In Praise of Grandparents


The ideal of the blessed person in the Bible is to live long enough to see one’s grandchildren. For example, Psalm 128 concludes with the following blessing:

“May G-d bless you from Zion/May you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life/ and live to see your children’s children.”

But unlike the obligations that a parent has to a child, or the obligations that a child has to a parent, there is little within the traditional texts about the obligations of a grandparent to a grandchild. One exception is a text in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) that cites the example of a grandfather who taught his grandchild Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Halacha and Aggadah. The rabbis of the Talmud ask, “Is being so involved in one’s grandchild’s Jewish education the exception or the rule?” It is the rule, they conclude, citing the verse in Deuteronomy (4:9) that one should teach the Torah “to your sons and to the sons of your sons”. The discussion proceeds to two examples of Rabbis who were involved in their grandchildren’s education. One rabbi would not eat breakfast until he had read to his grandchild and taught him an additional verse of scripture. Another rabbi would not eat breakfast until he had brought his grandchild to the study hall. The Talmud concludes this discussion by declaring, “Teaching the Torah to one’s grandchild is tantamount to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai”. High praise indeed. 

In our time, few grandparents are able to study Torah every day with their grandchildren. Yet, as Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary writes, grandparents continue to be an important influence on their grandchildren’s attachment to Judaism. Studies show that the relationship that a child has to his or her grandparent is often more positive than that which they have with their parents. Social media attests to the outsized influence grandparents can have on their grandchildren. As one Facebook post noted upon the death of a grandfather, “My Grandpa meant the world to me, as did our entire family to him. My love of Israel, Judaism and family all came from him.” Wertheimer writes that as a member of the admissions committee at the Seminary Rabbinic School, he has been “repeatedly struck by the number of applicants citing grandparental influence in their eventual decision to become actively committed members of the Jewish clergy.”

Wertheimer notes two other studies. The first, a survey of Birthright alumni concluded that, “a connection to Jewish grandparents is an important predictor of a wide variety of positive Jewish attitudes and practices in later years.” A second study of college students found that “those whose grandparents accompanied them to the synagogue and engage in other Jewish activities  are likeliest to feel strong attachments to Israel and the Jewish people.” Finally, a recent study, “Families and Faith” concludes that for many children, grandparents are the de facto moral and religious models and teachers in lieu of parents who are too exhausted or too busy on weekends to go to church or temple.”

Not all of us live close enough to our own grandchildren to drive them to religious school or attend synagogue with them on weekends. And not all adult children welcome the involvement of their parents in their children’s religious life. Adult children do not always share their parent’s commitment to Jewish involvement and practice. In these kinds of situations  one needs  to tread very  gently  and figure out ways to reach for the hearts and souls of the grandchildren. One also must be prepared to accept that inclusion in their religious upbringing might be out of reach altogether.   Involvement might occur through negotiated and carefully calibrated Jewish observance –   sporadic Shabbat dinners, an occasional synagogue visit, possibly a visit to a Holocaust museum, minimal  instruction in Jewish perspectives. Synagogues like our own can also help forge a Jewish bond between grandchildren and grandparents by sponsoring more opportunities like tonight, which brings together grandparents and grandchildren. We certainly welcome your ideas for programs in the future!

I would like to close with a beautiful poem from an anonymous author that  clearly  captures the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren.

Child of my child, heart of my heart/ Your smile bridges the years between us/ I am young again discovering the world through your eyes/ You have the time to listen and I have the time to spend/ Delighted to gaze at familiar loved features made new in you again/ Through you I see the future, through me you see the past/ In the present we’ll love one another/ As long as these moments last.

Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova on Unsplash

Shabbat Shalom