In Parshat Vayelech we learn about the mitzvah of Hakhel, where the king reads from the Book of Dvarim to the entire nation on the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot following the Shmita (Sabbatical) Year.
Dvarim 31:12-13 describes who should attend the Hakhel ceremony:
Gather together the people- the men, the women and the small children and the convert who is in your cities- so that they will hear and so that they will learn, and they shall fear the Lord your God, and be careful to perform all the words of this Torah. And their children who did not understand will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan, to possess it.
How old are the children who are brought to the ceremony?
According to Ramban, they are little children who are nearly old enough to be educated, not nursing babies.
The Talmud, Chagiga 3a teaches that the small children would come in order to give a reward for those who bring them, meaning babies who don’t even understand what is going on.
We learn from the Hakhel ceremony that the Torah values Jewish education from a very young age. Today we see that young children gain a strong foundation in Judaism from attending Jewish preschools.
By being encouraged to bring their babies to religious events, parents are made to feel welcome and not left out of spiritual experiences.
Eighteen years ago, I began to teach Mommy and Me Torah study classes in Jerusalem through Torat Reva Yerushalayim, where new mothers were able to learn Torah while their babies had the opportunity to socialize, eat, sleep, play and benefit from a Torah environment. The original group of babies recently graduated high school and are off to yeshiva, midrasha (seminary), sherut leumi (national service) and the army. I hope that the first taste of Torah that these children experienced helped to lead them on a path of commitment to Judaism.
It is never too early to start a child’s Jewish education and the inspiration from those early years can last a lifetime.