Welcome to our eighth session of "The Biblical Perspectives on Child Development". After considering the biblical perspective on birth and the care of the infant and child, we are ready to delve into the realm of child behavior that to many remains perplexing and mysterious. Only last week, Americans and indeed the entire world looked on with horror and pain at the tragedy which occurred in a Colorado high school as two deeply troubled youths filled with hatred and violence went on a rampage which resulted in a carnage. The headlines in American newspapers (as those all over the world) claim: "THERE WERE MANY WARNINGS, BUT THERE ARE FEW ANSWERS". (I H T - April 26, 1999) Actually, there are many answers and most are to be found in the Bible (Torah) and its commentaries. The session on "Child Behavior" and many of our upcoming sessions brings you many of these answers….


As the very essence of Bible is based on a divine moral code, the Biblical attitude toward child behavior has much to offer those who are committed to providing their children with a sound moral and ethical upbringing. One of the fundamental principles of Judaism is that children are not responsible for fulfilling the commandments. Boys undertake this responsibility when they reach the age of thirteen, and girls when they reach the age of twelve. From then on they are regarded as adults insofar as observing the "mitzvot" (Biblical precepts) is concerned. (Yoma 82a, Niddah 45b, Kettubot 51a)

Why is this so? Are we to conclude that children are not intelligent enough to fulfill the commandments? Certainly not, for many children of ten or eleven are brighter than adults much older than they. Moreover, there is no overwhelming change in the child's mental capacities the day he becomes thirteen (or twelve if a girl,) the age of assuming responsibility for the mitzvot.

Our sages explain that the obligation of fulfilling the commandments depends on the acquisition of morality. (Resposa Rav Pe'olim, Orach Chayyim, siman 5; Sod Yesharim, siman 3) In Biblical terms, this means the development of the spiritual elements of the soul - or in scientific terms, the "morality of self-accepted moral principles." (Lawrence Kohlberg, "Moral Development ", in David Sills (ed) Int'l Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (N.Y. Crowell, Collier & Macmillan) The commandments were given to enable man to amend his soul and rise to the level of sanctity exemplified by the Almighty. According to the Kabbalah, the spiritual element does not develop in the human being until the age of thirteen. (Etz Chayyim 50:83) This is also the age at which Kohlberg claims that the individual reaches the stage of "conventional morality".

This philosophy of human development is a fundamental principle engraved in the Bible. Through this viewpoint the most subtle concepts of modern child psychology are interwoven into the fabric of Judaism


Behavior constitutes the individual's unique pattern of responses to the environment. A state of equilibrium between the individual's inner drives and the external demands of society and environment constitutes mental health. The highest order of mental health exists when the equilibrium is based on a value system.

Judaism envisages the sources of behavior in the human mind as governed by the "yetzer ha-tov" (the good spirit) and the "yetzer ha-ra" (the evil spirit). One or the other of these forces determines all of our responses to the environment. Life is a constant struggle between the two. The cornerstone of this philosophy is that the evil spirit is created at birth, as declared in the Bible: "the spirit of man's heart is evil from the days of his youth!" Genesis 8;21) Furthermore, on the basis of the passage "For sin lieth at the door," the talmudic sages concluded that the evil spirit is present in the child at birth. (Sanhedrin 91, Genesis 4,7) Discussing whether the evil spirit enters man at the time of conception or the time of birth, Rabbi Judah the Prince maintained that it was present at conception. Antoninus, citing the preceding passage as support, pointed out that if this were so, the child would kick in his mother's womb and emerge. Therefore, one must conclude that it enters man only at the time of birth..(Sanhedrin 91) How is the evil spirit manifested in the newborn? A famous Jewish sage presents the following example to demonstrate the nature of the child:

"Come and look at a kid or lamb. When it sees a well it retreats (land saves itself from a dangerous fall), for it has no evil spirit; but the infant is overcome by the evil spirit (his/her pleasure-seeking instinct), so that he/she places his hands on a snake or a scorpion and is bitten; he/she places his hand on coals and is burned (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 15)

Every parent knows this to be true from personal experience, since all children begin life with "egocentric pleasure-seeking drives." (Selma Freiberg, "The Magic Years" (New York: Scribner's, 1959. Ch. 1) In fact, modern child psychology agrees with the theory that the child at birth and in the first few months of life seeks pleasure exclusively, through the demand for food and comfort. As the baby develops, he/she seeks satisfaction for emotional as well as biological needs. The task of child-rearing involves the establishment of' a harmony between the child's drives and his/her conscience.(Selma Freiberg, ibid) This is accomplished by maintaining the moral law in everything concerning the child, so that he/she can internalize it in the process of growth (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Yesodot Ha-Chinnuch (Foundations of Education) Bnei Brak, Netzch 196.2:52)

Judaism and modern child psychology agree that the child must be taught to modify or renounce his egocentric needs for the demands of the outer world through the integration of a solid value system. (Freiberg, pg. 8) The study of children in different cultures has shown that what is considered typical behavior or the norm for children of certain ages in one culture may not be true of another culture. The demands of the Jewish moral code embodied in Halakhah fulfill the requirements of child-rearing by necessitating that the child curb his/her egocentric drives in subordination to the commandments of a higher authority. By learning to fulfill the mitzvot, the child learns to distinguish between good and evil and to perfect his/her behavior. (Hirsch, pg. 52)


Before considering how this should be done, we must view our child-rearing techniques within the framework of a basic perspective of the child. How should we regard the tiny, egocentric newborn? Is the child born evil, so that we must discipline him to be good, or is he born a " tabula rasa", (a clear slate) with no characteristics or will of his own, so that we must educate him from scratch?

In contrast with other historic conceptions of childhood, the Bible does not envisage the child as being born evil or as a "tabula rasa". (Responsa Rav Peolim, pt. 1: Orach Chayim, siman 5; Sod Yesharim, siman 3) It sees the child as an innocent creature guided by natural impulses. ("Hakdama Lesefer Hazohar, Perush Baal Sulam" b y Rabbi Yehuda Halevi Ashlag, Tel Aviv,1 1975, pg. 29-30) At this point in the child's life, the "evil spirit" serves to arouse egocentric demands f'or biological satisfaction (and later for emotional satisfaction) but these are carried out without evil intent, for man is born with a pure soul;

"When the soul is given to the embryo, the Almighty says to the latter: This soul which I have given thee is pure. If thou wilt return it to Me the same as it comes to you, well and good; if not, I will burn it before thee" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 83:4)

The sages have composed a prayer to this effect, including the pronouncement recited daily. "Thou hast given unto me a pure soul" (morning prayer) The paradox is made clear by the following talmudic explanation:

"Rabbi Meir used to say: Man comes into this world with closed hands, as if he were claiming ownership of everything, yet he leaves it with his hands open and limp, as if to say that he takes nothing with him."(Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5)

Every child is born with a treasure of varying characteristics, talents, drives, tendencies, and aspirations unique to him. (Hirsch, pg. 48) According to the renowned Jewish educator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Judaism teaches us that these innate characteristics are neither good nor evil but have the possibility of becoming either in the course of the individual's life. The critical question for effective child-rearing is, "What factor will tip the scales either way"?


Child development theory holds that "in searching for the origins of early developmental phases of behavior, we must start with the fetus and not the neonate." (David P. Ausubel and Edmund V. Sullivan, "Theory and Problems of Child Development", 2nd ed. N.Y.: Grune & Stratton, 1970, pg. 175) The Biblical concept goes further, explaining that the source of motivations is rooted in the soul, (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 87) which according to the talmudic sages enters man at the time of conception. ( Sanhedrin 91):

"Antoninus said to Rabbi [i.e., Rabbi Judah the Prince]: "At what stage is the soul given to man? At the time of insemination or impregnation?" He answered: "At the time of impregnation." He [Antoninus] said: "Is it possible for a piece of flesh to remain three days without salt without decomposing? Rather, it is given during insemination." Rabbi acknowledged this and brought the following passage for support: "And Thy visitation has guarded my soul" [Job 10].(Sanhedrin 91)

According to the Biblical perspective, the faculties of the soul include thought, recollection, the power to forget, feel shame, and understand, and the power of speech. (Rabeynu Bachya, Duties of the Heart (Jerusalem: Boys Town, 1965) pg. 158-159) During childhood, these faculties are in the formative stage. The single most impressive function they fulfill at this stage is that of free choice.

"The angel appointed over pregnancy is called Lilah. And he takes a drop and places it before the Almighty and says: "Lord of the Universe, what is to be the fate of this drop? Will it be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?" And why does he not ask whether it will be evil or a saint? The answer is as Rabbi Chanina said: "Everything is in the hands of G-d except for the fear of G-d" (Niddah 16)

Immediately after birth, the infant expresses his will by demanding food and comfort. As he/she grows, the child's desires increase and encompass varied material needs in accordance with the child's egocentric nature.

Eventually, the child is forced to choose between his/her inner demands and the requirements of the outer world. As "the child is not a thinker and cannot distinguish between good and evil," (Rabbeynu Bachya, "Duties of the Heart", pg. 154-55) childhood is the period of life in which he/she learns the basis of morality. If child-rearing succeeds, then at the end of this period, by the time the child is thirteen (if a boy and twelve, if a girl), he/she will have the capacity to behave in accordance with internalized moral principles. If we follow the sequence of stages determined by scientific theory, the development of moral judgment in the child begins with the premoral stage, in which his behavior is the result of fear of punishment or in obedience to his parents; in the second stage of development, his behavior is based to a large extent on morality and is determined by his need for approval by others or by role conformity. Finally, in the last stage, the child internalizes the moral values of his society and acts accordingly, based on his/her own conceptions and will. All children pass through these stages, though not all at the same rate. (Lawrence Kohlberg, "The Child as a Moral Philosopher", Psychology Today, Sept. 1968, pg. 29-33).

Jewish sages have determined that the child reared in accordance with the principles of the Bible arrives at the third stage at the age of thirteen (if a boy or twelve if a girl). It is at this point that the good spirit (yetzer ha-tov) enters the individual, for only then are the spiritual elements of the soul developed sufficiently to enable the child to fulfill mitzvot with the goal of perfecting his acts.(Responsa Rav Poalim, pt 1; Sod Yesharim, siman 3) The fact that the "evil spirit is thirteen years older than the good spirit" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 69) explains the exemption of children from the requirement of fulfilling mitzvot until that age and must at the same time affect our attitude toward the child at all times. When a child misbehaves or does something we consider bad, we must shape our reaction to his behavior in accordance with the knowledge that he is acting out of the natural impulse to satisfy his own needs at a time when he has not yet given thought to other forms of behavior. This awareness will prevent much of the parental frustration and anger, and the concomitant unnecessary fighting and emotional damage, that may otherwise result in such cases.

If there is one essential factor to keep in mind in our dealings with children, it is the observation made by Maimonides on the biblical passage: "and you shall be as G-d, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 30:3,5): "Mankind," said Maimonides, "is unique among G-d's creatures, for the knowledge of good and evil arises within himself and his soul, and accordingly he chooses his actions." (Maimonides, introduction to the "Eight Chapters")

However, this knowledge is not entirely innate. The child is not aware of all this knowledge, and it is up to his parents and society to teach him/her the distinction by instilling in the child the values which will lead him/her to choose either.(Rambam, Introduction to the "Eight Chapters) The mitzvot are the actions which the individual chooses to fulfill or not. His/her choice will determine the extent to which the child's soul has acquired the fear of G-d. Yet this choice can be made only when the individual attains the spiritual capacity to restrain his strengths, talents, characteristics, aspirations, tendencies, desires, and impulses.(Hirsch, pg.46) In accordance with the Biblical philosophy of child-rearing, this occurs when the child reaches the age of thirteen (for a boy and twelve for a girl) and has acquired the "yetzer ha-tov"

What must be done during the first twelve/thirteen years of life to make sure that the process of moral development succeeds and the child internalizes the values of Judaism so that he/she freely chooses the good? Judaism offers a number of prescriptions based on Halakhah and the subtleties of child psychology.


It is an acknowledged fact in Judaism that the ability to control impulses is dependent on ties to a stable and loving parent or parent-substitute. The capacity of the individual to adapt and find solutions to balance his inner needs and the outer reality depends to a great extent on his/her primary human ties. (Freiberg, chapter 1) According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: "Concerning education for moral perfection, there is no substitute for the care given by the mother."'(Hirsch, pg. 59) The Rabbi of Belz declared that the mother has the main role in educating children, for she has the capacity to rear her children in the ways of the Almighty. (Rabbi Ephraim Fishel Weinberger, "Yad Ephraim" (T.A. Yad Harav Weinberger, 1977.pg. 193) This view is traced back to the Talmud, where we find the observation that the reward promised to women is greater than that awarded to men, for the main responsibility for educating the child belongs to the mother. (Berakhot 7, Reishit Hachmah)

Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that both women and men are to be taught the ways of the Lord so they may teach them to their offspring. (Midrash Rabbah, Yitro, 28:2) While the father is responsible for certain aspects of the child's education, (Chagigah 1:7; Kiddushin 29a; Rema Yud I - as will be discussed in a later session) the mother, who has the most contact with the child at this point in his life, has responsibility for the child's primary spiritual and moral learning.(Berakhot 48a) Accordingly, it is prescribed in Halakhah that the mother should pray, when she lights the Sabbath candles, that her children will develop in the light of the Torah and grow to accept the values of Judaism. (Magen Avraham 263:11, Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh. According to the "Code of Jewish Law", fathers are required to educate their small children to fulfill all the mitzvot, both Torah law and rabbinical law, each mitzvah in accordance with the child's intellectual ability at each stage of development.(Orach Chayim 313) In all cases, education must be based on a relationship of trust between the child and the parent.

A basic rule to be followed in all parent-child relationships is embodied in the following talmudic statement: "In dealing with a child, let the left hand repel, while the right hand draws near."(Sotah 47) In any situation which involves educating or disciplining the child, the (parent) educator must first repel the child by restraining him. This is to be accompanied by the most important function of the parent as educator -to draw the child to him in the bond of mutual love and trust that is the basis for healthy mental development and learning.

According to the renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, the first two years of life are crucial for building this foundation of trust; the third and fourth years of life are the basis for the developing sense of autonomy (Erikson. "Childhood and Society, N.Y.: Norton, 1963) This theory, now widely accepted in child psychology, was expressed in Jewish sources as a fact of nature:

"Which is the child to be fondled? The two and three year old. Rav Aha, in the name of Rav Levi bar Yossi, said: the four and five year-old. (Leviticus Rabbah 2)

Which child no longer requires his mother's fondling? The child who is already four or five years old". (Eruvin 82)

Thus, the first five years of life, during which the child is afforded love, warmth, comfort, and care, serve as the basis for the child's developing sense of identity and independence. During the first five years of life and up to ten years, the child is not considered a sinner. After ten years of age he/she develops the evil spirit.(Tanchume, Genesis 7) If the child is to counter this evil spirit develop a healthy "yetzer tov" that will emerge as part of his/her identity during the period of adolescence, the parent-educator must instill a sound sense of values in the child. This is done by fulfilling the halakhic requirement of teaching the child each mitzvah that he or she will be responsible for fulfilling as an adult. (Joshua Neubirt, "Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchato" chapter 32a) (The details of early childhood education will be discussed in the next session.)

Education is deemed so important in the biblical perspective on child development that every effort must be made to assure its success. The recommended measures are based on sophisticated techniques of educational psychology, as is evident from the emphasis on moderate discipline ("Reishit Hochma", chapter on child rearing; Gittin 6) tolerance and respect for the child, (Rabbi Schwartz, "Beit Abba", J-m: Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim, 1979) and knowledge of his temperament and personality.(ibid)

The talmudists lay down as a general rule that one must teach one's child patiently, avoiding anger in carrying out this holy task. (Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Dea, siman 245,seif 10) Discipline must begin at the very onset of life, so that the child learns to restrain himself from an early age, but this too must be done calmly and with moderation. The aim of Jewish education is to train the whole child, influencing his character, values, and life-style in accordance with the morals and values of the Biblical heritage. This can only be achieved if the child trusts his teacher and accepts him as an authority to be listened to and heeded; if the child fears his teacher, he will build up hostile feelings and, consequently, will reject what he is taught. ((Schwarts, pg. 57)

Parallel to the role of discipline in building the child's character, the Bible stresses the importance of respect for the child as an individual. Judaism teaches us that each individual has the right to feel that the world was created for his sake. (Sanhedrin 38) The Midrash points out that just as people do not resemble each other in appearance, they have individual thoughts and opinions. As a result, the general rule recognized by Jewish sages is that man is more strongly motivated by the desire for honor than by any other desire. (Messilat Yesharim) Even the youngest child feels hurt when he is not respected as an individual. The Biblical perspective on child development recognizes that in addition to the emotional harm which may result, the child's emerging personality may suffer if his/her feelings are disregarded and his opinions and need for attention are neglected.

Finally, a most practical technique in child-rearing is prescribed by Solomon: "Teach each lad in accordance with his ways, then he will not forsake your instruction even in his old age." (Proverbs 22:6) A very sophisticated psychological observation to this effect is made by Maimonides, who, stated:

'It is impossible that man is born with a certain virtue or deficiency, just as it is absurd to consider that he is born with a specific profession. However, it is possible that he is born with a nature predisposed to a certain virtue or deficiency and certain functions are easier for him than others." (Rambam, "Eight Chapters" ch. 8)

This theory has recently been validated by scientific research on the subject of temperament and individuality (A. Thomas, S. Chess, and H.G. Birch, "The Origins of Personality", Scientific American 223, 1970. Pg. 102-109.)

The first step in building a relationship with a child and in ultimately educating and developing his/her character is to "know him," to be aware of his unique temperament and predispositions. On that basis it is possible to anticipate his/her reactions to certain teachings and disciplinary methods and to employ techniques suited to his/her temperament and unique personality.

One of the most powerful forces which shape the child's behavior patterns is the example set by parents in their own behavior (as we will discuss in a later session)


In cases where the process of building the child's moral character seems to be failing and the child displays deviant behavior by defying his/her parents or resorting to delinquency, the Bible prescribes strong measures to curb this behavior before it becomes acute. When routine disciplinary measures have no effect on the child, it is up to the parents to punish him so that he does not accustom himself to delinquency. If the child steals or causes damage to property, it is incumbent upon the bet din to punish him in order to deter him from repeating his delinquent act. (Rabbi Chayim David Halevy, "Mekor Chayim", T.A. Halevi, 1967, ch. 76-5) If the child steals something, the object must be returned if he is found with it. If the article is not found, there is no obligation for the child to repay its worth, but when he grows up he should do so. This applies to other sins committed in childhood as well: when the child is sufficiently mature it is worthy for him to repent in some way (Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh 165:6)

In cases when the child eats a forbidden food or commits a prohibited act there is a question whether the bet din is responsible for punishing him or preventing his act, but it is worthy for the father to scold him and educate him toward sanctity (Halevy, 167:2) Finally, if the child's behavior is unmanageable and deviant to the extent that even these procedures are not effective, a competent authorized rabbi should be consulted. If the child shows evidence of mental disorder, a competent professional must be consulted to help the child.(Maimonides, "Eight Chapters, ch. 4)


Biblical law and philosophy have a great deal to offer in understanding and coping with the child's behavior patterns. Underlying the Judaic philosophy of child behavior is the view that all human action is governed by the "yetzer ha-ra" and the "yetzer- ha-tov", the evil inclination and the good inclination, which are in a constant struggle. "During his lifetime, man is a constant slave to his inclination and his Creator. When he fulfills the wishes of his inclination, he angers his Creator, and vice versa.(Yalkut Job 896)

While the "yetzer ha-ra" is present in the child at birth and manifests itself through his egocentric drives for biological and emotional satisfaction, the "yetzer ha-tov" develops as the child matures and is present in his soul by his thirteenth/twelfth year. The child is born with the freedom to choose his/her course of action in accordance with the good inclination or the evil inclination. Early- childhood is the period set aside for the individual to learn the foundations of Biblical values and morality which should affect his/her choice of the good or evil during the course of a lifetime.

"Man is born wild like a young ass" (Job 11:12). Rashi comments that in the course of human development, man changes from his wild nature, which resembles that of a young ass, and becomes a civilized human being. To this Meiri adds:

"Man should always be kind and considerate about his children's affairs and consistent in disciplining them, the younger and the older children alike. In any case, the worthwhile time to make efforts in disciplining them toward the ultimate goal of Judaism is from the time that knowledge begins to sprout until it ripens.(Meiri, Kiddushin 30)

The primary responsibility for setting children on the right road toward a moral life belongs to the parents. During the formative, early years, they must guide their offspring in the spirit of Biblical values. The parents' relations with their children must be based on respect for them and knowledge of their unique personalities. This will prevent the parents from having exaggerated expectations and from making overwhelming demands on their children. At the same time, through Torah (Bible) education and relevant disciplinary practices, the parents will be channeling the developing behavior patterns of their children toward the Jewish way of life.

The ultimate remedy for the power of the evil inclination is Torah (Bible) study and good deeds, as expressed in the following talmudic statement: "Happy is Israel, for when the people are involved in the Torah and good deeds, their inclination is in their hands and they are not in the hands of the inclination." (Avoda Zarah 5)

This too is the ultimate aim of child-rearing in the Biblical perspective.


What aspects of child behavior in the Biblical perspective differ from contemporary theories with which you are familiar?
What elements of the Biblical perspective on child development do you believe should be adapted to contemporary child rearing practices to assure healthy development of children?
I look forward to your comments and feedback.




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28 Aug 2005 / 23 Av 5765 0