and of peace can serve as the foundation stone of a people and of a just and better world.

Religion in the Family

Of its very nature, this traditional way of living requires that parents spend a great deal of time with their children. Sabbaths and feasts, having almost all of them been instituted to commemorate some important historical event, are days that are looked forward to eagerly, since in effect they become family experiences with each one participating and bringing his or her own contribution. In fact the special characteristic of the Jewish feasts is that they bring the family together injoy in order to celebrate them with a wholesome gaiety which leads one to turn towards the Lord since he has said:

"You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter..." (Deut. 16:11)

Ritual observances in the family are, doubtless, a most important educative experience for young people. Traditional ceremonial observed by parents is an example to children upon whom this kind of teaching makes a more lasting impression than that found in books. Apart from their intrinsic value in themselves, family prayer and the pronouncing of blessings over food and in connection with all the actions of everyday life, the observance of kashrut and of ritual purity, instil into the child an attitude of respect towards God which is the ultimate aim of education.

In his earliest years the son goes to the synagogue with his father where he learns the traditional rites, prayers and melodies. Daughters, together with their mother, pronounce the blessing over the sabbath candles and help in the preparation of the food, learning all about kashrut and the traditional dishes of the Jewish kitchen. The ceremony of kiddush consecrates sabbaths and feast days in such a way that the family takes a real delight in being together. A typical example is the celebration of Passover, the culmination of the family's educative experience of the whole year. During its long preparation and its celebration, entailing the direct participation of everyone in the ceremonies of the Seder meal, the interest of even the youngest child is aroused.

But it is the sabbath, the truly welcome and loved guest, which, like a messenger from heaven, brings joy and calm into the family and the home. This ineffable gift is a real comfort and support in the harsh realities of life. It is thanks perhaps to this day alone, as it has been described by the late Rabbi David Prato, that the Jewish people has been able to survive so much suffering and humiliation.

"Daily preoccupations disappear, life's struggles are forgotten, even the humblest and poorest house is pervaded by a joyful, festive and peaceful atmosphere. Everything is neat and clean if not literally sparkling: the special gleam of the sabbath lights, a table prepared as for a banquet, if not with show, then at least with taste. Nothing more is needed to rejoice and calm the heart. The children are ready to bow their heads under their father's blessing. In such a peaceful and tenderly warm atmosphere, the head of the family feels as though he has become another man, so lifted up does he feel himself to be above the miseries of the world, so opened up to all good inspirations that he feels stronger and happier. He draws this happiness from his family which is with him, feeling that this time is truly governed by the Ruah ha-Shem, the Spirit of God which, together with him, has created his children".9

The curse which the Prophet Balaam was called upon to utter against Israel by an envious king was transformed on his lips into a blessing which has become proverbial and most meaningful:

"How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob, your encampments, 0 Israel"! Num. 24:5

The most vital factor in the survival of Judaism has been the constant insistence on the value of the family as the social unit for the spreading of domestic and religious virtue, enabling the Jewish home to be maintained throughout the centuries in such a way that Balaam's prophecy can truly be applied to it. The power of family ties, together with reciprocal responsabilities and esteem, have made of the home a bulwark capable of resisting all internal and external pressures throughout the ages.

If in our days of increased well-being and of technological progress it seems that the cohesion of the family is disintegrating and is occupying a less central role in the life of the individual, the memory of and a habitual return to the observances of the precepts and traditions that, for so many centuries, held the family together on a foundation of purity and stability can also permit it to overcome the tensions of life today and preserve the serene and joyful atmosphere that has been characteristic of our homes. David Philipson has expressed it thus:

"In the narrow lanes of the old Jewish quarters of so may European cities there blossomed this beautiful Jewish family life whose history has rarely been recorded but which was more important than any other event or calamity recorded by historians. As we cast our eyes over the ugly houses, the exterior misery seems to vanish while the vivid light of the familiar scene of joy, of love and of enduring religious observance shines like an eternal flame, explaining how, in spite of the sufferings and misery which have been the destiny of this people as no other, the Jews have found the strength to live and to place their hope in tomorrow".10

1. Dante Lattes: Aspetti e Problemi dell'Ebraismo, Torino, Borla Editore, 1970, p. 326.
2 A.E. Kitov: The Jew and His Home, New York, Shengold, 1976, p. 31.
3. Isaac Abrahams, quoted by Hertz: A Book of Jewish Toughts. p. 198.
4. M. Avoth 4:20.
5. Shir 1, 4, quoted by Louis Ginzberg: The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1968, Vol. III, pp. 89f.
6. David Prato: Il Decalogo, ed. Israel, Firenze 1974, p. 79.
7. Tosefta San. 11, 6.
8. Or more accurately, a peace pertaining specifically to the home. Shalom conveys a depth of meaning richer than the English word peace.
9. Prato, op. cit., p. 88.
10. D. Philipson (1862-1949). American Reform Rabbi of German origin, author of The Reform Movement in Judaism, New York, Macmillan, 1907. His thought is discussed by Hertz, op. cit., p. 10.


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