The Torah makes general demands that we treat our parents with respect and reverence. Rabbinic literature attempts to spell out the details. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).
The classic text defining the specific requirements to fulfill [the biblical commandments] “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) and “You shall fear your mother and your father” (Leviticus 19:3) can be found in the [Babylonian] Talmud [abbreviated as BT], Kiddushin 31b. “Fear” is defined as not sitting or standing in a parent’s designated place and not contradicting a parent, while “honor” is defined as feeding parents, clothing parents, and helping them come in and out.
On the face of it, it does not seem that a person is being honored by making sure they are fed or clothed. These are acts of charity usually reserved for homeless or poor people. How can this be called honor? The Hebrew word in the Torah in the verse regarding parents, kavod, does not really mean honor, which is a poor English translation. In another talmudic statement (BT Berakhot 19b), this same word is used to say that human dignity is extremely important. Therefore, the true meaning of the word kavod is dignity. Thus, the mitzvah is to dignify one’s father and mother, to keep their dignity.
We can now understand the specifics mentioned in the Talmud. Keeping parents clothed and fed when they can no longer do so for themselves indeed retains their dignity. Similarly, helping them in and out of the house preserves their dignity. Thus, the first mitzvah is to preserve a parent’s dignity at all costs.
The other term, morah, does not really mean fear or awe as is usually translated, but this is the real word for honor and respect. We show respect and honor by not interrupting or by not sitting in someone’s seat.
How Not to Show Respect for a Parent
The idea of keeping a parent’s dignity as the essence of the mitzvah is borne out by a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, which says that it is possible to feed one’s parent succulent hens and still inherit hell, while a person can make his parent work on a grindstone and still inherit paradise. The passage continues to explain that the child gives a father succulent food, but when the father asks where the food is from, the son answers “Quiet, old man. A dog eats quietly, so you eat quietly.” This son inherits hell. However, the second case involved the son who worked at the grindstone. When the king summoned grindstone workers to the palace to endure back-breaking work, the son told the father to take the son’s place at the family’s own grindstone and to work, so that the father would not suffer or be treated in an undignified manner before the king. This son inherits paradise.
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