Author Archives: Rabbi Nachum Amsel

About Rabbi Nachum Amsel

Rabbi Nachum Amsel earned his rabbinical ordination and a doctorate in education from Yeshiva University. He is Director of Education for Hillel in the Former Soviet Union.

When a Child Should Disobey a Parent

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).

One area in which all authorities agree a child must not listen to a parental request is when a parent asks a child to violate a Torah law. If a child is asked by a parent to become intentionally ritually impure, for example, he or she need not listen (BT Yevamot 6a). The basis for this concept is the Torah verse about morah, which ends off with the command to observe the Sabbath.

The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 32a) asks why were these two concepts put in the same verse and answers that it teaches us that though a parent must be listened to, this does not include any Torah precept that both the child and the parent are commanded to obey. Maimonides (Laws of Rebels 6:12) extends this idea even to a rabbinic law, which a child should not violate at the parent’s request. It should be stressed, once again, that even in disobeying a parent in this instance, it must be done in a way that preserves the parent’s dignity and not in a disrespectful manner.

Contesting a Parent’s Knowledge

Another area in which a child may disagree with a parent is in Torah learning. The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 240:13) state that learning Torah is more important than respecting one’s parents. Therefore, if a child feels that he can better learn Torah elsewhere and a parent asks the child to remain at home to learn, the child may leave home in order to learn Torah (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 240:25).

This is also seen in Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 28:9, where he explains that Jacob was away from home working for Laban for 22 years. Later on in his life, his own son Joseph also was away from Jacob’s house for 22 years as a punishment to Jacob for abandoning his father’s house and for not keeping the commandment to honor (dignify) his parents. However, we know through simple calculation that Jacob was away from home an additional 14 years [which, according to rabbinic tradition, he spent] learning Torah. Why was he not punished for these years away from home? Because one is not punished when one learns Torah even when neglecting the mitzvah of honoring (dignifying) one’s parents.

How to Show Respect for a Parent: A Jewish View

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.hand in hand

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.

Parenting: A View from Jewish Sources

In some biblical sources cited below, the description of punishment as “using the rod” may originally have been meant literally as corporal punishment, but the principles that employ that expression may be applied to other methods of discipline. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (Jason Aronson).

Based on numerous sources and stories found in the Bible and Talmud, certain educational and moral concepts have been developed to help guide Jewish parents to properly bring up their children. A few will be presented here, in brief form.

jewish parenting sourcesAvoid Favoritism

A Jewish parent must be sensitive to be consistent and fair with all his or her children. Favoring one child over the others can have dire consequences (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Shabbat 10b). This was demonstrated in the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, where Jacob, the father, favored Joseph over all the other children (Genesis 37:3-4), and this helped to lead the Jews to the slavery in Egypt, according to this talmudic passage. Even though this favoritism might have been justified from Jacob’s perspective (that is, he never really wanted to marry anyone but Rachel from the beginning, and Joseph was Rachel’s firstborn), a parent should never openly show favoritism or any inequality between children. The consequences can be catastrophic.

A parent should not promise something to a child and then not deliver on that promise (BT Sukkah 46b). If a parent is not absolutely sure that a promise will be kept, it is better not to make the promise in the first place, as the frustration, disappointment, and anger by a child over this act causes great and unnecessary hardship.

Discipline with Flexibility

Another Jewish educational principle involves disciplining a child. Though it is clear that not disciplining a child at all is not a Jewish idea, as sparing the rod completely yields disastrous results (Proverbs 13:24), implying hatred for a child, knowing how and when to discipline and using the rod sparingly is crucial.