Honoring one’s parents- kibud av v’eim, one of the Ten Commandments, is the topic of this week’s article. In this week’s parashah we find Yaakov’s punishment for failing to honor his father during those twenty-two years he spent in Charan. Why was Yaakov punished for staying in Charan if he traveled upon his father’s explicit request? Furthermore, the mitzva had not yet been given altogether! Why was Yaakov Avinu punished so harshly for a mitzva he was not obligated to perform? What is the nature of this mitzva – one that earns its performer tremendous reward, and, for the opposite — terrible punishment? What is included in honoring one’s parent, and the obligation to revere him? Who must foot the bills for kibud av v’eim – the parent or the child? As parents age, their needs can sometimes outgrow their resources. Who is obligated to foot the bill? Can a child use ma’aser money to cover his parent’s needs? If there several children, how should the cost be divided up? When one is involved in another mitzva and his parent asks him to do something – which mitzva overrides? Does honoring one’s parent take precedence over Torah study? Of this and more, in the following article.
Yaakov’s Failing and Punishment
The Gemara (Megillah 17a) draws a chilling comparison – because Yaakov spent twenty-two years away from his father and did not honor him, he spent twenty-two other years mourning his lost son, Yosef.
Seemingly, Yaakov knew he would have to “pay” for those years with Lavan. Rashi (Bereshis 37:34) thus explains Yaakov’s words in Bereshis 31:41 “This is twenty years for me in your house” — they are for me, upon me, and I will ultimately suffer [for twenty years], corresponding to them (Bereshis Raba 84:20, Megillah 16b-17a) .
The Gemara (Megillah 16b) illustrates the importance of Torah study: “Studying Torah is more important than honoring one’s father and mother, and a proof of this is that for all those years that Yaakov spent in the house of Ever and studied Torah there he was not punished for having neglected to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one’s parents.” Yaakov was punished for failing to honor his father only for those twenty-two years he lived with Lavan. However, for the fourteen years he spent studying Torah he was not penalized.
Fulfilling Yitzchak’s Request
Yaakov’s punishment seems strange. Why would he punished for failing to honor his parents if they themselves were the ones who sent him off to Charan to find a wife and start a family? Furthermore, the Gemara (Nazir 61a) states that a ben Noach is rewarded for honoring his parents only as one who is not obligated and performs it, not as a full-fledged obligation. Therefore, why is Yaakov Avinu punished for failing to perform a mitzva he was not obligated to perform?
Punishment or Merit
To answer this question, we must first redefine punishment. Punishment in this case was not retribution meted out for a misdeed – it was the negative consequence of the absence of a mitzva. Indeed, Yaakov was not penalized for failing to honor his parents during the years he spent with Lavan – it was not by choice that he did not honor them, but a result of his reality – he was too far away. But even one who cannot perform a mitzva, even if of no fault of his own, loses the protection the mitzva affords him. Yaakov lost out on the mitzva of honoring his father for twenty-two years, and as a result — lost twenty-two years of his relationship with his son, Yosef.
This punishment can be explained a second way– while Yaakov was indeed incapable of honoring his father when he was with Lavan, once he was free to return, he didn’t seem to hurry. He spent two full years en route from Charan to Chevron. Those two years were the reason for the twenty-two-year sentence. Since when he was finally able to travel and honor his father, he didn’t do so immediately, he was punished. His laxity reflected his overall approach to the mitzva and as such, he was punished for the other years as well. This kind of judgement can be found elsewhere – one who could not perform a mitzva is not punished for it, but if he does not hurry to perform it once it becomes possible, he is punished retroactively for the entire time.
Why is this mitzva so great? Why is it so fundamental that the Torah promises (Devarim 5:16) “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your G-d commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and you will have a good life n the land that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you.” The Gemara (Chulin 142a) explains this pasuk: “That your days be lengthened” is referring to the world that is entirely long, and “That it may go well” means in the world where all is well. The Mechilta (Yisro, Parashah 8) further clarifies – from the positive one can deduce the negative: if one fails to honor his parents, his days will be shortened.
This might help us understand why Yaakov suffered so much for that slight imperfection in the mitzva.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 240:1) rules that one must go to great length to honor and revere his parents. The Rambam (Mamrim 6:1) adds a reason: the Gemara (Kiddushin 30b) compares a parent’s honor to that of Hashem.
The Third Partner
The Gemara explains the reason for this mitzva – the creation of every person is a sealing of a pact between three partners: his father gives him his white parts, his mother – the red, and Hashem — the breath of life. Basic decency mandates honoring and appreciating those who created him.
The obligation to honor one’s parents pertains to every human being in the world – whether his parents raised him into adulthood or not. Even a child who was neglected and eventually raised by kindhearted neighbors is obligated to honor his biological parents — how much more so parents who did their best to raise their child – getting up at night, meeting his needs, providing him with an education, and much more.
One who honors his parents, nurtures in himself the understanding that he is not entitled to anything in the world and must appreciate and be thankful for every kindness.
Acknowledging another’s actions on our behalf, appreciating it and expressing gratitude is the foundation for our relationship with G-d.
One who ignores his parent’s effort they invested in him allows shoots of entitlement to sprout in his psyche. Entitlement, one of the touted maladies of the 21st century, develops where lack of gratitude festers and produces people who not only believe that their parents owe them something for having given birth to them, but that even G-d himself owes them reward for having done his service, perhaps as one expects payment from his employer.
This explanation helps shed light on the gravity of the sin of failing to honor one’s parents and why this mitzva is included in the Ten Commandments, labeled by the Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1) as “severe of all severe”.
Honor and Revere
The mitzva of honoring one’s parents is learned from two separate psukim. The first is the fifth commandment (Shemos 20:12) “Honor your father and your mother…”, and the second (Vayikra 19:3) “Every man shall fear his mother and his father…”. This is a two-faceted mitzva – honoring one’s parents and showing them reverence.
In addition to those mitzvos, the Torah adds a curse against one who causes any form of disgrace to his parents. This curse is recorded in Devarim (27:16) “Cursed be he who degrades his father and mother” and (Mishlei 30:17): “The eye that mocks the father and despises the mother’s wrinkles-may the ravens of the valley pick it out, and the young eagles devour it.”
Honoring One’s Parents
What is included in the obligation to honor one’s parents? The Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 240:4) mentions the general outline for the obligation – anything a servant does for his master. This includes serving food and drink, clothing, and any form of assistance.
The most important aspect of this mitzva is the attitude — a pleasant and enthusiastic demeanor is a must. The Gemara states that one can feed his father the world’s delicacies with a sour expression and inherit Gehenom, and one can work his father at the mill, but through his comforting, encouraging words earn endless merit.
According to halacha a child should rise to his full height when a parent enters the room (ibid 7). When a child asks others to grant his request or to do him a favor, he should not request it in his own merit, but rather, in the merit of his father or mother (when applicable).
Honoring of a parent continues after their death. Within the first twelve-month mourning period, the child must mention his parent honorably, adding “Hareini kaporas mishkavo/a” – if they deserve punishment, I accept it upon myself. After the first year, when mentioning a parent, one should mention in him “L’chyei olam haba” – for eternal life. This addition should also be used in writing (Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 240:9).
Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 240:8-9), based on cases mentioned in the Gemara, mentions various extreme situations in which a child is still required to honor his parent:
A parent who intentionally caused his child financial harm – he burnt his child’s wallet or threw it into the river – although the child is permitted to sue his father in Beis Din, he is not permitted to insult or embarrass him in any way. On the contrary, he must continue honoring him. Even if the parent lost his mind and embarrassed his child in public – if he was standing and speaking before a crowd and his parent come up and tore his clothes and spat at him — he is forbidden to embarrass his parent and must remain silent, fearing the Creator who obligates him to act in this restrained manner.
However, if a parent is on the verge of causing financial loss to a child, the child is permitted to act in a way that will prevent that loss (obviously, only halachically permitted actions) even if it consists of a display of lack of dignity.
This halacha requires careful consideration because if the parent’s action will not cause the child to actively lose money he already has, but will prevent additional profit – any display of disrespect is forbidden.
Showing reverence to a parent consists of not standing in the parent’s place (such as in shul, or at the workplace), not arguing with him or take a stand in an argument his parent has with another, even if actively taking the parent’s stand (Yore Deah 240:2-3). The Taz (ibid 3) points out that the core prohibition is expression of opinion – giving a parent’s opinion the child’s stamp of approval is a show of disrespect. However, providing proof to the parent’s stance is permitted.
According to the Shach (ibid 2) one is not permitted to counter his father’s opinion even in his absence, whereas the Taz (ibid 3) and the Gra (ibid 3) both agree it is permitted. This seems to also be the Shulchan Aruch’s opinion. The Taz adds, though, that even when permitted, one should do whatever he can to ensure the conversation follows the most respectful course possible. For example, when the Tur wished to argue with his father, the Rosh, and with Ba’al Hatrumos, he only quoted the Ba’al Hatrumos, omitting any mention of his father’s opinion on the matter (Choshen Mishpat 107).
Calling one’s parent by their first name is forbidden both during their lifetime and after their death. A father should be called “avi mori – my father, my teacher” and mother “imi morasi – my mother, my teacher”. The Pischei Teshuva adds, though, that when asked who one’s parent is, one is permitted to answer, “Rabbi X” or “Mrs. Y”.
Old age and frail health bring in their wake additional challenges. The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yore Deah 240:10) that the children of a parent who lost his cognitive abilities should still try to honor him as much as possible. If, however, the child cannot continue providing necessary care, he is permitted to leave his parents and move elsewhere, while ensuring the parent receives optimal care from others.
Costs of feeding, clothing and caring for parents should be covered by the parents. The child is not obligated to cover those costs, but he is obligated to lose worktime to actively care for his parents.
If, as a result of caring for one’s parents, the child will have nothing to eat that day and will be reduced to begging for tzedakah, he is not obligated to lose worktime for honoring his parent.
Har Tzvi (Yore Deah 197) recounts an incident where a person came to the Brisker Rav with the following question. His father, who lived in Warsaw, was ill, and wanted his son to visit him. The son, though, claimed he didn’t have to go because honoring one’s parent, halachically, should be paid for by the parent and his father wouldn’t provide the funds to cover the train fare from Brisk to Warsaw. Reb Chaim answered that indeed, he didn’t have to foot the bill. But he was, nevertheless, obligated to go visit his father. Therefore, he was obligated to walk the 170 kilometers from Brisk to Warsaw. Taking the train would save him time and shoe leather, but that was his choice, and therefore he may prefer to ‘foot the bill’.
A similar question was asked about a doctor whose father wanted him to perform a medical procedure. The son was afraid to do so for fear he might mistakenly draw more blood than necessary and transgress the severe sin of drawing blood from one’s father, which is punishable by death. In this case, too, the child is obligated to cover the medical cost of another doctor, because his father is not the one who needs a different doctor – it is for the son that another doctor needs to be called in.
Along the same lines, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvaos V’Hanhagos volume II, 444) writes about putting parents into an assisted living facility. If the reason for the move is difficulty to care for the parent, the child must foot the bill himself if the parent lacks the financial ability to cover the cost. If the child wants to save the cost he should provide that care himself. He adds, though (volume III 286), that if the child does not have money himself, he can cover the cost of the old-age home from his ma’aser money (1/10th of any profit, designated for charity), but he should not disclose this to his parent, so as not to display any disrespect.
Parents who don’t have enough money to cover their living expenses while their child does, the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 240:5) rules that the child is obligated to support his parents. The Rama adds that the child can deduct this money from his ma’aser money and is not obligated to give them more. However, cursed is child who has the money and supports his parents from tzedakah. If the child is poor himself and can only support his parents from tzedakah, it is a great mitzva to do so. The Chasam Sofer writes (Yore Deah 229) that parents take precedence when it comes to a child’s tzedakah donations.
When there are a number of children, all must share the cost of supporting needy parents. The division, though, does not necessarily have to take place equally. The Rama (Yore Deah 240:5) rules that the cost should be divided according to financial abilities: the well-to-do children should pay more or all, while the poorer ones should pay less or not at all.
The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yore Deah 240:12) that if one is preoccupied with a mitzva that cannot be done by another and is asked by his parent to do something, he must continue doing the mitzva. This is because both he and his parent are obligated to perform this mitzva. However, if the mitzva can be performed by another person, or can be postponed until after fulfilling his father’s request, one should first fulfill his parent’s request, then perform the mitzva.
However, the Rama writes (ibid) that if one is busy with a mitzva and his parent asks him to do something, he should not stop that mitzva because one who is busy with a mitzva is excused from all other mitzvos.
This halacha has far-reaching ramifications: a child who is learning Torah, but his parents want him to leave yeshiva to get a job or start a career should not leave yeshiva, effectively opposing his parents’ wishes. The Shulchan Aruch writes (Yore Deah 200:13) that Talmud Torah is a greater mitzva than honoring one’s parent, and one should continue learning Torah. However, if his yeshiva is in the same city as his parents and he can honor them while concurrently continuing his studies, the Pri Chadash (ibid 2) and Pischei Teshuva (ibid 8) both obligate him to do so.
The Torah obligates a child to show his parent respect in actively doing things to honor them, and to revere them through refraining from activities that are not respectful. The Torah adds a specific curseon one who disgraces his parents.
This mitzva is rooted in the traits of gratefulness and gratitude, as the Yerushalmi writes (Maseches Peah, chapter 1:1): the mitzva of kibud av v’eim is essentially a mitzva of repaying a debt to one’s parents. Showing gratitude to one’s parents drives home the lesson of gratitude to Hashem. One who is grateful to his parents and honors them, merits longevity in this world and eternal life in the next. One who does not do so, earns the opposite negative consequences, G-d forbid.
A child does not have to spend money on his parents’ care, but he must lose work time, if he is able to do so and his work earns him anything beyond basic living necessities. One who is well-off should preferably support his parents from his own money, not from tzedakah. If one is unable to do so, he can support them from ma’aser or other tzedakah money, and parents take precedence over any other cause.