An alef-beis chart from the Oregon Board of Rabbis
1) The day a child begins studying Torah should be a meaningful day in his and his family's life. It must be a holy and elevated event that should be strongly felt in the household, similar to other joyful occurrences such as a bris. As a result the child's heart will be imbued with honor and love for Torah.
2) "It is proper for the child's father and mother to fast that day and pray to Hashem that the child succeed in his studies, yiras Shomayim and good deeds. At night, following the fast, the parents should hold a festive banquet for the poor and give tzedoko according to their means. The father can thus be assured that the child will become a yirei Shomayim" (Kav HaYoshor, chap. 72).
It is of the utmost importance to discuss with the child the significance of this event several days beforehand and to explain its essence to him, according to his understanding.
The child should see the beginning of his learning Alef-beis as similar to the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai by Am Yisroel. He should be told about the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, each child according to his understanding, in a way that will arouse him to feel the immense importance of this event. We must get through to him with the message that his beginning to learn Alef-beis is the start of his learning Torah and thus a continuation of our receiving the Torah.
Although unusually perceptive children may understand the story of the Torah's reception on Mt. Sinai, most children at that age will not grasp it very well. Therefore it is crucial to abridge and simplify the story for them. It should be repeated several times on various occasions during the period prior to his beginning Alef-beis, until it penetrates into the child's heart. For best results one should not talk at length with the child — five minutes at a time is sufficient, and only when it seems that the child is attentive. We should be careful not to overburden him or inadvertently cause him to detest our message.
Sources for These Principles and Their Influence
1) The Bond With Mt. Sinai. Machzor Vitri says: "We know that all these customary procedures are intended to be representative of Kabolas haTorah, as is written (Devorim 4:9), `And you shall make them known to your children and your children's children,' and the Torah continues immediately afterwards with (v. 10), `The day that you stood before Hashem, your L-rd, at Chorev,' which teaches us that the day you teach your son Torah is the same to HaKodosh Boruch Hu as the day the Jews stood at Mt. Sinai."
"Our forefathers' minhag is that children are taught Torah on Shavuos because it is the day the Torah was given ... Children are brought [to the beis medrash] on Shavuos at the break of dawn in compliance with the posuk, `In the morning there was thunder and lightning'" (Rokei'ach).
HaKodosh Boruch Hu showers an abundance of the Torah's brilliance on Shavuos. It is therefore the most appropriate time for starting to learn Torah. Machzor Vitri, however, does not set a specific day for the children's beginning to learn Torah.
Whenever they start to learn, however, they must behave just as at the Divine revelation on Mt. Sinai: "You should be aware that this matter is as if [the child's parents] have brought him before Mt. Sinai, as is written, `On this day they came to the Sinai desert' (Shemos 19:1) — it does not say `on that day.' The Torah is saying that one should feel that the Torah was given this very day.
This teaches us how we should act when our children begin learning Torah. We should cover their eyes to prevent them from seeing anything tomei and we should personally bring them [to the cheder]. We see that Moshe Rabbenu dealt this way with other Jews, as it is written: `Moshe brought the people forth out of the camp to meet with Hashem; and they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain' (Shemos 19:17). It looked as if the Jews were covered underneath the mountain when he brought them to receive the Torah."
This minhag is also cited in the Rokei'ach: "The child is covered beneath a coat from [the moment of leaving] the house until they reach the congregation or the rav's home, because the Torah writes, `And they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain.'"
There are numerous explanations about the significance of "they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain." The gemora writes: "R' Avdimi bar Chama said, This teaches us that HaKodosh Boruch Hu turned the mountain over on them like a bucket, and said to them: `If you will receive the Torah, then good; but if not, you will be buried here" (Shabbos 88a). From the gemora we understand that Hashem decided to force them to receive the Torah.
The Sifro has an entirely different interpretation: standing under Mt. Sinai was like a chuppah. "Hashem came from Sinai to greet Yisroel as a chosson comes to greet his kallah. `And they stood' teaches us that the mountain was uprooted from its place and the Jews came nearer and stood under the mountain." This interpretation is hinted in the Kesuvim: "O, My dove that is in the clefts of the mountains, in the recesses of the cliffs" (Shir HaShirim 2:14).
In the Targum Yonoson ben Uziel is written: "Hashem uprooted the mountain and held it in the air, and Hashem was shining like a mirror." The explanation of this Targum is cited in the Yalkut Mei'am Lo'ez from the Yalkut Shmuel: "The miracle at Matan Torah, as written in the posuk, `And they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain,' was that the mountain was uprooted from its place and remained suspended in air. It was sparkling like white crystal and Yisroel were actually under Mt. Sinai."
It was like a chuppah, as we previously explained, that Matan Torah was like a great wedding since on this day Hashem married Yisroel. The Heavens and earth were witnesses, the Torah was the kesuvah, and Mt. Sinai was the chuppah.
It seems from the Sifro and the Targum Yonoson ben Uziel that the meaning of this "chuppah" was the bond of am Yisroel to the Torah and the clear revelation of its brilliance.
The Zohar (Parshas Yisro) describes the magnificent revelation and the spiritual achievements of klal Yisroel at Mt. Sinai:
"These `Ten Commandments' of the Torah are the foundation of all the mitzvos, the foundation of what is Above and Below, and also the basis of the Ten Utterances with which Hashem created the world. The Ten Commandments were carved on slabs of stone and all their treasures were shown to everyone so that all could understand and see the secret of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah included within them.
"Everything could be seen, everything was understandable and each Jew could look at them, and the contents would enlighten their eyes. At that time none of the secrets of the Torah and the Heavenly and earthly secrets were hidden from them.
"Then they observed the precious splendor of their Master, a sight never seen from the time the world was created until HaKodosh Boruch Hu stood revealed on Mt. Sinai. Even the fetuses in their mother's womb saw the glory of their Master. Each person gained Divine inspiration and perceived what he was able to perceive, according to his spiritual level."
Machzor Vitri concludes: "The Torah warned that nothing should divide a Jew from Hashem, as is seen by the Torah's mention of `to meet with Elokim' (Shemos 19:17) — not `to meet with man and animal." The Torah, therefore, warned, `Neither let the flocks nor herds feed near this mount' (Shemos 34:3) and it also wrote `Moshe sent away his father- in-law' (Shemos 19:27). These pesukim are speaking about before Matan Torah, and their purpose was to insure that nothing divide Yisroel from their Master [not animals, and not even Yisro], since Yisro was a non-Jew."
We can grasp from the above the great influence of the Revelation of the Divine Presence at Matan Torah. In the time of the Rokei'ach, therefore, the custom was to teach children on Shavuos at the break of dawn.
According to the Machzor Vitri, whenever children start to study Torah the minhagim are similar to the revelation on Mt. Sinai. All this was done in order to attain the influence of and inspiration from the Revelation, to imbue the child with a feeling of the importance of the Torah that we received from HaKodosh Boruch Hu at Mt. Sinai, so that the belief in Torah from Heaven would sink deep into his heart.
2) Imbuing the child with yiras Shomayim.
The reason the Divine Presence was revealed through thunder, lightning, and a heavy cloud is explicitly mentioned in the Torah (Parshas Yisro, Shemos 20:17): "In order that His fear may be before you (literally "before your faces"), so that you shall not sin."
In Devorim (4:9-10) the Torah writes, "But you shall make them known unto your sons and your sons' sons: the day that you stood before Hashem, your Lord, at Chorev, when Hashem said to me, `Assemble the people for Me, and I will cause them to hear My words, which they shall learn, to fear Me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and which they shall teach their children.'"
Ramban writes that this posuk is a mitzvas lo sa'aseh, and that we must see it as a warning. "After the posuk writes that we should meticulously observe all the mitzvos and fulfill the chukim and mishpotim, it once again warns us solemnly to beware, and remember whence we received the mitzvos. We must not forget all that we saw at the revelation on Mt. Sinai; the thunder, the torches, His glory and greatness, and His voice that we heard from amidst the fire.
"You must tell of all you saw at this momentous event to your children and your children's children forever. Hashem brought this event about so that we would learn to fear him all our life and forever teach Torah to our children."
Yiras Shomayim is the foundation for success in Torah learning, as told in Pirkei Avos: "One whose fear of sin has preference to his wisdom, his wisdom lasts."
The story of receiving the Torah teaches us yirah. The basis of yiras Shomayim must be implanted in the child's heart from the beginning of his education. To discuss the ways to do that would need a special article, but it is fitting to mention here a story that I heard from HaRav Ben Zion Kugler, the principal of Talmud Torah Chovos Daas, that he himself heard from an elderly Belzer chossid:
"I was not privileged to learn to read in a cheder; only a [nonprofessional] Alef-beis teacher taught me. When I was at that age, World War I started and we were all exiled. At war's end I was forced to help my father with the family's meager livelihood. I suffered many trials during World War I, between the wars, and from all the events of World War II. However I remained fast in my faith and clung to Chassidus. This was also thanks to my teacher — a great yirei Shomayim — who taught me Alef-beis. When we heard him say a brocho we would be aroused by his great yiras Shomayim. That is what kept me during all the difficult periods and trials."
3) To learn Torah with kedusha vetaharah
"Neither let the flocks nor herds graze near this mount." The Rokei'ach writes that a child's face is covered on the day we begin educating him in the holy letters so that he will not see an animal that is tomei — such as a dog — so as to protect the child's kedusha.
In Machzor Vitri a minhag is cited to knead the challos while one is tahor for the small children who are tahor.
4. To open his heart to Torah and gain Ahavas Torah
As explained above, the purpose of the revelation on Mt. Sinai of all the Torah and its secrets was to open the hearts of Klal Yisroel to achieve knowledge of the Torah and its secrets.
According to Machzor Vitri, "The letters are written on a luach and not on something else, since the heart also has a luach, as it is written, `Write them upon the luach of your heart,' (Mishlei 3:3) — meaning that it must be recorded permanently on the luach of your heart.
"The challos [fed the child on that day] are kneaded with honey and milk because they are intended to open one's heart, as it is written: `Honey and milk are under your tongue' (Shir HaShirim 4:11).
"After an adult reads the letters they are covered with honey, as Yechezkel explains, `And I ate it, and it was in my mouth like honey for sweetness.' (Yechezkel 3:3). Just as the letters are pleasant for him, so also his heart will be opened to Torah."
In Orchos Chaim, R' Aharon of Lunel writes that the letters are covered with honey after they are read and are given the child to lick so that divrei Torah will be in his mouth like sweet honey, meaning he will gain ahavas Torah. The Rokei'ach writes, "We give the child cake and an egg to eat since they aid in opening the heart."
From these rishonim we might infer that each parent used to bring his child [to begin studying in the cheder] at any time he wanted. However, the Ramo writes, "Immediately when [the child] is fully three years old he is taught the letters of the Torah, to accustom him to read Torah."
The custom then was to go through the initial procedure separately with each child, and certainly today it is also proper to do so if it is possible to arrange.
How a Child is Brought to the Talmud Torah
Machzor Vitri writes: "When a person brings his child [the first time] to a Talmud Torah he writes the letters of Alef-beis on a blackboard, washes him, and dresses him in clean clothing. Three challos of fine flour are kneaded with honey, three eggs are cooked for him, and apples and all sorts of other fruits are brought. The father should search for an eminent Torah scholar to bring his child to school; the child should be covered beneath that person's garment while being brought to school. The child is then fed the challos made with honey together with the eggs and fruit. The letters of Alef-beis are read to him and are afterwards covered with honey. The assembled tell the child to lick the food, and later he is returned to his mother while still covered.
"Teaching the child begins with persuasion — by promising to give him the things he wants — but later on, if he is disobedient he can even be threatened with blows. We start by teaching him from Vayikra (the section of the Torah about sacrifices) and he is taught to sway while he studies. The words chukas olam [in Vayikra] should be read as if in a minyan and a festive meal should be served.
"You should be aware that this event is as if the child is being brought before Mount Sinai, as is written: `On this day they came to the Sinai desert' (Shemos 19:1) — it does not read `on that day.' The Torah emphasizes that each day should be considered as if the Torah had been given that same day.
"The Torah also teaches us that when we bring our children to learn Torah we should cover them. We find that Moshe dealt this way with bnei Yisroel: `And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet Hashem; and they placed themselves at the foot of the mountain' (Shemos 19:17). It appeared as if they were covered under the mountain when he brought them to accept the Torah.
"In addition, be careful that nothing should divide a Jew from Hashem, as is written, `To meet Elokim' and not, `To meet man and animal.' The Torah therefore warned that sheep and cattle too should not graze opposite the mountain. For this reason Moshe sent away his father-in-law, a non-Jew, before matan Torah so that there would not be anything between any Jew and Hashem, as it is written, `And Moshe sent away his father-in-law ...' (Shemos 18:27) and afterwards (19:1) the Torah writes `In the third month...' [i.e. Sivan, the Torah was received].
HaRav Mordechai Krashinsky was rosh yeshivas Ma'ayan HaTorah and other institutions.