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.
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).
The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31a) also records that the mother of Rabbi Tarfon was willing to throw his (valuable) wallet in the ocean, and Rabbi Tarfon did not embarrass his mother, even though he would be obviously angry and embarrassed. This is cited as a Jewish law (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 240:8). Now we must address the question: Is a parent permitted to instruct a child to do anything he wishes and must the child obey as part of this mitzvah, or is there a limit to what a parent can ask a child to do?
This question has been thoroughly debated. The Midrash (Yalkut Shim’oni to Proverbs 23:22) simply states that a child should do all a parent asks. When the act is purposeful and to the benefit of the parent, most later authorities agree that a child should do it, even though it is not part of the specific required acts mentioned in the talmudic passage cited earlier. However, when the act is foolish, there is great disagreement as to whether the request need be followed.
In dealing with a specific parental request, one later authority (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Braun, She’arim Metzuyyanim Bahalakhah, a commentary on the 19th-century Kitzur Shulhan Arukh,143:10) says if a parent asks a son to shave his beard, he need not listen. Similarly, if a parent tells a child not to speak to a certain person for a specific time limit, the child need not obey (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 240:16). If a father asks a child to serve him food that the doctor said should not be eaten, the child need not listen to this parental request. However, another authority disagrees and rules that a child should listen to a parent’s request in this instance if the food poses no great danger to the father (She’arim Metzuyyanim Bahalakhah 143:4).
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.