The Minhag of staying up and learning on Shavuos night is a hallowed tradition in Klal Yisrael. Those with the physical and mental stamina stay up the entire night learning, with excitement and cheishek. Those who can’t learn for quite that long, learn for a short while and uphold the Minhag to a degree.
How does this evening and night of learning apply to our young children? Being only a Minhag, there are no sources for the proper manner in which to train a below Bar Mitzva age Bochur to learn on Shavuos night, but there are parallel circumstances that can shed light on the issue.
In training for a fast day, there is a concept of ‘training for hours’(Chinuch L’Shaos) which means a young child, according to his strength should abstain from food and drink for a number of hours at the first part of a fast day, thereby experiencing for a short period, the discomfort of not eating and drinking. Never is a child encouraged to fast the entire fast until immediately before Bar or Bas Mitzva. Would it be better to allow a nine year old who feels up to it to fast the entire day? There is no source for such a practice.
Concerning the taking of a Lulav and Esrog on Sukkos, the criterion determining a father’s obligation to train his child is dependent upon the physical ability of the child to hold and wave the four species. It is based on physical development, not mental acuity or a desire to act ‘big.’ In discussing the age at which a boy should sleep in the Sukka, it is when, upon awakening in the middle of the night, he no longer calls out for his mother. Once again, there is a specific criterion, not dependent upon motivation or personal preference.
Torah learning for young children is clearly a ‘Chinuch’ obligation once a child reaches five or six years of age. Nevertheless, children’s learning is not conducted in the same manner as adult learning. No one would ever suggest that a six year old be placed in a Beis HaMedrash and learn for three Sedarim (learning periods) a day, just that in place of Gemara, he should learn Aleph Bais.
Truthfully, most children who are up late Shavuos night in the shuls and batei medrash can be found merely running around and disturbing. Those who organize and teach middle-of-the-night-classes for the children are to be commended for their intentions and efforts, and for providing some appropriate Shavuos activities. But perhaps we should ask, for our own child, might classes at 3:00 AM be enticing them to the opposite of a love of learning? Does the experience engender a greater level of respect and kavod for the shul, beis medrash and learning, or less? Wouldn’t looking forward to the special mitzvah of learning Shavuos night when they are older, when they can really make the most out of the learning, be a more valuable lesson in chinuch?
If proper Chinuch for our children is our goal, we must follow established guidelines of proper Chinuch. When no clear direction exists, other than “everyone else is doing it” we need to think about which course of action will most likely lead to the desired results when the child reaches maturity. Just as taking a toddler to run around in shul is not the path leading to an adult who davens with proper Kavana, training an eight year old to stay up all night with a minimum of learning and a maximum of running around will not lead to a teenage Bochur making the best use of the precious hours of Shavuos night. While a few exceptional boys will be able to make good use of the long night, that is not the case for the majority.
To provide extra learning in the spirit of Shavuos, we will be conducting a voluntary learning session for all boys grade 1 and up, on Erev Shavuos. By coming to Yeshiva at 10:00 in the morning, with dedication to learn with their Rebbe, in their own classroom, our sons will feel that aura of Kabbolas HaTorah (accepting the Torah anew). In addition, fathers should try to have short learning sessions with their son(s) in the afternoon of Erev Shavuos and during the two days of Yom Tov. We can and should make it special learning time together. This will show the value and specialness of Limud HaTorah, will preserve the children’s health, and will not dilute the awe and reverence required for Kabbolas HaTorah.
Best wishes for a meaningful, enjoyable, age-appropriate and fulfilling Shavuos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann