Halachic Child

by Rabbi Harvey Belovski

In an attempt to catch the last moments of holiday spirit, my wife and I took our children to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London on the day after Pesach. It was a magnificent day, matched by the beauty and diversity of the displays at the gardens. I hadn’t visited Kew Gardens for many years and had forgotten just how glorious it is. Our children, while initially reluctant to be schlepped along, enjoyed themselves in the end. A couple of comments they made there prompted me to write.

We were visiting the palm house admiring the trees when my elder son, who is seven, pointed at a gigantic leaf and asked, ‘Daddy, if this were Romaine, how many kezaysim (olive-volumes) could you get from that?’ This was a reference to the quantity of lettuce required for bitter herbs at the Seder. The answer, of course, was hundreds, but that is beside the point.

A little later, we were standing near some steps leading up to a building. At the side of the steps was a smooth concrete incline topped by a horizontal slab. Two of our daughters, aged eight and seven, observed that the structure looked like the altar in the Temple. When I smiled uncomprehendingly, they kindly explained that the incline was the ramp leading up to the altar and the slab at the top was the altar itself. Obvious, really.

All this gave my wife and me much pleasure: we are blessed with great kids who are a credit to us and to their schools. My students constantly laugh at how much the children are like me. To a degree they are right, yet in so many ways, they see the world through very different eyes to mine. To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed and do not see the world in the same way that they do. We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education: their school day may cover a spectrum from a Rashi to arithmetic, Mishnah to music, cholent to Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, they observe the world primarily though the prism of the Torah: their first understanding of every encounter involves a halachic (Jewish legal) or hashkafic (Jewish conceptual) perspective.

I do not, and probably never will, look at a tropical plant at Kew Gardens and automatically think ‘quantities for bitter herbs’. My eight-year-old daughter was slightly bemused by the fact that I did not instantly recognise the concrete structure outside the temperate house as a miniature altar.

‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (who knows one?) is a curious song appended to the Seder. It’s a little like ‘The house that Jack built’, progressing from one God, through two tablets, three forefathers, etc. and ending with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy. The great Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into why it appears at the Seder: it is a type of Jewish word-association game. In the regular version, I say ‘fork’ and you say the first word that comes into your mind, perhaps ‘knife’, and we continue from there. The Jewish version, sung after a long night of absorbing the wonders of Jewish national origins and praising God, is ‘Echad Mi Yodea’. When I say ‘one’, the first thing that should pop into your mind is ‘God’, ‘four’ should be ‘matriarchs’, ‘seven’ ‘Shabbos’, etc. It’s a kind of test as to how successful the Seder has been.

In the same vein, the development of what my wife cleverly termed ‘Halachic Child’ is a good indicator of the Jewishness of the child’s home and schooling. It’s not to say that the child will not also think of ‘the Beatles’ in response to the number ‘four’ or ‘wonders of the ancient world’ for ‘seven’, but it’s the first answer that counts. I’m so proud of my children.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, a musmach of Gateshead Yeshiva and graduate of Oxford University, is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London, a lecturer, author and counsellor.

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6 comments to Halachic Child

  • Baruch Horowitz

    “To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed… We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education…cholent to Tchaikovsky”

    It’s good chinuch to train children at a young a age to see the world in terms of halacha or other parts of Torah; the examples of R. Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz and R. Mendel Kaplan come to my mind, who were known for an appreciation for the world at large. Vacations and outings can be good opportunities to integrate Torah subjects with one’s environment(I remember on a trip to Niagra Falls led by one of my rebbeim, a discussion ensuing about the halchaos of chalitzah-shoes, as we were changing into water-resistant sandals).

    As far as the differences in generation, one can indeed point to growth in successive generations in the American Torah world(Yaakov Rosenblatt wrote on Cross Currents about this in December, 2006 in “Chiddush in our Beis Midrash”). To many, the fact that current American Bnei Torah may know less than their parents about the NBA or Tchaikovsky(l’havdil), the exact degree, differing with different personalities and Yeshivos, is seen as a byproduct of a better Torah education.

    However, I think that the previous generation had its strong points as well. Although ideally, a more self-contained Torah education should always make it easier to obtain completion in all areas, the previous generations may have benefited in some ways from being exposed to the broader world, such as by having an appreciation for the positive that exists in different people and in secular knowledge(true, parts of our surrounding culture have been progressively descending). If so, even as we focus inward, we need to be sure that we continue to find ways within an inner-focused education, to still maintain the previous generation’s strengths regarding their outlook on the outside world.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    A number of years ago I read that a psychologist tested a hareidi child and suggested he was psychotic because of his response to a comparison of various fruits and vegetables. I don’t remember what the “right” answer was supposed to be, but the child classified them by bracha. Halachic child.
    Excellent post. Once again, sign up Rabbi Belovski as a regular. Not to suggest any criticism of the current regulars, but putting him on the bill will only increase the quality and prestige of the site. I recommend it to all I encounter.

  • Steve Brizel

    RSZA was well known for being interested in and appreciating the possible halachic ramifications of technological developments of all kinds and availing himself of a circle of Talmidie Chachamim with secular education in these areas.

  • barry

    Friends of ours reported visiting Israel with their then very young children. During a hail storm, unusual enough in Israel, one of the kids was heard to remark to the others on his fear of getting burned by the hail–a reference to the midrash about the only other hail
    ‘experience’ the children had–the miraculous ‘fire and ice’ makka of barad in Egypt.

  • easterner

    to still maintain the previous generation’s strengths regarding their outlook on the outside world.

    is that to be accomplished by surrendering the outside world to baalei teshuva? [leaving it assur to everyone else, except mmaybe a few sacrificial lambs?]

  • Baruch Horowitz

    “is that to be accomplished by surrendering the outside world to baalei teshuva?’

    That’s a separate question, about how insular or worldly a community should be(see for example the discussion in “These and Those” by R. Schwab). I was pointing out that if one indeed chooses to have less to do with the sourrounding culture, then such people should at the same time be careful to acknowledge what good exists elsewhere, as in chochma b’goyim taamin.

    The opposite is true as well. One doesn’t have to fully be a “Halachic Child” to sometimes, at least, see the world through the prisim of Torah and halacha.