MBY 343 A Child on Shabbos (abridged)
Excerpted from Children in Halacha by Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen, Ch. 12, pp. 66-70]
The prohibitions of Shabbos.
Parents are obligated to teach children of ‘chinuch’ age to refrain from all prohibited activity on Shabbos. To list a few examples: One must teach children not to turn lights on or off, not to carry anything in a public domain and not to play with muktzah items (e.g. pebbles). As stated in Chapter One, this aspect of chinuch begins at an earlier age than does chinuch for positive commandments. (Ed. the latter being 5-6 or possibly older.) Once a child can be made to understand that a particular type of activity is forbidden (from approximately 4 years of age), one is obligated to teach him to refrain from it.
In addition to the requirement of chinuch, there is another Shabbos law regarding children. The Torah states (Shmos 20:10): “Do not perform any labor, neither you nor your son nor your daughter…” We learn from this that parents must not allow their children to perform any melacha (forbidden act) on Shabbos. If a child does a melacha because he realizes that it will be beneficial to the parent, even if the parent does not instruct the child to do it, the parent is obligated to stop the child from doing so. Since this Torah prohibition, unrelated to the law of chinuch, is part of the parent’s own Shabbos observance, it applies even to children who are below chinuch age. Thus, the issue of chinuch and its appropriate age is relevant in regard to Shabbos prohibitions only when a child wishes to do a forbidden act for his or her own benefit. A parent whose child wishes to perform labor for the parent’s benefit must prevent the child from doing so, regardless of the child’s age. Furthermore, the Sages prohibited a child from doing a melacha even for the benefit of a stranger. It should be noted that if a child did melacha for his parents or strangers, they are forbidden to derive benefit from that melacha.
Instructing or causing a child to violate a prohibition.
We learned in Chapter One that it is forbidden to instruct or to cause a child to violate a prohibition, even if the child is below chinuch age. For example, one may not tell a very young child to turn on a light even if it for the child’s own benefit. It is likewise forbidden to place the child’s hand on the switch if one is certain that the child will turn it on. However, as noted above, it is permitted to place a forbidden item in front of a child, even though the child will make use of that item in a forbidden manner. Accordingly, one is permitted to place a child of less than chinuch age in front of a light switch so that the child may turn the light on or off. Likewise, if it is not certain that the child will turn the switch, one may even place the child’s hand upon it. [One must remember, though, that if switching off the light will benefit only the parent, and the child realizes that, the parent must stop the child from doing so.] Another application of this rule: Children who have not reached chinuch age are permitted to play with muktzah items. While one may neither instruct a child to play with a muktzah item, nor cause a child to do so by placing the child’s hand on the item, one is permitted to put a child down in front of a muktzah item even though the child will play with it.
When One May Instruct a Child to Violate a Prohibition.
Some poskim rule that one is permitted to instruct a child who has not reached chinuch age to violate a Rabbinic prohibition if it is to the child’s own great necessity. One may rely on this opinion in cases of great necessity. For example, turning on a light is considered to be a Biblical prohibition. Thus, one is forbidden to tell a young child to turn on a light even if the child himself will benefit from it. However, turning a light off is only Rabbinically prohibited. Thus, it is permissible, in a case of great necessity, to instruct a child (who is below chinuch age) to turn off a light (e.g. if the light is disturbing the child.)
Ed: To summarize, we have learned about three different principles which govern the way we relate to our young children and their observance of Shabbos law:
1. Outwardly teach the child to refrain from Shabbos violation – obligated from a young chinuch age (4) 2. Do not allow a child to knowingly do melacha for an adult, even if not prompted – obligated from below chinuch age 3. Do not prompt or cause a child to do melacha even for the child’s own benefit – obligated from below chinuch age (Note: This principle has a leniency for Rabbinic prohibitions in case of great necessity for the child’s own sake.)