So your question is a point of contention as there are sources that argue she does have an obligation in חינוך. Having said this though, if we say that she does not have a role to play in the actual חינוך of the child, she still plays a very prominent role in raising her child in a way that promotes and values a תורה and מצוה fuelled life.
The גמרא relates that the mother is synonymous with the home (Refer to the גמרא in :מסכת שבת קיח where it states:
"א"ר יוסי מימי לא קריתי לאשתי אשתי...אלא לאשתי ביתי"
“Rav Yossi said: My whole life I have never called my wife, my wife. …Rather, I have always called my wife my home”.
This is supported elsewhere in .מסכת יומא ב where it writes:
"ביתו זו אשתו" – “His house – this is his wife” (i.e. the words בית and אשה are interchangeable).
Additionally, HaRav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg זצ"ל when talking to women about their role in the home is quoted as saying, “A woman’s ability to build a home isn’t something secondary. It is an intrinsic capacity ingrained in her by Hashem.” As mentioned by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, Rav Scheinberg, (Mesorah Publications Ltd – 2013), p.456.). Her role is central to the structure of family life (See the מהר"ל, דרך חיים על פרקי אבות א:ה where he notes, "...שאשה עקרת הבית שעליה כל ענין הבית עומד" – “The woman is the homemaker and on her, all matters of the home stand”.) and the intuitive comprehension that a woman has, helps to mould a firm foundation from which the family can thrive.
Since she generally spends more time with the children, especially when the father tends to work longer hours, her role is to be regarded as conceivably more important. Refer to של"ה, שער האותיות, אות ד' – דרך ארץ, פרשה כז. He writes there:
"ואם הוא טרוד במשה ומתן ובהליכת דרכים אז על הרוב אין האיש בביתו"
“And if he is busy with business and travelling, then the majority of the time, the man is not in the house”.
Similarly, the מהרש"א on מסכת סוטה כא. writes:
"שהאשה מצויה בביתה יותר מהאיש ואומרות לבניהן לילך לבית הספר"
“The woman is to be found in the house more so than the men, and they instruct their children to go to school”.
Additionally, see פרקי חינוך, פרק ארבעה עשר: 'חלקה של האם בחינוך', עמוד 261. HoRav Shmuel Pinchasi שליט"א writes there:
"והשתדלותה עשויה להועיל אולי יותר מהאב, שכן האבא אינו מצוי בבית במרבית השעות, ואילו האמא מצויה רוב היום בבית, משגיחה רואה ושמה לב לפעולות הילדים ולמעשיהם"
“Her efforts are likely to help more than the father’s since the father is not normally found in the home most of the time, whereas the mother spends most of her day in the home and thus she supervises, watches and pays attention to the actions of the children and their deeds”.).
HoRav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch זצ"ל asserts:
"יתכן שהשפעתה הרוחנית של האם קובעת את עתידו הרוחני של הילד עוד לפני הימסרו לבית ספר"
“It is possible that the spiritual influence of the mother fixes his (the child) spiritual future long before it is transmitted to him in school” (יסודות החינוך, חלק ב', 'תפקיד האם', עמוד ע).
With this as a starting point we can now more fully explore the role of a Jewish mother and the tremendous praise which is heaped upon her throughout ש"ס and beyond.
שלמה המלך famously writes in משלי יד:א
“חכמות נשים בנתה ביתה”
“The wise among women, each builds her home”.
The גמרא in סנהדרין קי: understands this פסוק as a reference to the story of the wife of און בן פלת. Seeing that קרח’s rebellion was destined for disaster, she cunningly intervened to prevent her husband from being swept up into the rabble-rousing euphoria. She made און drunk to the point that he was unable to join the throng and then uncovered her hair and sat by the window ensuring that no-one would pass by lest they see an immodest-looking woman. Ultimately, it was through an astute understanding of the situation that she was able prevent her husband from meeting his untimely death. This heightened awareness stems from a unique acuity that only women are blessed with known as בינה יתירה – literally, ‘additional understanding’ (:מסכת נדה מה - The גמרא writes there, “מלמד שנתן הקב"ה בינה יתירה באשה יותר מבאיש” – “This teaches that Hashem provides an additional understanding with women, more so than with men”).
Mothers set the standard
It therefore follows that mothers set the standard for the home and create the momentum through which every family member can begin to reach their potential. Since she is so pivotal to the home environment, the מהר"ל writes that her instinctive understanding and resulting guidance is something that should be followed (מהר"ל, דרך חיים על פרקי אבות א:ה. He writes there, "האשה יסוד מציאות הבית ויש ללכת אחר עצתה" – “The woman is the foundation, (and is thus) the reality of the home, and one should resultantly follow her advice”). Indeed, the מדרש relates that it is specifically the women who introduce their children to the Torah way of life - (See שמות רבה כח:ב where it writes, "שיהו מנהיגות את בניהן לתורה"). This approach is echoed by חז"ל who highlight the fact, that since women go to such lengths to ensure their children have the right חינוך, they are resultantly granted a guaranteed promise of reward, a return that is superior to the men. The גמרא in ברכות יז relates:
"אמר ליה רב לרבי חייא נשים במאי זכיין באקרויי בנייהו לבי כנישתא ובאתנויי גברייהו בי רבנן ונטרין לגברייהו עד דאתו מבי רבנן."
“Rav said to Rav Chiya, through what do women merit (eternal life)? Through bringing their children to Shul to learn Torah and through sending their husbands to the study hall to learn and waiting for their husbands until they come back from the study halls.”
The mother therefore has a unique role that is rightly lauded. This important position is outlined clearly by the Vilna Gaon זצ"ל. The פסוק in משלי כ:כ writes:
"מקלל אביו ואמו ידעך נרו באשון חשך"
“One who curses his father or mother, his light will flicker out in the deepening darkness”.
The Vilna Gaon explains this choice of imagery to mean that since a child’s parents inspire the child in both תורה and מצוות which are likened to fire, by cursing them he is causing the source of the light to be extinguished. He writes:
"אביו הוא מלמדה תורה כמ"ש ולמדתם וגו' ושננתם וגו' ואמו היא המדרכת אותו לעשות מצות ולילך בדרך ישרה"
“His father teaches him Torah as it is written; ‘Teach them [to your children]’ and ‘Teach them thoroughly [to your children], and his mother guides him to do Mitzvos and to go on the straight path”.
It is evident from this teaching that whilst the onus may be on the father to ensure his child learns Torah, the mother acts as the key influence in encouraging her child in the ideal Jewish lifestyle. Through her endless love and ever-watchful eye she ably ensures that her children tread the path of תורה and מצוות.
One example where we see a mother’s care and attention praised explicitly, is in the famous משנה in פרקי אבות ב:ח. When mentioning רבי יהושע בן חנניה’s name, his teacher, רבי יוחנן בן זכאי states, "אשרי יולדתו" – “Fortunate is the one that bore him”. It is quite amazing that when recalling the greatness of רבי יהושע, רבי יוחנן בן זכאי felt it proper to credit his mother with his success. רש"י explains that the reason for such lavish praise was that upon hearing that she was pregnant, every day she would travel to the בתי מדרשות in order to expose her unborn baby to the sound of תורה learning whilst asking those in attendance to pray that her child become a תלמיד חכם. This practise was further concretised following his birth, where she permanently stationed his crib there so that he would hear the words of תורה (refer to both רבינו עובדיה מברטנורה and תפארת ישראל). It is clear that his mother was all too aware of the power of a positive impression even in the eyes of young child. Such an upbringing is both unique and unparalleled, something which רבי יוחנן בן זכאי clearly realised. It was this selfless dedication, this commitment to raising a child so saturated in תורה that allowed רבי יהושע to become the great תלמיד חכם that he was.
Throughout the annals of time, the Jewish mother has typically displayed immense מסירות נפש, self-sacrifice, in order for her children to succeed. Her desire to gain true yiddishe נחת knows no bounds and the lengths that they go to, in order to reach these objectives are legendary. רבקה אמינו seemingly does the unthinkable. She dupes her blind husband יצחק, her devoted partner of many years, by helping יעקב with a suitable disguise and has to then watch an incensed עשו set out for revenge (בראשית כז:ה-יז). Her actions and the resulting fallout would have undoubtedly pained רבקה but it is clear that she acted for the greater good. In her mind, עשו was clearly not worthy of the ברכות and something had to be done to intercede on יעקב’s behalf.
In a similar vein, the גמרא in :שבת קנו relates how the mother of רבי נחמן בר יצחק was informed by astrologers that her son would become a thief. What was her reaction? She told him to always cover his head, declaring, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of Hashem shall always be on you’. The result enabled him to become one of the greatest teachers and תלמידי חכמים of his generation.
Striking the Balance
When defining the perceived roles of both the father and the mother, there is clear delineation in the תורה. The עשרת הדברות states unequivocally that one must ‘honour’ his father and mother (שמות כ:יב). In that context, the תורה needed to place the father first, since a child naturally honours the mother more. Yet, when referring to ‘revering’ one’s parents (ויקרא יט:ג), the תורה places the mother’s name first as a child tends to have a greater sense of fear for their father (Refer to רש"י ד"ה אמו ואביו תיראו, ויקרא יט:ג and מסכת קידושין ל: - לא.). It would seem therefore, that the mother is naturally the purveyor of love and tenderness in the home. Her careful supervision makes her the figure of compassion. That is not to say the father is regarded as strictly authoritarian, rather, it relates back to our initial point about women’s holistic awareness of the world around them. It is due to their sensory perceptions and intuitive reactions that they are able to respond to situations in a more considered manner.
This instinctive aura of love allows for the children to have a firm foundation to learn about the world around them. שלמה המלך famously writes:
"שמע בני מוסר אביך ואל תטוש תורת אמך"
“Hear my child, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother” (משלי א:ח).
Whilst the father may be the one who is the main teacher of תורה, the mother’s wisdom permeates the home creating the correct pathway for the household to tread (Refer to אבן עזרה on משלי א:ח which states, "כי האשה חכמה מורה הדרך ישרה לבנה" – “The wise woman teaches the straight path to her children”). Coupled with the boundless love that is ever-present, this allows a child to naturally absorb what is being transmitted. In the הגדה it writes about fourth son, "ושאינו יודע לשאול את פתח לו" – “As for the son who is unable to ask, you must initiate the subject for him”. HaRav Shmuel Ehrenfeld זצ"ל, the חתן סופר, notes that the directive to converse with this child (את) is in the feminine form. This is because when an adult speaks about יציאת מצרים, it must be done in the same patient and gentle manner that a mother interacts with her child. Thus, the mother’s way with a child is seen as the prerequisite for teaching children. In general, we should employ a gentle and caring manner to help trigger a love for תורה and מצוות.
However, by the same token, the mother must also find the right balance. Despite having this default maternal characteristic, this affection must not come through a state of over-indulgence. A woman must also be able to rebuke her child when necessary. The problem, according to the של"ה הקדוש is,
"כי טבע הנשים רכות"
“That women are softer by nature” (של"ה, שער האותיות, אות ד' – דרך ארץ, פרשה כו).
This means to say, women have to be in a position whereby they can fix character defects, it is not just up to the father. If they remain passive, they will cause more harm than good. The של"ה הקדוש supports this idea with a פסוק from איכה which states, "ידי נשים רחמניות בשלו ילדיהן" – “The hands of the compassionate mother ‘cooks’ her children” (איכה ד:י). Ultimately, if the mother does not take action, she is ‘killing’ her children as she is not correcting their behaviour and thereby, not providing a correct educational standard.
בת שבע the wife of דוד המלך is a noted example of a mother finding this balance and knowing when to rebuke her child. The מדרש relates that on the day that the בית המקדש was to be dedicated, שלמה המלך overslept due to the fact that he had become inebriated the night before (Various מדרשים allude to the fact that the previous night שלמה המלך had got married to בתיה the daughter of פרעה and the sound of rejoicing over פרעה’s daughter was greater than the rejoicing surrounding the בית המקדש. בתיה went on to spread a canopy above his bed. This canopy was full of gems and pearls which sparkled like the stars and constellations. The result ensured that when, שלמה המלך awoke he saw what he thought was stars and went back to sleep, finally arising four hours into the day. See ילקוט שמעוני, משלי תתקסד, במדבר רבה י:ד and ויקרא רבה יב:ה). To make matters worse, the קרבן תמיד של שחר, the daily morning sacrifice, could not be offered as the keys to the בית המקדש lay under the pillow of the sleeping שלמה. Naturally, out of both respect and trepidation for the king, the people were somewhat nervous to wake the slumbering monarch. They resultantly went to his mother בת שבע who went and woke him up (ילקוט שמעוני, משלי תתקסד).
בת שבע then proceeded to hit him with her shoe, exclaiming, "מה ברי ומה בר בטני ומה בר נדרי" – “What is it, my son? And what is it, O son of my womb? And what is it, O son of my vows?” (משלי לא:ב). The explanation of this last clause – “Son of my vows”, is a reference to the fact that when נתן הנביא came to tell דוד that he would have a son called שלמה (Refer to דברי הימים א - כב:ט), all of his wives took a vow that if they were to give birth to שלמה they would bring all the קרבנות of the Torah. בת שבע turned to שלמה המלך and shouted, “I have now come with sacrifices in my hand and you are asleep”!(ויקרא רבה יב:ה) She proceeded to tell her son that it is incorrect to behave like non-Jewish kings who drink wine and become intoxicated. שלמה later acknowledged that his mother was right (:מסכת סנהדרין ע).