How to Show Respect for a Parent: A Jewish View

It's not only what you do for your parents that counts, but how you do it as well.

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Therefore, it is clear that if the context diminishes the dignity of a parent, any act is worthless and violates the spirit and intent of Jewish law. Similarly, even if an act seems demeaning objectively, if it preserves a parent's dignity, it is to be praised.

This is also the reason one may not curse a parent even after his or her death (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Rebels 5:1). Although the parent will not hear it and will not suffer because of the curse, the parent's dignity is still being compromised, and it is, therefore forbidden. The Torah verse (Deuteronomy 27:16) cursing a person who dishonors a parent also refers to the child who compromised a parent's dignity.

Sometimes It's All About Attitude

Now that the importance of maintaining the dignity of one's parents has been established, it can readily be understood that many of the arguments between parents and children today are about tone of voice and indignity, rather than about substance. A child must maintain the parent's dignity and respect at all times, even when disagreeing. That is the intention of kavod.

This is proven in the law regarding a parent who does not observe a commandment. A child should point out to a parent if he or she is committing a sin. However, Maimonides codifies how a person should address a parent who violates the Torah (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Rebels 6:11): One may not say "Dad, you are wrong and doing a sin," but rather, "Let's look up the law together and see what it says." The [standard code of Jewish law from the 16th century] Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 241:6) codifies this as well, quoting Maimonides almost word for word, but then adds an explanation "in order not to embarrass the parent." Therefore, even when disagreeing with a parent, which a child often has a right to do, he or she must do so in a dignified manner, to preserve the parent's dignity.

Honoring one's parents, that is, keeping their dignity, continues after their deaths, not only by not cursing them, but also by mentioning them prominently in conversations. During the first year of mourning, one should say each time a parent's words are recalled, "that is what my father, my teacher said" and "let me be an atonement for him (or her)." After the first year, a child adds the words "may his (or her) memory be a blessing" each time the parent is mentioned (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 240:9).

How Far Should One Take Respecting a Parent?

In asking this question, how far does respecting parents extend, the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31a) describes the story of the non-Jewish Dama who would not wake his father, Netina, to get to the key under his pillow to retrieve the stones to sell for the breastplate of the High Priest at a price of 600,000 dinars. Dama forfeited this great sum simply so as not to disturb his father's sleep (and was rewarded the following year by finding in his flock and selling a rare red heifer to the rabbis for the same sum).

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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.