Should you bring your kids to shul? This is a question that has been pestering Jewish fathers since the time of Yaakov and Eisav.
Your wife says yes. But we’re not asking your wife.
Now, I’m not talking about kids who run around in the shul itself. Am I talking about kids who run around in the hallway where they can hear what’s going on in shul but where we magically can’t hear them screaming game rules at each other? That’s a good question.
I’m talking about kids who basically sit still. Better than the adults in some shuls.
In general, everyone’s going to say that it depends on the age of the child. Like some fathers decide to bring their kid when his friends start coming to shul. Which, when you phrase it like that, sounds like a bad idea. His friends being there is the last thing you want. And some fathers say that the right time is when the child is old enough that davening in yeshiva isn’t about singing the whole entire davening together, so that he’s not sitting there in shul, confused, like, “Why haven’t we started singing Baruch SheAmar yet?”
I don’t really believe that there’s a minimum age to bring kids to shul, as long as the kid can be quiet. But then some people are so anti kids in shul that it doesn’t matter why you’re bringing them. I’ve heard these people say, “I don’t come to shul to see your kids.”
Well, I don’t come to shul to see your dirty tissues sitting on the table after you walk away. Yet here we are.
I feel like these people are walking around on Simchas Torah like, “Why are all these kids here? At Kol HaNe’arim?” Or they’re at a bris, asking, “Whose idea was it to bring this baby? He won’t stop crying. Control your kid!”
But, I mean, despite what these people think, there’s maybe a school of thought that if you take your child to shul, then when he comes when he’s older, he’ll have some idea of what to do. I mean, it makes sense that the only time he’s in shul should not be on Simchas Torah with the candy and the dancing, and then assume that’s what shul is every day.
Of course, there are kids who probably shouldn’t be there—definitely not for extended periods. Like sometimes, it’s very obvious that the husband brought the kids to shul just so his wife can rest. And that’s very nice of him to prioritize one person’s rest over a whole shul of mispallelim.
“Don’t worry,” you’re saying, “I watch my kids. Except during Shemoneh Esrei, obviously. That’s the only time they run around.”
That’s the only time—when the shul is perfectly silent except for the sound of them jumping off the steps of the bimah and using the mechitzah to play peek-a-boo with the entire Ezras Nashim. Who’s watching them then? Your shul is not a babysitting service.
Note: Some shuls do have a babysitting service. I’m not talking about those.
And you can always tell that that’s why the kid is there, because the wife sent along enough snacks to feed the entire shul. Especially on a fast day. If you bring a kid to shul on Yom Kippur, you want literally enough snacks that if the kid does not stop eating the entire day, he will still not finish his food.
The mother reasoned, “Yom Kippur is going to be a long davening; here, take a bunch of food.” You know that some of us are starving, right? Like you know how your teacher used to say, “If you bring food to class, you have to bring enough for everybody?” Well, this kid brings enough for everybody.
And that makes it harder for those of us whose kids are there to daven. My kids are always salivating when they see some guy bring his kid to shul with like a rolling bag full of food. I always teach my kids that children eating on Yom Kippur is a heter, and you eat what you need. Meanwhile, these kids are coming in with chips and pretzels and some cucumber slices that they’re not going to touch, and pizza, soup, bachur sandwiches, cholent, a salad bar, tacos, a bowl of spaghetti; he’s got a sushi platter and he’s mixing wasabi and soy sauce in the corner… Like, calm down with the food for a second. You’re not gearing up for a marathon.
The kid always shows up with a huge shopping bag full of smaller zip-lock bags, and the entire time he’s asking his Totty to help him open and close his bags.
“Can you throw out my wrappers?”
And I think this happens in the women’s section too. My wife told me about a discussion she heard where one woman was complaining about children leaving messes in shul that other people then have to sit in, and another person said, “Well, people should bring their kids with healthy, mess-free snacks! Like carrot sticks!”
No. I don’t want to listen to a wood chipper the entire davening. Have you ever sat next to someone eating carrot sticks?
And there’s always the one kid who shows up with a cloth bag full of books and action figures, and he breezes through his entire pile of books in three minutes, and now he’s playing out a whole story with characters hanging off the shtenders and hiding in the tallis bag, and falling from great heights into the tissue box, and this is what I’m watching during the rabbi’s derashah.
“Yes, but the toys worked! My kid behaved so well!”
No kidding. I don’t think he was aware that he was in shul.
I don’t feel like you should have to bring your kid entertainment for shul. I feel like your kid should look around and notice things more and more over time. I feel like a nice picture book or two that’s not out of place in a shul is OK. Particularly one of those illustrated children’s Siddurim that have an arbitrary half of davening missing, including some things that your kid actually says in cheder. Like why is Ashrei not in here? Did you just not know what to draw for it?
Sometimes if I don’t bring along any picture books for a younger kid, I try to find a sefer with pictures, which usually ends up being something about pasul esrogim, or that sefer about the shiur of kezayis, where every page has pictures of food. That one’s great for fast days. Meanwhile, the kid at the next table is practicing. And my kid is saying, “That’s too little for a berachah; you have to eat more.”
Also, when the tzibbur gets up to a part of davening that your child might recognize, you point to it in their Siddur and try to get them to say it along with you. Like Shema. And more often than not, in my experience, your kid will say, “I already davened that part,” the gist being, “You told me to daven when I got here! How long do you think that takes me? I say three things!”
And then someone glares at you.
Alternatively, you can try to get him to say something he does not say in school. Though he might put up a fight.
My sister used to do that. Growing up, I would come home from shul some weeks and remind her to bentch Rosh Chodesh, and she would say, “I don’t say that in school.”
Of course, you don’t say Birchas HaChodesh in school. When do you have an in-Shabbos in second grade?
And yes, there is something to be said for giving the kid candy in shul so he equates davening with sweetness. On days that no one’s fasting, anyway. But I think one treat does that, handed to him by a stranger. There’s a candy man. That’s why I pay membership. Most shuls have a candy man who’s supposed to keep the kids quiet, but not for long, by giving them sugar and food coloring. Of course the issue with a candy man is that kids who otherwise would not come into the shul traipse in as a group just for that, and then again to ask, “Can I also have one for my baby brother? He’s not here.”
And then there’s one kid who comes up with all these other people that he or she has to get candy for. Like this one kid is in charge of feeding his or her entire circle of acquaintances:
“Can I have one for my friend? She’s outside. Also, my mother’s expecting; can I have one for the baby? Can I also have one for my cousin, who goes to a different shul that has no candy man? Also, there’s someone I know in school … I don’t know her, but my friend knows her…”
This is the part of Yiddishkeit that these kids are getting in shul—the bargaining part.
What is my point? My point—unless you are a child reading this in shul—is that there is a difference between going to shul and getting out of the house. But if the child is actually coming to be in shul and is experiencing all these firsts one at a time in a way that reminds the adults around him what it might have been like to slowly figure out a shul with fresh eyes, that might actually be inspirational for the people around him.
I don’t know if that was my point the whole time, but it is now.
Maybe ask your rav. Between aliyos, at least. n
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com. Read more of Mordechai Schmutter’s articles at 5TJT.com.