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The Three-Ply Cord | Rabbi Pruzansky's Blog

The Three-Ply Cord | Rabbi Pruzansky's Blog

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The Three-Ply Cord
Posted on October 12, 2012 | 7 Comments
King Solomon stated in his wisdom “Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their effort.” But three are even better, “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed” (Kohelet 4:9,12). The Midrash (Kohelet Raba 4) interprets this as applicable to family continuity: “R. Zi’era said that a family of scholars will produce scholars, and a family of Bnai Torah will produce Bnai Torah, and wealth will beget wealth, ‘for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.’” One sage asked: didn’t a well known family lose their wealth? To which R. Zi’era responded: “Did I say ‘the three-ply cord is never severed?’ I said “for the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  But why should a three-ply cord – tough and durable – ever be severed?

A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.

Those are frightening statistics that should cause us all to shudder. Perhaps the numbers are less dire than they seem on the surface. For sure, a not-insignificant percentage of students enter those high schools already lacking in Shabbat observance – their families are not observant – and they leave the same way. Other teens already fall off the derech while in high school – a more exacting study would measure their observance level at graduation and then two years later. But, undoubtedly, many slide off the path of Torah as soon as they gain a modicum of autonomy. Just as certain, there are some who return to Torah years later as well.

What are we missing? What are we lacking? What are we failing to provide them after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per child on their Jewish education? What is going wrong? And how can it be rectified?

It needs to be stated that parents who look to blame the schools, the shuls, the youth groups, the Rabbis, the teachers, and/or the greater community are looking in the wrong place. They should start by looking in the mirror. That should be obvious, because parents have the primary obligation of educating their children – “you shall teach [these words] to your children to speak of them…” (Devarim 11:19). Even if parents delegate this task, they still remain primarily responsible. And of course, the general disclaimer always pertains in these matters: there are perfect parents whose kids go off the derech and horrendous parents (absolute scoundrels) whose children are righteous and scholarly. Even such illustrious people as Yitzchak and Rivka produced one of each – a tzadik and a scoundrel. There is no panacea, and we can only talk about the majority. There will always be exceptions.

To me, it all goes back to basics – not just what the parents say, but what parents say and do. The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order. Children who see their parents prioritize shul – not once or twice a week, but every day – see shul as a value. Children who see their parents attend shul once a week and primarily socialize and converse while there see shul as a place to meet their friends. When older, they can just bypass the middleman and just go straight to their friends.

Similarly, children who see parents learning Torah during their leisure time perceive learning as a value. Children whose Shabbat is different than the other days of the week – the Shabbat table is different, the conversation is laden with talk of Torah, ideas, values, and zemirot instead of idle chitchat, sports, and gossip – experience a different Shabbat. It’s just a different day. When Shabbat is not observed as a different day, it stops being a different day.

I have noticed that there are teens who simply do not daven – they will converse the whole time – and invariably they are the children of fathers who themselves don’t stop talking in shul. Children who roam the halls of the synagogue Shabbat morning are invariably the offspring of parents who roam the halls. Like father, like son.

And something else: too many teenagers have absolutely no concept of “Bigdei Shabbat” – the obligation to wear special clothing on Shabbat. I am not even referring to wearing ties and jackets, although that is clearly perceived as dignified dress in America. Many teens come to shul dressed in weekday clothing but even on the lower end of what might be called “school casual.” How do parents not impress on their children from their earliest youth with the idea of “Shabbat clothing?” That is part of what makes Shabbat different. Every child – girl or boy – should have clothing specially designated for Shabbat, ideally a jacket and tie for boys and a nice dress for girls. At age five, I put on a suit and tie for Shabbat, and never looked back. How are children allowed to leave the house on Shabbat as if it is a Sunday – whether it is to attend shul in the morning or meet their friends in the afternoon?

Are we then surprised when Shabbat for them becomes “not Shabbat”? Their whole experience of Shabbat is being told what they can’t do, incarcerated for two hours in the morning in a place where they don’t want to be, to then eat a meal that might be devoid of spiritual substance, the day salvaged only when they meet their friends who have had similar experiences. But if Shabbat is not a different day, then apparently the moment the child gains his independence, or a moment or two after that, his Shabbat becomes Saturday, which, combined with Sunday and Friday night, makes for a long, fun and enjoyable weekend. The fifteen year old who walks around the streets Shabbat afternoon in shorts and sneakers will likely not be observing Shabbat when he is twenty. But no one will make the connection then – so make it now.

“For the three-ply cord is not easily severed.” The three-ply cord of Torah, tefila and Shabbat is not easily undone. The survey is not as surprising as is the persistent reluctance to draw the obvious conclusions and instead cast a wide net looking for the suspects. George Orwell famously wrote that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” The good news is that we need not look very far for solutions. If the parent wants the child to learn Torah, then the parent should learn Torah. If the parent wants the child to daven, then the parent should daven. If the parent wants the child to enjoy Shabbat as a holy, special day, then the parent should make Shabbat into a holy, special day.

Perhaps there is an even more important idea. The Midrash (ibid) also states: “two are better than one – that is, a man and his wife who are better than each alone, but the ‘third cord’ (that fortifies the first two) is G-d who provides them with children.”

Parents have to convey to their children beginning in infancy a sense of G-d’s immanence, a sense of the godly in life, and a Jewish identity that is rooted in the Torah that Moshe commanded us. Children should be inculcated beginning in infancy that what they do matters before G-d, and that mitzvot are not just performances but points of connection to the Creator. When parents enlist G-d in their parenting – not as the Source of all guilt and dire punishment, but as the Source of “the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov,” then “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”  Anything can happen. There are no guarantees in life, and each person is endowed with free choice. But “the three-ply cord is not easily severed.”

We must reduce our expectations to the simple – what we want for our children, our greatest priority – is the summation of our lives: not that they should necessarily attend Columbia, Harvard or Yale, or become doctors, lawyers, rabbis, or businessmen, but rather “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered, is to fear G-d and keep His commandments…” (Kohelet 12:13). When we speak with pride not of “my son the doctor” or “my daughter the lawyer” but find our true pride in “my son the G-d-fearing Jew” and “my daughter the Shomeret Mitzvot,” then we and they will be prepared for the great era ahead, when G-d’s name will be made great and exalted before the nations.

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This entry was posted in Contemporary Life, Current Events, Halacha, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Minhagim, Philosophy, Tefillah. Bookmark the permalink.

tzorichiyun | October 14, 2012 at 5:40 am | Reply
Very nice.

Mr. Cohen | October 14, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
Rabbi Pruzansky said:

“…25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.”

Modern Orthodox parents should encourage their children to NOT attend sleep-away colleges. Instead, Modern Orthodox students should attend college near home, so they can and continue to live with parents or Orthodox roommates until marriage.

Yair | October 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
For those of us interested in following up, whose unpublished study are you citing?

Rabbi | October 17, 2012 at 12:52 am | Reply
I can’t say. It was unpublished for a reason.

Mr. Cohen | October 18, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
Modern Orthodox parents should encourage their children to attend Jewish colleges, like YU and Touro.

Jack Berlin | October 19, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
Rabbi. The US is in tough economic shape with a very debt/gdp ratio in part due to reckless and inefficient spending. You focus on parents in your solution to a Yeshiva Day school issue you highlight. What is the religious objective of todays modern orthodox institution? You mention yiras shamayim as a primary objective for us as a nation. If the primary goal is achieved through parents, why is our generation bankrupting itself with reckless/inefficient spending on a broken yeshiva system ? Is there a better model? Perhaps the economic resources of the community should be spent on strengthening the emunah of the parent body and the “trickle down” effect will be engaged!

Srully Epstein | October 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
@Jack Berlin,

Yeshivos are expensive, true, but they are not broken. Jewish children get a terrific education today, and their parents’ spending and sacrifice for that education should not be described as “reckless” or “inefficient.”

The good rabbis point is, I believe, that all this wonderful education faces an uphill battle if parents don’t demonstrate in the home the values that their children are learning in the yeshiva. Torah is a living experience, not at academic pursuit.


  1. Rabbi Pruzansky, a modern orthodox rabbi with much direct experience (and commentary) in what is going on in the modern orthodox world, must be commended for his courage and bravery -- and taken a lot of heat -- for publishing statistics that may make modern orthodoxy look really bad.

    My take is that whatever the merits of the precise percentages, the overall point is that the statistics are really really bad. Rabbi Pruzansky may have mentioned the study, but he in fact speaks from first-hand pulpit experience in that community.

  2. A major problem is manifest in the fellows who are outwardly or inwardly OTD, who write comments such as this one - total innuendo, scoffing and mocking lishma - which appears on Harry's blog. This is representative, there are many variations on the theme:

    You want to know why MO people go off? As one who did, I can tell you. In uncomplicated terms, there is no reason not to.

    I agree that you should tell young people that we can't answer all the questions that we cannot "prove" our religion intellectually; that we should value secular studies and not be afraid of the outside world; to respect the values and morals of society. But at the same time, we are taught to be religious despite scientific evidence believed to be conclusive in the academic world that the Torah was written by people, not the deity; that the Bible is full of mythology, largely lifted from pagan legends; despite the clearly immoral, outdated, primitive ideas of right and wrong (such as looking down on homosexual activity); that we should follow Halacha despite our knowledge that it was created by humans.

    The post-modernists are right. Orthodoxy has been disproven. Judaism has been exposed as falsely claiming to be divine. You can be Hareidi and stick your head in the sand, which is one's right, but once you ask me to take my head out of the sand, you can't blame me for being intellectually honest and not being blind.

  3. This was my comment there:

    I believe Rabbi P's issue is more of an issue for other schools to the left of MTA, but we certainly to have a small percentage of kids who go OTD. So, I went over Rabbi P's blog post with my shiur today. I proceeded to hold a conversation with them as to what is special, precious and unique to Orthodox Judaism, and its unique avenues to accomplish goodness, refinement, and a better world. I distinguished between Orthodox Judaism as a derech and Orthodox Jewry as a sociological category, with the obvious ramifications. I think resources and programming based on this theme are critical to developing the antibodies that may potentially safeguard our population. This is not to the exclusion of Rabbi P's points about Shabbos, Tefillah and Torah, but to enhance them.

    In this vein, while it is a bit (but just a bit!) of hyperbole, I frequently say that one cannot say he or she is knowledgeable as to the quality of Orthodox Judaism until they have read A Tzaddik in Our Time.

  4. Several discreet critiques.
    1) The core idea - children will pick up on the genuineness/disingenuousness of their parents is spot on.

    2) Sheep (in this case the parents) look to their shephard (usually the rabbi) for inspiration. When the message is founded on hearsay of an unpublished study, the sheep will quickly look askance.

    3) More to #2 - "The “chut hameshulash” – the “three-ply cord” of our world is Torah study, prayer and Shabbat – and in no particular order." I seem to remember a different 3rd leg of the stand - gemilut chasadim. One has to take a synagogue rabbi's choice of Shabbat as, perhaps, self-serving. This further detracts from the message.

    4) Perhaps if the rabbi were addressing the 100% of kids who can benefit from aspirational messages rather than castigating the 47% of the kids who are OTD, he might actually begin to see some successes in reconnecting to the people.

    Hearsay of a study with controversial outcomes - discussed on many other blogs, so I will just say it stretches credibility.

  5. Pardon late comment, as I just became aware of this. These statistics seem to underscore the importance of getting all graduates into an out-of-town secular college as soon as possible. Whereas they claim that 50% of MO graduates will abandon observance within two years, however, if they go to an out-of-town secular college, only 25% will abandon observance. Thus, these secular colleges are able to cut the attrition rate by half. ...Scratching head.