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Child Support

Child Support

Jewish tradition affirms father's obligation to support minor children.

Q. Many states impose strict and sometimes demeaning sanctions on fathers to compel payment of child support. What does Jewish tradition say about this?

A. The prevalent view in the United States is that the main obligation for child support falls on the biological father, and not on the mother or on the community. Often various sanctions apply, for example, the ability to obtain a driver's license, passport etc.

Jewish law as described in the Talmud and authoritative codes doesn't impose the same kind of sanctions, but it definitely shares the view that the father has a legal and ethical obligation to support his minor children, and that it is shameful for him to shirk this obligation.

Technically, Jewish law distinguishes two levels of child support obligation. There is an inherent obligation on the father to provide for his children until age 6; and from then on there is a rabbinical obligation which is viewd as an extension of the general obligation to give charity. But practically speaking there is little difference between the two.

The following Talmudic passage distinguishes various levels of enforcement of this obligation:

    When they came before Rav Yehuda [regarding a man who failed to support his children], he said to them: The ostrich gave birth and imposed [its offspring's] support on the public! When they came before Rav Chisda [with such a case], he said to them: Turn over a mortar [to make a stand, like a soapbox], stand on it and announce: "Even a raven cares for its offspring, yet this man doesn't care for his children!" . . . When they came before Rava, he said: "Is this person satisfied that his children should be supported by charity?"

    And all this [that the father is reprimanded and shamed, but not actually assessed] applies only if he lacks means, but if has the means we compel him to pay. (1)

The references to the ostrich and the raven are explained by the commentators as follows: These species of birds aren't kind to their offspring, but at the very least they provide them with food; so this man is behaving worse than an animal.

The motivation behind this law is evidently the same as that in secular law: both to insure that the father personally participates in providing for the children, and to ensure that the children don't become a burden on community funds. "Charity begins at home" and a person's first obligation is to his wife and his young children.

It is impossible for me to comment in detail on the various provisions of the child support laws in the US. There are certainly differences; for example, in Jewish law a father with no means is not formally compelled to pay child support, but under secular law he may be. But we clearly see that Jewish law perceives a cardinal ethical obligation for a father to support his children even if his means are limited. After all, the Talmud concludes that if he has means they are subject to collection, and presumably his wages would be subject to garnishment. It is specifically the father who currently has no means to support his children who is shamed, in order to persuade him to do whatever is necessary in order to provide for them.

This obligation definitely does not preclude a voluntary arrangement, one increasingly common in our society, whereby the mother is the breadwinner. In that case the father is indeed providing for his children through this voluntary agreement. But the primary obligation for the support of the children falls on the father, and not on the mother or the public purse.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 49:1-2.

March 13, 2010

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 8

(8) L.S., December 1, 2010 9:28 PM

#4 not correct

Comment #4 is incorrect. Go to any orthodox event--how many single mothers do you see as opposed to single fathers? It is cruel to take an infant away from its mother at 2 years old! Unless the mother is totally unfit, children are in the primary custody of the mother, who has been pregnant, given birth, nursed, etc.

(7) SusanE, March 28, 2010 4:04 PM

The Kids Always Suffer.

I know men who have quit working after a divorce and child support has been ordered. - In PA a man making $36,000 a year with a stay at home wife and 2 kids could pay $1003. a month in support if he chooses to leave the marriage. He has legal fees and mostly he has a mortgage to keep his home and insurances also. He can't afford to live independently. So, he drops out. He quits working and moves in with a girlfriend for a few years and lives off the grid till the kids are grown. -------- I know one man who remarried and his new wifes' wages were included and his child support was substancially raised. I know a college professor who was divorced and he took a leave and dropped out of sight, and resurfaced with a women and a cash only job for 10 years. He will probably die without ever having respect from his children.- I've seen both sides of the support issue. No one but the judge considers the kids. When there is a bitter divorce and the children are young, it's generally one of the partners is having an affair. In that case child support is called Pay to Play. And ......... you can't afford it. To the men out there - if you don't want to pay child support, stay in the marriage. You have legal financial and moral obligations till your children are of age.

(6) Steve, March 25, 2010 2:48 PM

Parent alienaton is a gentile derivative

I agree 100% that the child support guidelines are geared to not only financially rape the noncustodial parent ( mostly the fathers) but encourage parent alienation. I think this dimishment of the noncustodial parent stems from non-Judaic values that have influenced the legal system.. Have a child with a gentile and when things go to child custody issues, see how bizarre and anti-semitic the gentile parent becomes. Also, see how the court's insincerity trivializes Judaic issues that pertain to the child. It's still a 2000 year history of hate displayed as a microcosm in family court.

(5) Anonymous, March 18, 2010 11:47 PM

Family law is often court-approved male abuse by which men are raped by the system. I am speaking as a woman. When I got divorced, my ex and I amicably figured out payments because even I could see that what he would've been required to pay by law was unreasonable, so I accepted less. I've never regretted it. The problem isn't that dads don't want to support their children. The problem is that the law often places financial burdens on men that leave them with an inability to support their own basic needs for food and shelter. A man could lose his job, but they'll still go after him for payment. It's unconscionable how our society discriminates against men in the family law courts, diminishing their "relationship" with their children to visitations. I also agree with Commenter #2. I feel for the men who are suffering both financially and emotionally and hope the laws will become more balanced over time.

(4) Anonymous, March 18, 2010 4:27 PM

This article may hurt children and should be removed

I am shocled the ethicist does ask: Does it make the children happy when their father's pictire is posted on the internet or he is put in jail for not paying child supprt? How emotionally painful and humilaiting is it for children to visit theiir fathers in jail because he wasn't able to pay support? Did the ethicist comment on the excruciating pain felt by children who lost their fathers becuase the fathers were hounded for money that they did not have and moved away? This artilcle promotes the idea that a father's value in a family is bringing in money -- and if he doesn't, punish him. I never met anyone whose father has passed away say: I wish my father was alive so he could give me money. What I hear them say is: I wish my father was alive so I could talk to him. It's also contrary to Jewish law. According to Maimonides, when there is a divorce, custody of children goes to the father unless the child is nursing inwhich case the child stays with the moher until he or she is no longer nursing. Please remove this article before more children are hurt.

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