The mitzvah of honoring parents (Shemos 20:12) has a unique distinction. The Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:7) refers to it as a “mitzvah chamurah min hachamuros” – a mitzvah that is most severe. In fact, Rebbi Yochanan, about whom the Gemara (Kiddushin 31b) relates that he never saw his parents, made the remarkable statement, “happy is he who did not see them.” Rashi explains that since this mitzvah is very difficult to perform to its fullest extent and one will be punished for not honoring his parents properly, Rebbi Yochanan was, in this regard, relieved that he did not see them.
Based on various pesukim, the Gemara (ibid. 30b) equates honoring and fearing one’s parents to honoring and fearing Hashem. The Gemara also maintains that this comparison would be warranted even if it were not indicated by the pesukim. This is because both Hashem and one’s parents are partners in creating that person; the father and mother provide the physical body while Hashem supplies the neshamah (Niddah 31a).
In addition to the mitzvah to honor parents, there is another mitzvah to fear them (Vayikra 19:3). The Gemara (ibid. 31b) explains the difference between “honoring” and “fearing.” Honoring includes: giving them to eat and drink, assisting them to dress, helping them enter or leave a room or building, and in general to take care of their physical needs. On the other hand, the mitzvah to fear one’s parents includes: not sitting or standing in his or her place, and not contradicting their words. We will discuss these topics in greater detail later in this article.
SON VS. DAUGHTER
The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) derives that there is no difference between a son and a daughter when it comes to the mitzvos of kibbud and mora. However, a married woman is exempt from the mitzvah of kibbud because that she is obligated to care for her husband (Sh.A. 240:17). On the other hand, if her husband does not mind, she must perform these mitzvos as much as she can (Shach 19; Aruch HaShulchan 38).
If a woman does not know whether her husband is particular or not, she can assume that he is not thus making her obligated, until he tells her otherwise (Chaye Adam 67:17).
A married woman’s exemption applies only to the mitzvah of kibbud but she is still obligated in the mitzvah of mora. The reason for this distinction is because kibbud requires her to physically care for her parents and this detracts from her responsibilities to her husband. However, performing the mitzvah of mora does not effect her household duties. Therefore, even if her husband were to instruct her to transgress the prohibition of mora, for example, to sit in her father’s seat, she may not do so (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 7:6).
There is one situation where a married woman is exempt from the mitzvah of mora. In order to understand this halachah, an introduction is required.
As we will see, one of the prohibitions included in the mitzvah of mora is not contradicting one’s parents. Therefore, if a parent tells the child to do a particular action and he does not do it, he has in effect contradicted his parent. The poskim maintain that whenever possible the child should try and fulfill the parent’s request. However, if the parent will not benefit directly, whereas the child will suffer some type of loss by obeying, the child is exempt from complying with their request (ibid. 1:50).
For example: A couple wants to buy apartment A and the husband’s parents want them to buy apartment B. In this case, since the parents will not directly benefit if their son purchases apartment B, if the son will suffer some type of trouble, loss or shalom bayis issues if he acquiesces, he is not obligated to obey his parents.
Now, we can return to the case of the married woman. If her parents tell her to come over for dinner and her husband tells her not to, she must listen to her husband. Even though the husband is instructing her to transgress the mitzvah of mora, in this situation she is exempt since it infringes on her obligations to her husband (ibid. 7:7).
FATHER VS. MOTHER
Is there any difference between one’s father and one’s mother when it comes to honoring or fearing them?
When the Torah commands us regarding the mitzvos of honoring and fearing parents, we are presented with an interesting inconsistency: In Parshas Yisro (20:11) the possuk says, “Honor your father and your mother,” while in Parshas Kedoshim (19:3), the order is reversed, “A person should fear his mother and his father.” The Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) explains that Hashem knew that a person is more apt to honor his mother than his father and therefore, when giving us the mitzvah to honor parents, He put “father” ahead of “mother”. On the other hand, when it comes to the mitzvah of fearing parents, since a person’s natural tendency is to fear his father more than his mother, “mother” was written before “father.”
Although the Torah seems to emphasize the father when it comes to honor and the mother when it comes to fear, this was only in order to counter human nature. However, practically speaking, there is no difference between them. A person is obligated to honor and fear both parents equally (Rambam, Hilchos Mamrim 6:2). The only exception to this is when both parents ask a child to do something. In this case the father takes precedence because both the child and the mother are obligated to honor the father (Chaye Adom 67:16).
HONORING ONE’S PARENTS
The Chaye Adom (67:3) writes that one can honor his parents “b’machshavah, b’ma’aseh uve’dibur” – “though thought, action and speech.” He goes on to say that the main way of honoring one’s parents is in his thoughts. Even if other people do not respect them, a child should view his parents as important and honorable. This is important because if he honors his parents merely in speech and deeds, but in his heart he despises them, he will be guilty of the sin for which Yeshayhu HaNavi rebuked Klal Yisroel (29:13), “With their mouth and with their lips they honor Me, but their heart they draw far away from Me.”
How does one honor one’s parents through action?
Although we mentioned earlier several ways how one must honor his parents, this list is not exhaustive. These are only examples of what a child must do for his parents, and a full listing would be, in the words of the Rambam, “rabim mei’lispor” – “too numerous to count” (Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, Kiddushin 1:7).
The general rule is that a child is obligated to help his parents with any activity that they need assistance with. Aside from what was previously mentioned, this includes: arranging bill payments, medical arrangements, assuring that their living conditions are appropriate (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodum 1:12). Additionally, the Rambam writes that a son should serve his father in the same way that a servant serves his master (Mamrim 6:3; Rema 240:3).
HONORING THROUGH SPEECH
The third method of honoring parents according to the Chaye Adam is through speech. The importance of speech in relation to kibbud av ve’eim can be seen from the following Gemara (Kiddushin 31:1): Someone can feed his father plump, tender fowl and be punished for it, and someone can make his father work grinding at the mill and he will receive olam haba for doing so. Rashi explains that if while proving one’s father with delicacies he acts in a stingy fashion, he will be punished. On the other hand, if he makes his father work hard but he speaks gently to him explaining the necessity of what they are doing, he will be rewarded.
When speaking to one’s parents, he is allowed to address them in second person, i.e., you, even though he would not speak this way to a talmid chocham (Aruch HaShulchan 242:38). However, in those communities where the custom is to speak to a parent in third person, it is considered disrespectful to address them in second person (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 3:20).
If one is present while others are speaking to his father, he must take care not to answer before his father (ibid. 23).
According to the Gemara (Kiddushin 45b), it is considered chutzpah to make a parent into a shaliach (agent). Therefore, one should not ask a parent to do something for him, whether it is mitzvah related or otherwise. For example, a child should not say, “Please pick up my dry-cleaning while you’re out,” or “Please take my suit to the shatnez tester” (Shu”t Torah Lishmah, Yorah Deah #268).
However, if a child knows that his parents will have simcha from his request, he is allowed to do so. Nevertheless, he should be careful to make the request in a respectful manner, for example, “If you want, you can do this.” Also, he should not make such a request in the presence of others since it appears as if he is giving his parents orders. (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 3:31, based on Sefer Chasidim #562).
One should not ask a parent to hand or pass an item that is located to far to reach. This is true even if one asks mechilah (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 3:32).
There are many household chores that a mother does for children. However, the child should be careful how he makes such a request. Rather than saying, “please wash this for me,” or “please sew this hem,” the child should say, “this is soiled,” or “this needs mending.” Similarly, a child should not say, “Please make my lunch,” rather, when asked what he would like to eat, he should answer, “I would like such-and-such.”
Another common situation is when the grandparents are needed to watch the grandchildren while the parents are away. In this case, one should not say, “Please watch the children.” Rather, if one is bringing the children to the grandparents, one could say, “We brought the children. We would like to go out for a while.” If one wants the grandparents to come over, he should say, “If you could come to the house, we would like to go out” (ibid. 33-35).
WHO HAS TO PAY?
Although many of ways in which a child must honor his parents entail no financial obligation, there are circumstances when money must be spent. The question is, who has to pay: the parents or the child?
The Shulchan Aruch (240:5) rules that a child is not obligated to spend money for kibud av as long as the parents have sufficient funds to support themselves. However, if the parents do not have enough and the child does, beis din can force him to support them according to his means. By doing so, he fulfills not only the mitzvah of kibbud av ve’eim, but also the mitzvah of tzedakah. In fact, one has a greater obligation to support his parents than his adult children (Rema 251:3).
However, in this situation, the child is not required to give more to support his parents than he would be obligated to give to tzedakah. If the child does not have enough money to support his parents, he is not obligated to accept tzedakah in order to do so (Sh.A. 240:5).
TZEDAKAH BUT NOT TZEDAKAH
Even though we mentioned that one also fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah by supporting parents and he is not obligated to give more than he would to tzedakah, nevertheless, if one has sufficient funds, he should not use his tzedakah money to support his parents. In fact, the Rema (ibid. 5) writes that a curse will come to a person who supports his parents with tzedakah money. The reason is that it is degrading for the parents to be supported with these funds (Chaye Adam 67:12).
WHEN THEY ARE SLEEPING
The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates the well-known story of Damah ben Nesinah, a non-Jew who refused to wake up his father and thereby lost the chance to make a great profit. This incident sheds light on several different issues about disturbing one’s parent’s sleep.
The commentators explain that Damah ben Nesinah knew that his father did not want to be woken up under any circumstances. However, if one knows that his parents would be upset over the fact that they were not woken up, one should wake them. This is certainly true when the parents themselves, and not the child, will suffer the financial loss. Nevertheless, one should preferably not wake them himself, rather he should ask someone else to do it. (Aruch HaShulchan 240:40; Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 1:28).
The same holds true for waking one’s parent for a mitzvah, such as reciting kriyas Shema or to go to shul. Since one can assume that the parent would want to be woken for this purpose, it is a mitzvah to do so. In this scenario also, it is preferable that the child ask someone else to wake the parent (ibid.). However, if one knows that the parent does not want to be woken even for a mitzvah, he should not do so (ibid. 1:27).
STANDING BEFORE THEM
One of the mitzvos included in kibbud av ve’eim is the obligation to stand up in front of one’s parents (Kiddushin 31b; Sh.A. 7). The mitzvah applies both to sons and daughters (including married women) and even where the parents are young and simple people (ibid. 5:4-5).
A person must stand up completely from the time he sees his parents coming from a distance. He may not sit down until either: 1) he can no longer see them, 2) they sit down, 3) they stop walking when they arrive at their destination, or 4) they enter a different room (ibid. 5:5-6). There is also an opinion that the child must stand up upon hearing his parent’s voice even if he does not see them, provided that they are in the same room (Aruch HaShulchan 24; ibid. 6).
The poskim disagree how often one must stand up for one’s parents. Some hold that this obligation applies every time they enter the room, even a hundred times a day. Others maintain that he is only required to do so twice a day; once in the morning and once in the evening (Chaye Adam 67:7). The main halachah follows the first opinion (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi, vol. X, #111.4; Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 5:7). According to the opinion that one is only obligated twice a day, if one is in the presence of non-family members who are not aware that he has already stood up once that day, he is obligated to stand up again (ibid.).
Just as parents can forgo any type of kibbud that the child wishes to perform, so too they have the prerogative to absolve him from the requirement to stand for them (Sh.A. 240:19).
FEARING ONE’S PARENTS
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, in addition to the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, there is a mitzvah to fear them. The Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, Asin #211) defines this mitzvah as follows: one must act with his parents in the same manner that he would act with someone whom he fears may punish him, such as a king.
What is included in fearing one’s parents?
The Gemara (Kiddushin 31b) lists four prohibitions: A person may not stand in his parent’s place and he may not sit in the parent’s place. It is forbidden to contradict a parent and it is forbidden to openly concur with him.
Let us discuss these prohibitions in greater detail.
STANDING AND SITTING
In defining the mitzvah of “mora” – fearing one’s parents, the Shulchan Aruch (240:2) writes that if a person has a specific place to stand and take counsel with his peers, it is forbidden for his child to stand in that location. This is considered disrespectful as it indicates that the child considers himself to be on par with the parent and one of his advisors (Chaye Adam 67:8). Similarly, it is forbidden for a child to stand or sit in his father’s place in shul. If the parent has a particular place to sit at home, either at the table or elsewhere, it is also forbidden for the child to sit there. These prohibitions of standing or sitting in the parent’s place apply even when the parent or anyone else is not present and the parent’s honor has not suffered (Taz 2; Aruch HaShulchan 9).
Not only is it forbidden to sit in a father’s place, but also if he has a special chair that is different than the other chairs in the house, it is forbidden for the child to use it even if it was moved from its regular place (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 2:19).
CONTRADICTING AND CONCURRING
Included in the prohibition against contradicting a parent is either openly disagreeing with him or telling someone who disagrees with the parent, “I agree with you” (Aruch HaShulchan 12; Chaye Adam 67:8).
It is also forbidden for a child to openly concur with his father or mother. For example, if one’s father has a disagreement with someone, the child cannot say in the father’s presence, “I agree with my father.” This is considered disrespectful because by doing so the child indicates that his father’s words or deeds require his approval (Sh.A. 2; Chaye Adam 8). However, if one can disprove the argument presented against his father, he may do so (Tur 240). Also, when the child is not in his father’s presence, he is allowed to say, “I agree with my father,” since this adds honor to his father.
USING THEIR NAMES
Included in the mitzvah of fearing one’s parents is the prohibition of saying their names. This issur applies both in their presence and otherwise, when they are alive and after they have passed on (Sh.A. 2).
Even though a parent may forgo his honor and release the child from his obligation to honor and fear the parent, the child is not allowed to call the parent by his name even where the parent gives permission to do so. This is because there is a difference between not honoring and not fearing one’s parents, which the parent has the right to permit, as opposed to acting in a disrespectful or demeaning manner, which the child is not allowed to do under any circumstances. Calling a parent by his name is disrespectful and the parent’s mechilah is ineffective (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 6:3).
There is a disagreement among the Acharonim whether one is allowed to say his parent’s name not in his presence if one precedes the name with a title such as: “Avi Mori,” “Imi Morasi,” “Rav,” or “Reb” (Yosef Ometz (Chida) #67; Biur HaGra 242:36; Yam Shel Shlomo, Kiddushin #65). Therefore, if one is in a situation where he has to say his parent’s name, he should preface the name with a title. However, this only applies when one is not in his parent’s presence. If his parent is there, it is forbidden to say his name even with a title (Sefer Mora Horim u’Chvodam 6:6-8).
COMMON AND UNCOMMON NAMES
If a person wishes to address someone who has the same name as his father or mother, what should he do? This will depend on whether the parent’s name is common or uncommon and whether the parent is there or not.
If the parent has an uncommon name, one may not call someone else by that name in his parent’s presence. Rather, he must somehow change the name of that person (either by using the diminutive form or if that person has two names, he should use both). However, if the parent’s name is a common one, the child can address someone else with that name even if the parent is there (Chaye Adam 67:8; Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah I #133).
NO BRACHA REQUIRED
Although honoring and fearing one’s parents is a mitzvah min Hatorah, one does not recite a bracha prior to performing it, as one does with other mitzvos. Why is this so? We find several different answers in the Rishonim and Acharonim:
1) The Gemara says that a parent may choose to forgo the honor that his or her child wishes to bestow and the child is then no longer obligated. Because of this, one does not recite a bracha before honoring one’s parent. For if the child were indeed to recite a bracha, and then the parents forgoes the honor, the bracha might possibly have been said in vain (Shu”t HaRashba, vol. I, #18)
2) We find that a bracha is recited only for mitzvos that are performed from time to time, such as tefilin, matzah, and milah. However, mitzvos that are a continuous requirement, such as honoring parents, tzedakah, and believing in Hashem, have no bracha. This is because a person’s natural tendency is to be more excited about an occasional mitzvah and therefore there is a greater affinity towards these mitzvos (Or Zaru’a vol. I, #140).
3) According to Rabbeinu Bechei’ye (Kad Hakemach, Tzitzis) the reason a bracha is not recited when performing kibbud av ve’eim is because it is a mitzvah dictated by logic and even had Hashem not commanded us to do it, we would have done so in any event. Since this is true, it is not considered proper to recite “and He has commanded us” regarding a mitzvah that we would do anyway.
AVRAHAM AVINU AND HIS FATHER
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:7) relates that when Hashem commanded Avraham to leave his land, Avraham was concerned about chilul Hashem, since people would say he left his old father and went off. Hashem told him, “You, I exempt from kibbud av, and I do not exempt anyone else. Not only that, but I will place his death ahead of your leaving.”
The Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 11:32) explains that this Midrash is revealing a wondrous idea. Just as light has no relation to darkness, so too Avraham Avinu, who is like light, has no relation to the generations that preceded him. Hashem told Avraham, “You, I exempt from kibbud av” because Avraham is considered a new entity with no connection to the past. “I do not exempt anyone else,” because only Avraham Avinu had this reality that he was no longer considered the son of his father. For this reason, Hashem mentioned Terach’s death prior to Avraham’s departure because Terach was considered to be like darkness, and just as light removes darkness, so too Avraham’s presence necessitated the removal of the darkness.
This article originally appeared in the US edition of Yated Neeman.