Is a Minor Capable of Effecting a Halachik Status That Requires Kavanna?

Provided courtesy of Real Clear Daf

We discussed this issue in a passage that spanned Sunday and Monday’s daf this week (12b-13a).  Before learning this Gemara, if someone were to ask me whether a minor is capable of  achieving a halachik transaction that requires kavanna, intent, I would have answered that he categorically cannot based on the fact that minors are often excluded from such transactions. However the discussion in this week’s Daf reveals that it’s actually not so simple…

On 12b R’ Yochanan asks whether a korban brought by a minor is valid. The Gemara explains that R’ Yochanan refers to a case where the minor performed an action which implies that he intended to bring this animal as a korban. For example, before slaughtering an Olah animal sacrifice, the minor made sure to first take the animal to the correct section of the Temple Courtyard for an Olah (the northern section). This action clearly reveals that the minor indeed intended to bring this animal as an Olah.

The Gemara explains further that had the minor not only taken this action, but had also explicitly stated his intent to bring this animal as an Olah, the korban would definitely be valid. This is because it is evident from a Mishnah in tractate Keilim that when a minor provides both of these elements together--a stated intent plus a substantiating action--the Halacha deems it as full-fledged intent.

On the other hand it is also clear from that Mishnah that a minor’s stated intent by itself is not effective. The grey area that R’ Yochanan inquires about is where the minor supplies only an action that is indicative of intent. Does the Halacha recognize even this as binding intent? R’ Yochanan concludes that unless the minor actually articulated his intent, we will not recognize his action as a legally binding intent (and thus the korban would not be valid).

This Gemara forces us to reevaluate our understanding of why a minor’s intent is normally insufficient. For the classic explanation that, due to a minor’s intellectual immaturity, his intent “just doesn’t count” is contradicted by our Gemara’s conclusion that when a minor demonstrates his intent through both speech and action the Halacha does recognize his intent!

To explain the problem with a minor’s intent, I’d like to suggest an analogy to the principle we find in Hilchos Shabbos called Mileches Machsheves, or “planned labour.” The idea is that one is only liable for performing one of the 39 kinds of forbidden activities on Shabbos if the person did so with intent and forethought. The Torah teaches that as far as liability for violating Shabbos, the fact alone that the person’s mind directed his limbs to perform one of the forbidden activities doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be held liable. Rather we have to first establish that the person’s aim was indeed to achieve the specific result that characterizes the act as a forbidden act on Shabbos.

It is this kind of executive functioning that the Torah says a minor is normally presumed to be incapable of (i.e. a minor doesn’t do this on the required level). Thus even if the minor says out loud that he intends for the correct thing, the Halacha deems this an inadequate indication of true forethought. However if the minor not only declares the required intention but also does something that corroborates the stated intent, such purposeful behaviour indeed demonstrates a higher level of executive functioning: The minor clearly planned and followed through toward the right goal (e.g. to slaughter an Olah), a sure sign of the kind of forethought required for legally binding intent.