Mother-in-law asked son-in-law to do something in her home, something that could take only a few minutes but could also end up taking much longer. He said he would come but it ended up taking him more than a week until he made it over. Mother-in-law was upset.
A little more context: son-in-law is under a lot of pressure on a daily basis trying to juggle all his responsibilities. He put his mother-in-law’s request on his “high priority” list but even high priority items do not get done right away. In his own home, a request by his wife to do something similar would have taken him much longer to get to. He could have decided his mother-in-law’s request was urgent, which would have meant doing whatever it takes – e.g. missing a learning seder or wife missing work hours. Something else to keep in mind is that the mother-in-law does not approve of her daughter and son-in-law’s lifestyle choices (kollel, large family, etc.) and trying to explain to her how busy they are would not work and would only cause more tension in the relationship.
1. Does kibbud av v’eim mean that every request a parent makes is “urgent”?
2. Does it make a difference what the request is (i.e. if it’s objectively pressing or not)?
3. Does it make a difference if the request is made by a parent or parent-in-law?
Let’s start with your third question first. Is there an obligation to honor ones parents-in-law like a parent. The halacha is that we have to accord them honor, however it is not quite on the same level as to what we are obligated to do for our parents. The poskim say that they should be accorded honor like other older respectable people, such as standing up when they come into the room, not calling them by their name, however the child doesn’t have all the rules of feeding them etc.
On the other hand there is a different issue here; and issue of shalom between yourself and your in laws, and an issue of derech eretz. If your in laws don’t approve of your lifestyle, that is a cause for friction, and it would be very helpful for you and your wife, to lower the friction. A factor that is most important is that you and your wife give them the feeling that you accept them and respect them for how they are. After they see that you value and respect them, they will be able to accept the way you are living your life. If your mother in law’s request is going to cause you to miss a little bit of learning and it is only very occasionally, then it might be correct to go do what she needs, because it is a mitzvah that only you can fulfill. This is something that you would have to decide on an a case by case basis. Another suggestion, if you can’t make it to your mother in law within a day or two, it might be helpful for you to give her a call every day or two, just to tell her that she and her request is still on your mind, and that you didn’t forget about it, but it is just not possible for you to make it today. (You don’t have to give her too much of an explanation, because she doesn’t validate your having a chavrusa). This way although it will take you a few days to get there, she will still feel respected and cared for.
If your parent would be the one requesting the help, then things would be different, because fulfilling the parents will is included in kibud av v’em. This is learnt from a Yerushalmi , brought in Tosefos and the Ran (Kiddushin 31b, D:H R’ Tarfon) that R’ Yishmoel’s mother insisted on washing his feet, and drinking the water(!) as a way of showing honor for a talmid chacham. R’ Yishmael refused, until his mother went to the bais din to complain about him that he isn’t doing kibud av v’em. The chachamim asked him what is going on. When he explained it to them, they told him that this is also included in kibud since this is her will! Therefore if they would request that he do something, it would always be considered “high priority”, since it is his personal mitzvah to do. However as with all situations, each instance has to be weighed in contrast to the person’s other obligations, and their individual situation. I once heard in the name of a Gadol, (off hand I don’t remember which) that once said, “ In Judaism everything is important, but we have to be able to assess what is more important that the other.
Bach Y:D 240-13, Chochmas Odom 67-24, Aruch Hashulchan ibid 44.