Talmud pages

Kiddushin 31

Squawking at chickens.

Yesterday we saw the rabbis discussing the obligations of parents to their children. On today’s daf, we find the rabbis turning that question around to consider childrens’ obligations to their parents, and in particular the Torah’s requirement that children honor their parents. Toward the bottom of the daf, we learn that for the rabbis, honor meant providing parents with food and drink, clothes to wear, and assistance moving around. Just as parents care for their children when they are young and need assistance, so too must children care for their parents when they are older and in need of assistance. 

Earlier on the daf, the Gemara shared an exchange that seeks to clarify how this works in practice:

The son of one widow asked Rabbi Eliezer: If my father says: Give me water to drink, and my mother says: Give me water to drink, which of them (should I honor) first? Rabbi Eliezer said to him: Set aside the honor of your mother, and perform the honor of your father, as you and your mother are both obligated in the honor of your father. 

The biblical verse tells us we should honor both our mother and our father. Much of the time, doing both is not a conflict. But what if both our mother and our father ask us for a cup of water at the same time? Who do we serve first? Rabbi Eliezer responds in line with the societal norms of his day. Since one’s mother is also obligated to honor one’s father as she is his wife, we serve our father first.

The student then comes before Rabbi Yehoshua with the same question and receives the same answer. But this time, he asks a follow up question:

He said to him: My teacher, if she is divorced, what is the halakhah

If one’s parents are divorced, then the obligation of the mother to honor the father no longer applies, so the question remains: Who is served first? Rabbi Yehosua responds with a comment and an answer, both of which are a little strange. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: From your eyelashes, it is evident that you are the son of a widow.

What do eyelashes have to do with being the son of a widow? Rashi seeks to clarify Rabbi Yehoshua’s puzzling utterance by referring us to a story from Sanhedrin 104b, which tells of a woman who, distraught by the death of her son, cries until her eyelashes fall out. Whether this phrase is meant to be understood literally or metaphorically, it seems to indicate that one’s eyelashes (or lack thereof) are a sign of grief. How is this relevant here? Well, if the student is grieving the loss of his father, that means he has only one living parent and the question he asked did not arise from a practical need.

If this comment is odd, Rabbi Yehoshuah’s answer to the question is even more so:

Pour water for them into a pitcher and squawk at them as with chickens. 

While the tone is not fully clear, the answer is: If your mother and father are no longer married, neither takes precedence. You can put out two glasses and serve them both at the same time. 

Rashi suggests this is a humorous answer. Steinsaltz labels it sarcastic. Whatever it is, both seem to think Rabbi Yehoshua’s tone results from the fact that the question is an academic one. Since the student isn’t really asking what he is required to do, Rabbi Yehoshua doesn’t feel the need to answer him in a serious way. 

It’s a little ironic that in response to an apparently respectful question about how children should honor their parents, Rabbi Yehoshua does not fully honor his student. This is all the more true because Rabbi Yehoshua knows the student remains emotionally distraught over the death of his father. But instead of praising his sharp analysis demonstrating that both his and Rabbi Eliezer’s answer to the original question was incomplete, he provides a flippant response.

The Talmud does not report how the student responded to Rabbi Yehoshua. Perhaps he found the response funny and laughed along. Or perhaps he laughed on the outside, but cried on the inside. Or perhaps he went away quietly and did not return to the beit midrash again. 

Read all of Kiddushin 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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