Welcome to the first session of the JUICE course on "Biblical Perspectives on Child Development"! I hope you find the course enjoyable and stimulating. Whether you are a parent, teacher, social worker, or policy maker, this course is intended to familiarize you with the most ancient source of wisdom about child development so that you may base your child rearing, educational or social policies on time-tested and authenticated values for the benefit and well being of the child.

Since the time of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, a bond has united all Jewish parents in all four corners of the earth in every generation. This bond, the force that binds the major elements of Judaism together has contributed to Jewish survival despite a history of exile, trauma and oppression.

Much has been said and written about the Jewish mother, the Jewish familv and even the Jewish father, sometimes with awe and respect- other times with exaggeration. If we are to summarize all that has been written on the subject, we could define the Jewish perspective on child rearing and child development with one word: commitment - a deeply rooted, unequivocal, imprinted commitment to children (whether one's own or those in the the community and nation). The Jewish value of "giddul banim" (child-rearing) is based on the development of the child as a living vehicle for the continuation of the Biblical heritage.

The conception of childhood in any society is shaped by three major factors: 1) the cultural ideology pertaining to children; 2) attitudes concerning the child as an object of parental affection and concern, and 3) the child as an object of formal study. In order to comprehend the Biblical perspective on child-rearing and child development, we will take a look at each of these factors within the framework of the Judaic sources on the subject.


In Judaism, childhood is considered a period of purity, joy, and beauty to be valued and cherished. The Talmud states "childhood is a garland of roses." To emphasize the concept further, one rabbi states of children that "their very breath is free of sin."(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152,119a)

Childhood is a symbol of creation, a time when the development of the human being is in its most crucial stage. Since the child is "not a thinker and is unable to distinguish good from evil," (Bachya ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart) the parent (or caretaker) has the ultimate responsibility of guiding child. "And you shall teach them [the words of God] to your children in order that you lengthen your days and your children's days upon the earth." (Deut. 11:18) Moreover, as the Book of Proverbs' states: "Listen my son to the instruction of your father, and forsake not the teachings of - our mother." (Proverbs 1:8)

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "The decisive age in education is just that period in which most people neglect education completely, and this is the period of childhood, the first years of life in which we must try to remove in advance a obstacles which might arise on the road towards the education of the children in future years." (Yesodot Hachinnuch, chapter 1)

Childhood is the period in which the personality is molded and the physical and mental faculties develop. The process of human development, in essence, supplements the creation and mystery of the universe. Childhood is a time of joy and pain, happiness in development, and wonder at learning and exploring. The Talmud sums up the period of childhood in the following passage: "Better are the late fruits we ate in our childhood than the peaches we ate in our old age." (J-m Talmud, Pe'ah 87:4) Children are regarded as the hope of the future in every society, yet among the Jewish people this concept is enhanced by the view that children are a divine trust. This is stated in no uncertain terms in the Book of Psalms: (127:3) "Children are an inheritance from the Lord, a reward for the fruit of the body " The prophet Malachi notes that children are the "seed of the Lord." (Malachi 2:15)


Parents set the stage for successful child-rearing by committing themselves to caring for the child and his/her emerging role as the foundation for the future of the Jewish people. Rabbi Yochanan tells the story of a man who planted a carob tree, which is known to bear fruit only after seventy years. When asked whether he thought he would live to eat from the tree, the man replied: "I am doing as my ancestors did. Just as they planted a carob tree for their children, I am planting for my sons." (T.B., Taanit 23a)

The principle underlying all aspects of the parent-child relationship is the goal of ensuring the continuation of the Biblical heritage from one generation to the next. This is aptly brought out in Psalms: (127:3)"Instead of thy fathers shall be thy sons."

Judaism has special esteem for children, considering them to be the hope for the future and the basis for the perpetuation of the Torah: Rabbi Meir said: "When Israel stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah (Bible), the Holy One. blessed be He said to them "Shall I give you the Torah? Bring me good sureties that you will adhere to it and then I will give it to you..' They replied: "Sovereign of the Universe. our ancestors will be our guarantors. Said the Almighty to them "Your sureties need sureties themselves. I have found fault with them. They answered. "Our prophets will be our guarantors. The Almighty replied: "I have found fault with them also. Then the Israelites said "Our children will be our guarantors. To which the Almighty replied "In truth these are good guarantors. For their sake I will give it to you." (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:4)

Children are the vital links in the continuation of the unbroken chain of the Biblical heritage throughout the ages. It is said that the Shekhinah (the spirit of the Almighty) hovers over Israel when the spiritual heritage of the Almighty is transmitted from one generation to the next. " unto thee, and to thy seed after thee." (Genesis 17:7) The Talmud comments on this verse that when the children follow the traditions of the parents, the Shekhina is found among them, whereas if the children do not follow their parents' ways, where shall the Shekhinah rest-on trees and stones? (Yevamot 64a)

The importance attached to children as a vehicle for perpetuating the Biblical heritage places them on a separate level from other groups. The Midrash pronounces that "children receive the presence of the Shekhinah" (Kallah Rabbati 8)

Rabbi Judah said: See how beloved are little children to God. When the Sanhedrin went into captivity, the Shekhinah did not go with them: when the watchers of the priests went into captivity, the Shekhinah did not go with them. But when the little children went into captivity, the Shekhinah went with them. For it says in Lamentations: "Her children are gone into captivity" {Lam. 1:5}. and immediately - after: "From Zion her splendor is departed"(Lamentations Rabbah 1:33 on 1:6)

Another indicator of the special status of children in Judaism is the fact that the Almighty's relationship with the people of Israel is compared to that of parent and child: "You are the children of the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 14.1)

This special relationship is especially evident when the text discusses the observance of the Biblical heritage: "My son, observe my sayings, and my commandments must thou treasure up with thee….My son, attend unto my wisdom, to my understanding incline thou thy ear".(Deut 1:4, Proverbs 7)

Finally, we find clearly stated: "Beloved are the people Israel who were called the children of the Lord; an abundance of love is given to them, for they were called the children of the Lord." (T.B. Avot 3:18) This passage has further implications for the role of the child in the Jewish family because the emphasis on parental love and care is exemplified by the Lord's relationship with the people of Israel.


"It is said that at the time the fetus is created in the mother's womb, there are three partners in his creation : the Lord, his father and his mother."(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5) This Midrash links the unique relationship between the Lord, the parents, and the child as the basis for the principles underlying child-rearing in the family. The child has occupied a central role in the Jewish family throughout the ages. In the Bible, we find that the first commandment which God gave man in the form of a blessing is "peru u-revu" - be fruitful and multiply, in order to give meaning to the creation of the universe. ( Gen. 1:28, with Rashi commentary)

The fundamental nature of this principle is stressed by the comments in the Talmud concerning the psychological importance of bearing children.(Nedarim 64) This is exemplified in the Bible by Rachel, who said to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die." (Genesis 30:1). When she gave birth to a son, she said: "G-d has gathered in my shame".(Genesis 30:2-3)

In the Biblical perspective, children are a blessing to the family. "The crown of old men are children's children, and the ornament of children are their fathers"(Avot 6:8) The rewards in the parent-child relationship are reciprocal: When the children are blessed, the parents by this very token are blessed (ZoharI, 227b). To cite just two concrete examples. we find that Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord on account of his offspring. (Tanhuma, Noah 2) and that Abraham was saved from the furnace on account of Jacob. (Genesis Rabbah 63:2)

Although, as we have noted, Judaism acknowledges the great challenge posed by the task of child-rearing (known as tza'ar giddul banim), parents are more than compensated for their toil, for children are a bond of union between husband and wife. (Ketubbot 50a) Indeed, the entire nation benefits from the presence of children. When each family has children, there is no need for the process of chalitzah (release from the obligation of levirate marriage), and consequently there are fewer argument and lawsuits over property, as each child receives his birthright.(Kettubot 50a)

The child in the Biblical perspective has been awarded love, compassion and respect throughout all of history. In contrast, research points out that many nations often considered children either as chattels, economic burdens or miniature adults. Tracing the history of childhood from the earliest times, several authors have noted the abuses carried out by the Greeks, Romans. Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Indians, and other peoples, who killed, neglected, or sacrificed their children, drowned daughters, and practiced cannibalism or the newborn taboo. Maltreatment of children was not limited to prehistoric times or early civilization - it occurred in "enlightened' European nations as late as the nineteenth century and is the bane of the most modern societies to the present day. (Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood) By contrast, as G.H Payne points out in his study on The Child in Human Progress (1916) , the Jewish nation introduced humanitarianism to the world, as shown in its attitude toward children, especially in the condemnation of child sacrifice as illustrated by the story of Isaac.

The cornerstone of the Biblical attitude toward children is the love and respect accorded by those who care for them as inscribed in Jewish law. This is a natural result of the view that children are a divine trust. As we see in the Biblical text, Joseph said to his father, Jacob: "These are my sons whom the Lord hath given me." (Genesis 48:9)

Since all human beings are created in the image of G-d, children have the right to be loved and cared for. As the Talmud says: "Beloved is man, who was created in the image of the Almighty; an abundance of love is given to him, for he was created in the image of God" (Avot 3:18)

The life of the individual from the period of infancy is considered holy, so much so that we find the ruling: "One desecrates the Sabbath for the sake of a one day old baby, but not for the dead body of David, King of Israel." (Shabbat 15b) Thus, the sacredness of human life is applied to the infant as soon as he is born.

Each individual has the right to feel that the world is created for his own sake. (Sanhedrin 38a) As a logical consequence of this view, each child is entitled to be loved and cared for so that he may have the possibility of developing to his/her maximum capability. Love for the child is the essential ingredient for successful child-rearing for "true compassion and true love exist only among children and for children" (Zohar II, 276b) In the Midrash we find the following observations:

" He has set the world in their heart" (Eccles. 3:2) Rabbi Jonathan interpreted the words to refer to the love of children which God has put in men's hearts. Like a king who had two sons: the elder honored him, the younger was corrupt; and yet, he loved the younger more than the elder." (Eccles. Rabbah 3 on 3a)

Rabbi Issachar said of a child who says "Masha" instead of "Moses," "Ahran" instead of "Aaron.-. and "Aphron" instead of "Ephron that the Almighty says about this: "Even his stammering I love.". A child may jump over the holv name of the Almighty again and again and he is not punished; yea, moreover, the Almighty says, "His very jumping I love ". (Numbers Rabbah 11:3)

How, then, are we to show our love to our children and at the same time provide guidance and discipline for their benefit? The Talmud provides the following answer: When dealing with a child, "be it ever your way to thrust off with the left hand and draw him/her to you with the right hand." (Sotah 47a) This principle has practical implications in all aspects of the parent-child relationship and provides an effective guideline for the rearing and development of children according to the Biblical perspective.

The practical implication of this guideline is the creation of an atmosphere of trust based on love as the foundation for the acquisition of the Biblical values. In the Jewish family, the most tangible element of parental love is the great dedication and effort consecrated toward the child's education. The major educational institution for children mentioned in the Bible is the family (public education was not instituted until the days of Joshua ben Gamla in the first century CE ). All family relationships were clearly defined in order to ensure the necessary atmosphere of love, respect, and mutual trust-now generally recognized as the essential psychological foundation for healthy mental development and learning.


The commitment to the child as an individual who forms a link in the eternal chain of Biblical values obliges us to study and understand the development of children. Whereas according to some authors, the concept of childhood was not fully developed in most societies up to the seventeenth century, (Aries, Centuries of Childhood) we find at the very basis of the Biblical perspective that the child is recognized as an individual with needs and rights different from those of the adult. The Bible singles out the katan ("minor") as not having the strength or knowledge that entails responsibility and obligation, and for this reason the Talmud considers the katan exempt from certain religious duties. The child is also called "olel" " yonek", and "tinnok" (feminine: tinnoket). The last of these "suckling," but it became a term of endearment and was also applied to children who had already passed the nursing stage.

Three basic factors shape the Biblical viewpoint on child development. The first is the necessity of studying and understanding the child's growth process, the second is the knowledge of the child's stages of development, and the third is the importance of each individual created by the Almighty. These guidelines have been reiterated in the contemporary field of child study. In the tenth century, the Jewish sage Bachya bar Joseph ibn Paquda wrote:

"It is our duty to study the development of the human being: his birth, the formation of the parts of his physical frame, the joining together of his 1imbs, the use of each 1imb, and the necessity., which caused his being made in his present form. Next, we should study man's advantages; his various temperaments, the faculties of his soul, the light of his intellect, his qualities - those that that are essential and those that are accidental; his desires and the ultimate purpose of his being, When we have arrived at an understanding of the matters noted in regard to man, much of the mystery of the universe will become clear to us. since the one resembles the other." (Duties of the Heart)

Translated into modern terminology, this passage outlines contemporary child-development study on the birth, physical development, personality formation, heredity, emotional and intellectual and environmental factors in development.

The responsibility for the way children develop in a society is shared by everyone who touches the lives of its children some way. This obviously includes parents, teachers, and social workers, yet it also includes policy makers and researchers whose work influences society's conceptions of childhood and attitudes toward children. Anyone who affects a child's development has the power to build or destroy. The developmental continuum consists of different dimensions: intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. Each of these has its own distinct processes, yet they are all basically intertwined. To work effectively with children, it is necessary to understand and into account the various aspects of development. Although no single theory proposed by child psychologists explains all the changes that occur in the process of growth, the Biblical perspective on child rearing encompasses all the dimensions of development, as we shall see in subsequent sessions.

The study of child development has yet another dimension in Judaism as expressed by Bachya ibn Paquda:

And thus some sages declared that philosophy is man's knowledge of himself; that is, knowledge of what has been mentioned with regard to the human being [his developmental process] so that through the evidence of divine wisdom displaved in him he will become cognizant of the Creator: as Job said, "From my flesh, I see the Almighty" (Job 19 26). (Duties of the Heart)

The study of child development is itself considered something of value, for it makes us aware of the wonders of the process of human development and enhances our reverence for the Almighty, the Creator.


How does a child develop from an embryo to a fetus, a neonate, an infant, a toddler, a preschooler, a schoolchild, an adolescent and finally an adult? Jewish sages have always recognized that development is a continuous process which proceeds stage by stage in an orderly sequence. Each stage marks a degree or of maturity in the sequential cycle of development. The study of child-development involves the behavioral changes that accompany growth at each stage and takes into account individual differences determined by nature and the effects of environmental forces. Although these stages of development have systematically formulated only recently by modern child development theorists, we find a number of philosophical statements about the stages of development in the various branches of Jewish literature. According to the Tikkune Zohar, "A man's life has three periods: the period when his body develops, the period when his thought develops, and the period when his deeds develop." (tikkun 19,67b) A student of Piaget would define these three periods as the sensorimotor phase, the preoperational (and phase of concrete operations), and finally the period of formal operations.

Knowledge of the various phases of life is especially important in the process of education. A noted child psychologist used to say: "Never ready until the nervous system is ready" (Gesell, Ilg,Amers,Rodell, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, pg 3) The child's nervous system is manifested in his maturational age, and this is the criterion one must consider in attempting to teach the child - whether one is teaching how to scribble with crayons, or toilet training, or playing with a ball, or reading and writing. It is for this reason that Rav said to Rav Shmuel bar Shilat: "Do not receive a pupil under the age of six years, but after that age stuff him like an ox" (T.B. Bava Batra 21a).

The Mishnah sets forth the following stages of development:

At five years of age, one learns the Bible. At ten years one studies the Mishnah. At thirteen, the individual reaches the age of mitzvot ( is responsible for obeying the Biblical commandments). At fifteen, one learns the Talmud. At eighteen one is ripe for marriage. At twenty, one is ready to pursue a vocation. At thirty, one is at the height of one's strength. At forty years of age, one has attained wisdom. At fifty, one is capable of giving advice. At sixty, one reaches old age. At seventy one turns gray. At eighty one is venerable. At ninety, one is stooped. At one hundred years of age, a person is as if he were dead." (Avot 5:24)

Bachya ibn Paquda describes the stages of development from conception through the growth of the fetus in the mother's womb to the infant who "has emerged into the world all its senses, except those of touch and taste, being weak." "Later on, the infant's physical faculties grow stronger, so that it is able to distinguish sights and sounds." "The offspring passes from infancy to childhood." (Duties of the Heart, ch. 5)

These stages of development are relatively stable characteristics, and imply a universality of sequence in growth. Every child's growth obeys laws of development applying to the entire human species as well as patterns unique to himself. The knowledge of the universal aspects of development enables us to appreciate human diversity. The factor of individuality is so strong that each child is unique at any given stage of development despite the central trends of human growth.


The Biblical concept of human nature envisages man as a creature of the earth and at the same time a child of the Almighty infused with the divine spirit. Each individual has the potential for good or evil. Each person is physically and mentally unique. It is noted in the Talmud that "when man makes coins with one stamp they all resemble one another, but the Almighty coins each person with the stamp of Adam and not one person resembles another. For this reason every individual must say: "The world has been created for my sake. " (Sanhedrin 37)

The practical application of this principle is that each child has the right to be accepted for what he/she is and should be accorded love, respect, and care as an individual. Every child is unique in his innate temperamental qualities, as has been emphasized in contemporary research findings. (Thomas and Chess, Temperament and Development) This factor must be taken into account in our relationship with the child in the fields of discipline, learning, and socialization.

A basic principle closely related to the importance of the individual is the value the Bible places on human life: "For this reason, man was created alone - to teach you that he who destroys one human life is compared to one who destroys the entire world, and he who sustains one human life from the people of Israel, it is considered as if he has sustained the entire world. (Sanhedrin 37)

The task of child-rearing is considered in the same light in Biblical thought. Anyone who is involved in the care and development of a child sustains a life and thus is compared to one who sustains the whole world.


Why is it important for us as parents, teachers and policy makers to learn about child development?

How does knowledge of the Biblical perspective on child development help us understand the challenges we face in shaping the future of the Jewish people?

In what ways does the role of the child in Judaism differ from the contemporary view of childhood?

How can our knowledge of the Biblical Perspective on Child Development help us cope with difficult dilemmas in child rearing in modern society?






Share           PRINT   
28 Aug 2005 / 23 Av 5765 0