What Judaism Tells Us About Fatherhood

Happy Father’s Day! In the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world, Father’s Day 2021 falls on Sunday, June 20. While Father’s Day isn’t a Jewish holiday per se, many Jewish families use this day as an opportunity to honor the father figures in their lives who deserve to be celebrated.

Like so many relationships and roles in life, Judaism has a lot to say about fathers. There are dozens of fathers in the Torah, the Tanakh, the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts. In Judaism, there are also plenty of nuggets of wisdom on parenthood, as well as multiple commandments specifically for dads. In honor of Father’s Day, here is what we can learn about fatherhood from Judaism!

Fathers have certain responsibilities

Many people know that one of the 10 commandments tells children to respect their parents. However, according to Jewish law, parents have obligations, too!

There are five commandments that address a father’s obligation toward his sons specifically. The Talmud (Kiddushin 1) says: ““A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim.”

The first three commandments are derived from the Torah, while the mitzvah of marrying off sons is found in the Tanakh, specifically in Jeremiah. The commandment to teach one’s son a trade is less clear, and is traced back to Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), which says, “Enjoy a livelihood with the wife whom you love,” which the sages of the Talmud came to understand as also meaning that his son must have a chance to enjoy the same opportunity.

The final mitzvah of teaching one’s son how to swim is found in also found in the Talmud, in tractate Kiddushin 30 and was expanded on by Rashi. Rashi explains that there is a greater purpose than the skill of swimming; the father’s responsibility was really to teach his son how to survive. Swimming served as a great example because boat travel was more common in ancient times, as was bathing in moving waters, such as a river or stream. By teaching one’s son how to swim, a father is also doing what he can to preserve life (pikuach nefesh), which is a central task in Judaism.

Great dads have certain qualities

Jewish texts talk about fathers a lot. While the Torah and Tanakh are full of family trees explaining who is related to whom, some passages also elaborate on what truly constitutes a father beyond biological factors. Shemot Rabbah 46:5 explicitly explains that “He who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth.”

Jewish texts also give us an idea of what characteristics a father should have. For example, in Psalm 103, fathers are understood to be central forgiving and understanding figures in our lives. Pirkei Avot — the part of the Mishnah that explains the wisdom needed to conduct a moral and wholesome life — literally translates to “Ethics of the Fathers,” insinuating that fatherhood also means being an upstanding person who plays a role in making the world a better place.

Dads are also associated with creation in Judaism, especially throughout the Torah, where Hashem is often compared to a father. In Deuteronomy, Moses compares the way that Hashem took care of the Israelites throughout the Exodus as being similar to the way “a father carries his child.”

The Torah’s first dialogue between a father and son occurs in Genesis 22, between Abraham and Isaac. Isaac cries out, “Where are you, my father?” and Abraham replies, “Here I am.” Many rabbis and Jewish thinkers have gathered from that verse that the most important thing a father can be is present.

The three patriarchs as models of fatherhood

Throughout the Torah and Jewish prayers, the patriarchs (avoteinu) of Judaism are frequently referenced. The four patriarchs of Judaism are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These three central figures in Jewish history are considered patriarchs because all Jewish people are descended from them, in no small part because they helped create and carry on the Jewish people. In Judaism, there is a concept known as maase avot siman l’banim, which translates to “the journeys of our patriarchs are a paradigm for their descendants.” By reflecting on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we can better understand the broader connection between fatherhood, leadership, and carrying on a family.

Abraham (Avraham) was a literal father to Issac and Ishmael, and some may think citing him as an example of model fatherhood would be controversial, considering he nearly sacrificed Isaac to Hashem and sent Ishmael and his mother away. However, Abraham’s faith and dedication to Hashem (which was tested 10 separate times in Genesis!) and the Jewish people have proven to be a virtue that Jews everywhere have carried on for thousands of years throughout many different challenges.

Isaac (Yitzhak) was the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob. Because of his father’s faith and hardships, Isaac was able to be born in the Land of Israel and spend more of his life solidifying what it meant to be part of the Jewish nation. Isaac is also the grandfather of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Jacob (Yaakov, later Yisrael or Israel) was the son of Isaac and the father of 12 sons who would go on to form the 12 Tribes of Israel. The Jewish value of l’dor vador (“from generation to generation”) is exemplified in the stories of Jacob, who did what he could to ensure the Jewish people lived on through him. He also ensured his own sons, wives and daughter (Dinah) did not worship idols, were safe, and were financially provided for.