The Three-Ply Cord

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A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are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.



20 responses to “The Three-Ply Cord

  1. 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.

    • “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…”

      If your kid isn’t prepared to deal with the world and goes OTD the second ima and abba aren’t forcing them to act religious, you have clearly done something wrong as a parent in transmitting your Judaism. Keeping such kids in a bubble will only delay the inevitable.

  2. For those of us interested in following up, whose unpublished study are you citing?

    • I can’t say. It was unpublished for a reason.
      – RSP

      • This is really unfortunate, as some means of assessing the validity of this study would be appropriate, in order to give the studies of his treatment. 50% is a huge number, and it is preferable to present such alarming statistic with clear information as to how that statistic was obtained.

  3. Modern Orthodox parents should encourage their children to attend Jewish colleges, like YU and Touro.

  4. 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!

  5. Srully Epstein

    @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.

    • You contradict yourself. Yeshiva can provide a religious study which is not academic. Math, science, literature and etc is academic. How many rabbyies Jewish community can support and care for ? Someone needs to do actual work.

  6. Hi Rabbi-
    Can you please comment on the effect the modern day State of Israel is having on these children. The idea of a 3 ply cord can be applied to any 3 mitzot we want to use to make a point. While all those 3 are important and have played a central role in Jewish life for generations, I feel that this being one of the first generations that has a chance to return live a Torah lifestyle in Israel presents a new challenge. The current MO high school world for the most part is taught to view Yishuv Eretz Yirael as an ideal towards leading a jewish life style. Yes,as community leaders and parents we can make up rational that only when G-D comes directly and tells us in His own words that now is the time will this mitvah apply. When we go back and look in the Torah at the original conquest of Eretz Yisrael there is no mention in waiting to first set up a Yeshiva system or how people will be able to go to shul in the morning. The command was to conquer the land. Getting back to our high school kids, are we sending them a mixed message. On the one hand our schools are pushing the mitzva to live in Israel but then they come home and hear various excuses from there parents as to why it is not a mitvah or that it is too hard for them. Does this have an effect on teaching the children that a Torah life style is a pick and choose religion. While the parent may find keeping Shabbos easy and moving to Israel too difficult, the child when given the chance to choose for himself may pick giving charity as easy and keeping Shabbos as too difficult for him. He now feels like he is keeping as much of a MO lifestyle as his parents did. Iwould like to hear the Rabbi’s views on this idea

    • I wish schools would speak about aliya more than they do. And there are many other mitzvot in the Torah that need to be taught. (Note the Gemara speaks of the three-ply cord as Tefillin, tzizit and mezuza) But aliya will not solve the problem I underscored here. Teens in large numbers go off the derech on Israel as well, and very often the children of olim suffer most.
      That is why education must encompass many areas. But in the the three-ply cord I cited, inconsistency is more damaging to a child than if a parent does not make aliya.

  7. “that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation.”

    Were they ever really? There were probably about 50% of kids in my modern orthodox high school that weren’t religious or from religious families in the first place.


    I cannot tell you how true this study is. In our community, I think it’s more than 50%. I agree that the parents are probably the biggest factor, BUT, the MO school is a direct reflection of what these parents want–a ‘good enough’ Jewish education. The educators themselves are MO. In my experience modern orthodoxy has been reduced to: I keep what I keep and don’t bother me about the Mitzvos I decided/we decided aren’t important. The second you claim that certain Mitzvos aren’t relevant (ie hair covering, tznius, negiah, and more), why should any of it be? The regular Yeshiva world, while it has many of it’s own problems, at the very least believe that ALL of Torah is relevant and generally produces people who are passionate about Yiddeshkeit or at least attempts to!
    I sit here and watch a spiritual holocaust of these children who are so so uninterested and couldn’t care less about their Judaism by the time they reach 8th grade. A woman who isn’t covering her hair and is teaching about Yiddishkeit may be saying one thing, but by definition her message is: pick and choose. Well, as a teen, it’s so much easier to choose: none of it.

  9. Rav Pruzansky, I am a Kiruv Rabbi at Rutgers and I have been shouting much of what you have said to anyone who will listen. I made the very same points you make here, in a workshop at the AJOP convention in Jan. It is time for Kiruv and larger frum world, be they right wing modox or black hat, to concentrate their kiruv efforts on the left wing orthodox and not to exclusively focus on the secular. I used to blame the school system, but after speaking to the many Yeshiva HS grads at Rutgers who aren’t shomer shabbos, I have discovered that their parents were lax with Shabbos and mitzvos as well. The entire issue of texting on shabbos, which such a big deal was made of, was a red herring, imho, for the parents are doing the same.

    One student told me that in his HS, only 30% of the PARENT body would not turn a tv on during Shabbos. Another student told us that his parents had no problem eating in Mcdonalds on vacation. Another fellow tells me that in his shul only a third of the congregants believe in Torah Misinai.

    My grandparents were all proud members of modox congregations and while I am a graduate of the black hat Yeshiva system, I care deeply about my fellow modox Jews.

    Rav Pruzansky, this blog post should be required reading this Shabbos in every shul in the country.
    Meir Goldberg
    Rutgers Jewish Xperience

  10. Amazing… as a Campus Rabbi I see so many students coming from these background that already 5 weeks into the semester loose their kippas and tztzis … telling me that they had to go to class on Yom tov and needed to write notes… eating sides from non kosher restaurants .. etc in my estimation only about 30 percent of the students on my campus are shined shabbos and kashrus.

  11. I just saw this post, and while i agree with the rabbi’s sentiments and that we need to figure out a way to change. Recently there was a movie that came out in Israel by Ma’alot entitled “rabbi’s daughters”, referring to some major rabbinical figures in Israel and how their daughters went off the “derech”. The movie can be seen online and quite scary and powerful.
    In the hope that all our children continue on our derech and that we ourselves can strengthen oursleves to become better more dedicated jews.

  12. This is an interesting post. But I wonder if the issue is more specific to MO, and an attitude that is often present in the MO community. Those to the left are seen as not religious or worthy of serious engagement, and those to the right are often seen as fanatics. This puts MO in a very awkward position, actively patrolling their borders on both sides. The general attitude is not one of tolerance. In contrast, I see the Yeshiva world, and those on the right, including the chassidish, as approaching Jewish issues from a position of ahavat yisroel. They seem far less concerned about evaluating if one is in or out; and this may be why their sponsored kiruv programs — such as Aish or chabad — tend to be successful. So perhaps it is not an issue of bigdai shabbos, as much as one of providing support and praise for each instance of observance, rather than seeking to critique each instance of non-observance. B’shalom.

  13. upperwestsidemom

    I am not going to let the schools off the hook so easily. We are most deffinetly frum and my son goes to a co-ed day school in the tri-state area. He does not seem to be getting much religiously from his school. Things got to the point that we decided that we needed to supplement his limudei kodesh. Ironically I used to give my friends who sent their kids to Right wing schools a hard time because they had to supplement their kid’s English education.

    Once a week he learns with a Rabbi. He trulry enjoys the learning. He never needs to be reminded to go and he is always there a few minutes before he needs to be. The same can not be said about his classes in school. To be honest I feel like his school brings him down religiously. It’s as if we give him one message at home and at Shul and that message is being undermined at his school.

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