Why do Jews wear kippot? For men, the habit of covering their heads—when studying, eating, and praying, or else all the time, depending on their level of observance—is such a basic feature of Judaism that it seems like it must go back to the very beginning of the faith. Yet the fact is that covering one’s head is not mentioned at all in the Bible. The custom originates much later, in the Talmud, and even there it is not actually a law. It was in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Kiddushin 31a, that the origin of the kippa appeared: “Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head.” For Rav Huna, always keeping his head covered appears to have been an act of exceptional piety, or else the Talmud wouldn’t bother recording it. But it eventually became standard, and now Jews follow Rav Huna’s example.
This was just one of the fascinating moments in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, as a long passage on the laws of slavery gave way to several pages packed with aggadah. This begins in Kiddushin 29a, where the mishna addresses the difference between the duties of Jewish men and Jewish women, as well as the obligations of parents and children. This focus on family life allows the rabbis to range widely in their instruction, laying down rules for ethical living alongside practical advice. For instance, one of the few Talmudic maxims that I learned as a child in Hebrew school was that all fathers are supposed to teach their children how to swim. For some reason, this piece of wisdom was much discussed by us children, perhaps because we all took swimming lessons and didn’t associate them at all with Jewishness. Why should the Talmud be concerned with swimming in the first place? But there it is, in Kiddushin 30b: “And some say that a father is also obligated to teach his son to swim in a river. What is the reason for this? It is necessary for his life.”
In other words, swimming was a useful and potentially life-saving skill, and the Talmud values it for pragmatic rather than religious reasons. It is akin to the larger admonition that a father must teach his son a trade, a way to make a living: “Rabbi Yehuda says: Any father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him banditry.” The Gemara balks at this extreme statement: “Can it enter your mind that he actually teaches him banditry?” But Yehuda’s words are not to be taken literally: rather, “it is as though he taught him banditry.” The logic seems to be that a man without a business or a trade will inevitably turn to crime, either from idleness or necessity. Part of a father’s duty is to prepare his children to support themselves honorably.
This is a duty specifically of fathers toward sons, since it is men who are imagined to be responsible for making a living. It goes along with several other paternal responsibilities: A father must circumcise his son (the law envisions him doing this personally, but today he usually employs a mohel); redeem his first-born son from the priesthood by paying a tax; teach his son Torah; and find a woman for him to marry. Mothers are not obligated in any of these matters, as the rabbis show through a series of biblical arguments. For instance, why shouldn’t a mother circumcise her son? Because the original commandment about circumcision was given by God to Abraham, not Sarah. Why shouldn’t she redeem her son from the priesthood? Because just as only a male needs to be redeemed, so only a male can perform the redemption.
If for any reason a father fails to do these things, it is incumbent upon the son to do them for himself as an adult. This leads the rabbis into a discussion of who takes priority, the son or the father. Redemption of the first-born from the priesthood involves paying a five-sela fee. What if a man needs to redeem both himself and his own son but can’t afford to pay for them both? In this case, the authorities disagree, each offering a good argument. The rabbis say that he should redeem himself first, since a mitzvah performed for oneself should take precedence over a mitzvah performed for someone else. Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, points out that a father is commanded to redeem his son, not himself. The father’s first duty is toward his son, and only when that is discharged should he turn to remedying his own situation.
When it comes to teaching Torah, the sages again believe that only fathers and sons are obligated. After all, in Deuteronomy the law commands, “And you shall teach [the laws] to your sons”: Daughters are not included, and by implication neither are mothers. (We have seen in an earlier tractate that the rabbis are generally opposed to women learning Torah, on the grounds that it will make them too cunning, and thus more able to get away with sin.) Here, again, the question of priority arises. What if a man can either learn Torah himself or teach his son Torah, but not both? In general, the adult takes precedence; but Rabbi Yehuda says that whoever is best equipped for study should get the opportunity. Thus we hear the story of Rav Acha bar Ya’akov, who sent his son to learn Torah but discovered that the boy was “not sharp” in his studies. As a result, Acha decided to put his son in charge of household business, while he himself took the opportunity to learn. (Indeed, Acha was so holy that he did battle with a seven-headed demon that was haunting the study hall, and overcame it through prayer.)
As for marrying off one’s son, the Gemara urges that this be done as early as possible, but in no case later than age 20. “Until 20 years the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and waits for a man, saying: When will he marry a woman. Once he reaches 20 and has not married, He says: Let his bones swell.” A Jewish parent who pesters his or her child about getting married is thus doing no more than God Himself does. Rav Chisda boasted that “the fact that I am superior to my colleagues is because I married at 16,” and wished he had gotten married still earlier: “If I had married at 14, I would say to the Satan: an arrow in your eye.” The Talmud recognizes that sexual desire starts at puberty, so that the longer a man waits to get married, the more tempted he will be to have illicit sex. (The same presumably goes for a woman, as well, but the rabbis don’t say so here.)
So much for the duties of parents toward children. As for the duties of children toward parents, these are fundamental to Judaism—the Ten Commandments instructs, “Honor your father and your mother.” Unlike some of the mitzvot discussed above, this one is equally binding on men and women, sons and daughters. But what exactly does “honoring” entail? Essentially, it means regarding your parents as on a par with God: The rabbis juxtapose the biblical verses “honor your father and your mother” and “honor the Lord with your wealth,” suggesting that “the verse equates the honor of one’s father and mother to the honor of the Omnipresent.” Indeed, “there are three partners in the forming of a person: the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his father and his mother.” God provides the soul, parents the body, and so we are equally indebted to all of them.
In practical terms, the rabbis give several examples of what filial duty involves, several of them involving a gentile named Dama ben Netina. On one occasion, the sages wanted to buy jewels from him to use in the ephod of the high priest. The sale would have earned Dama a huge sum, 600,000 dinars; but the key to the chest holding the jewels was hidden under his sleeping father’s pillow. Rather than disturb his father, Dama gave up the sale. He was later rewarded, we learn, when a red heifer was born to his flock and he was able to sell it to the Jews for an enormous sum.
A gentile, of course, is not bound by Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments. To Rabbi Chanina, this means Dama ben Netina serves as an even greater inspiration to the Jews. If a man who is not commanded to honor his father is rewarded by Heaven, how much more will a Jew be rewarded for following the commandment? “Greater is one who is commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it than one who is not commanded to do a mitzvah and performs it,” Chanina says. This suggests that the Jewish view of law and ethics is contrary to that of Kant, who argued that an act is only virtuous if it is done for its own sake. For the rabbis, the glory of obedience is even greater than the glory of autonomy.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.