Position Paper: Honoring One’s Parents vs. Man’s Obligations to His Wife

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Uriel Ganzel, and Rabbi Shaul Bruchi

1. Introduction

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents accompanies man throughout his life, from a young age as a child living in his parent’s home to the age where he must care of his elderly parents. However, there is a fundamental shift in man’s life when he gets married. An additional significant character is added into the family dynamic, and the couple will typically leave their parents’ homes and begin to build their own. Does marriage impact the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents and to what extent? Are the obligations that man has to his wife and vice versa prioritized over their obligations to their parents, or is it the other way around?

The answer to this question has many ramifications, and as a case study we shall deal with the issue of living with the son or the daughter. When a parent begins to grow old and has difficulty functioning independently, or alternatively is plagued with loneliness, is the child obligated to offer up their home to them? Is he obligated to forego on rent on a housing unit on his property in order to assist his parents? Finally, if there is a concern that having one’s parents live with them will have a negative impact on their relationship with their partner, which comes first: one’s obligation to their partner or to their parents?

2. Sources

2.1 “Man Himself Comes Before Others”

The protocol for preferential treatment is determined by the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 2:11): “[If one found both] his lost item and his father’s lost item, his father’s lost item takes precedence. His lost item and his rabbi’s lost item, his takes precedence…”. The Gemara there (33a) teaches that the source for this preferential treatment is expounded from the Torah: “There shall be no needy among you” (Devarim 15:4) – what is yours comes before others”. According to this Midrash Halacha, man’s first and foremost obligation is to himself and afterwards to others. The Rambam writes in this fashion: “Man himself comes before others, no matter what”1. Elsewhere we have expanded on the moral justification for this principle, and used this as the basis for our position that the obligation to obey one’s parents is not all-encompassing, and man’s obligations to himself come before the obligations to his parents2.

2.2 “The Poor of Your City Come First”

The Baraita (Bava Metzia 71a) determines the order to preferentially give tzedakah and teaches:

“’If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you’ (Shemot 22:24). [When choosing between] My nation and a gentile – my nation comes first; a poor man and a rich man – the poor man comes first; your poor [relatives] and your city’s poor – your poor comes first; your city’s poor and the poor of another city – the poor of your city come first”. 

The general principle here teaches us that one should prioritize giving tzedakah to the poor, for ‘your nation’ is an extension of the principle that man himself comes before others. Not only does man himself come first, but all those in close relation to him are prioritized over those more distant3. This is not a selfish preferential treatment of relatives, but a moral instruction to expand the self from one’s individual sphere to the familial self, the communal self, and the national self.

The issue of whether man’s obligations to his parents are prioritized over his wife (or the wife’s obligations to her husband) is practically a question of which relationship is considered closer and more binding – his relationship with his parents or his wife.

2.3 “And He Shall Cling to His Wife”

When the Torah defines the essence of the connection between man and his wife, it relates to the impact of the relationship on the relationship to his parents. So is stated in the story of creation: “Therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall be of one flesh” (Bereishit 2:24). Man’s nature is to build a deep connection with one’s wife – “and he shall cling to his wife and they shall be of one flesh”. This connection requires a degree of separation of the married man, its benefit a matter requiring elucidation, from his parents – “therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother”.

The Ramban sees from this passage that this is human nature:

“When this occurred with Adam, his nature was engrained in future generations, that the men shall cling to their wives, leave their fathers and mothers, and see there wives as if they were one flesh with them… and behold, he shall leave his father and mother and his intimacy with them, and see his wife as closer to him than them.”4.

Granted that in this pasuk there is no determination of halacha that one should prioritize one relationship over the other, yet this is a fundamental definition that has halachic ramifications5.

The prioritization of the connection between man and woman does not eliminate the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. It also does not turn it into a secondary mitzvah, only acting to determine an order of priority. One’s primary commitment is to their spouse, and afterwards they are committed to their parents. Practically, the inherent connection between husband and wife, the universal need for this relationship, and the obligation to work on the foundations of this relationship turns the obligation of a couple into a part of the principle “yours come first”. It seems that after the Torah instructed that “he shall cling to his wife” first, the matter is not up to man’s interpretation, and he does not have the authority to decide if the relationship with his parents is more significant than with his spouse.6.

2.4 The Difference Between Son and Daughter in the Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents

In the Talmud and amongst poskim there is differentiation between the obligations of a married son and a married daughter to their parents. The Baraita in Kiddushin (30b) states that a married woman is exempt from honoring her parents, since she is linked to her husband7. Granted, if the husband does not mind, or if there is no conflict between the management of the household and taking care of her parents, the woman is obligated to honor them8. In light of this, it seems that the reality nowadays is that the wife’s obligations to her parents are the same as her husband’s9.

3. Living In a Child’s Household

When dealing with elderly parents, the question will oftentimes arise as to whether the child should offer to house the parent – either due to a medical need, difficulty functioning independently, or for mental health reasons (loneliness, etc.). This issue can be divided into two subsequent arenas: 1) is the child obligated to offer the parent to live with them? 2) how should one act in the case of resistance from the spouse, or when one estimates that bringing their parent to live with them will impair the relationship with their spouse?

3.1 Are Children Obligated to House Their Parents?

The basic obligation of a child to their parents is satisfying their physical needs: “feed him and give him drink, dress him and cover him up, bring him in and out [of the house]” and therefore it seems that if the father or mother need to stay with their child and there is no financial loss, it is a great mitzvah to house them. On the other hand, the children are not obligated to honor their parents using their own assets, as the honoring should come “from the father”10. It seems that the son is not obligated to house his parents due to the ownership of the house being the child’s. Of course, he who can and does so – is acting properly11. Even when there is no financial loss, if bringing them into his home would cause him suffering, he is not obligated, following the principle of “man himself comes before others”12.

3.2 Can a Spouse Object to Bringing a Parent into Their Home?

When the spouse refuses to bring the parent into their home, the Rambam writes that the child is not permitted to house their parent:

“One who says to their wife, ‘It is not my will for your father, mother, brothers, or sisters to come into my house’, we listen to him, and she should go to them if the need arises, and go to her father’s house once a month and every holiday, and they should not enter into her [home], unless something happens to her such as sickness or birth, for we do not force a man to bring others into his property. And so too if she says, ‘I do not want your mother or sisters with me and I will not reside in the same courtyard, for they make my life difficult and cause me suffering, we listen to her, for we do not force someone to share a dwelling with someone13.

Even when there is no explicit resistance from the spouse, if there is concern that housing the parent will impact shalom bayit – one should withhold from housing them14.

When there is the possibility of housing the parent in a separate unit with its own entrance, one can consider the needs of the parent more seriously, as the burden on the couple is less intense. Even under these conditions there can be friction between family members, and one should make an ultimate decision on a case-by-case basis15.

4. Summary 

4.1 It is a great mitzvah for a child to take care of their parents as much as they can, and one who is able to house their parents when the need arises fulfills the mitzvah of honoring them in an exemplary fashion.

4.2 The child is not obligated to spend money in order to honor their parents, and therefore if they have a house or room rented to others – they are not obligated to evict them in order to house their parents for free.

4.3 When the apartment is not rented out and there is no direct loss, it is proper to house one’s parent, but there is no obligation to do so.

4.4 When housing a parent brings suffering to the child, they are not obligated to do so.

4.5 “Therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall be of one flesh” – the Torah determines that establishing a family of husband and wife and the commitments that accompany it are important tenants that come before the obligations of a child to their parents.

4.6 Nowadays, the obligation of a married woman to her parents is similar to the obligations of a man, and the husband is not permitted to forbid his wife from taking care of her parents.

4.7 When a spouse refuses to bring their in-law into their home, or when there is concern that their relationship will suffer due to housing their in-law, one should withhold from doing so.

4.8 When the residence is an independent structure with a separate entrance, and there is no harm to the spouse, there is more grounds to allow housing the parent.

הערת שוליים

  1. Commentary on the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 2:11.
  2. See position paper – ‘“How Far Does Honoring One’s Parents Go?” – The Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents vs. Man’s Obligations to Himself’ and see position paper – ‘Man Himself Before Others’.
  3. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 251:3. An additional discussion on Nedarim 80b determines that the needs of one’s city are prioritized over the needs of those of a different city.
  4. Ramban on Bereishit 2:24. Compare this as well to the Midrash Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer (chapter 31): “until one takes a wife – his love follows his parents; once he takes a wife – his love follows his wife, as it is stated ‘therefore man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife’. Does man forego from his father and mother the mitzvah of honoring [them]?! Rather, the love of his soul pines after his wife.”
  5. The Radak, in his commentary on the verse, learns from the wording that there is an obligation to physically leave the residence of one’s parents in exchange for a residence with his wife. The Gra, in his commentary Aderet Eliyahu, writes that the verse teaches that one should toil and earn an income for his wife and not for his parents. The Shvut Yaakov Responsa (volume 2, article 94) writes: “and since it matters to her, if so he would prefer his wife’s wishes over his fathers, and this is based on “therefore man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cling to his wife” (therefore, in the specific case discussed in this responsum, the principle is rejected). The Tzitz Eliezer Responsa (volume 21, article 40) writes: “And regarding the claims of the wife that his mother causes a disruption of shalom bayit between her and her husband, only demanding shalom bayit and that he not be attached to his mother, she is correct in her demands as is written: “therefore, he shall leave… and shall cling to his wife”. Compare this to the Piskei Din Rabaniim (from the online directory), psak din 133, which bases its belief that the spousal relationship is prioritized over the parents from the verse in bereishit and the commentary of the Ramban.
  6. See Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, In His Image: The Man Created in the Image, Jerusalem 5769, pages 160, 171-173.
  7. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 240:17.
  8. Shach, Yoreh Deah 240:19.
  9. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel (‘The Modern Family Structure: Halachic Ramifications’, Tchumin, 22 [5762], page 142) writes that the accepted norm today is that the husband does not forbid his wife, and it is possible that nowadays the husband does not have the authority to forbid it, since the wife entered into the marriage with the assumption that they would be regarded as equals. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halacha, Honoring One’s Parents, Chapter 9) writes that with the rise in life expectancy, by the time the elderly parents require assistance, the daughter has usually finished raising her young children and is able to assist the parents without impairing shalom bayit, and therefore she is obligated once again in the mitzvah of honoring her parents. Compare this to the opinion of Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (‘Elderly Parents and Their Honor’, Kol HaTorah, 43 [5758], pages 231) and Rabbi Menachem Slae (‘Housing and Conditions of Living for the Elderly’, Tchumin, 7 [5746], page 268) who write that a married woman is exempt from the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, without differentiating between the halacha nowadays and what is written in the Shulchan Aruch.
  10. Ibid., 5.
  11. The Ra’anach (Mayim Amukim Responsa, volume 2, article 101) writes that a child is not obligated to offer his father to live with him, since the honoring is halachically ‘from the father[‘s assets]’. Rabbi Menachem Slae (earlier endnote 9, pages 260-261) learns from this opinion that there is absolutely no obligation to bring an older parent into one’s home. It is possible that one could learn this from the Rambam as well – “for one does not force a man to bring others onto his property”. Compare this to the opinion of Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (earlier endnote 9, pages 228-229), who learns from the Ra’anach that specifically in cases where there is direct financial loss, such as where the son wants to sell the house, is there no obligation on the child to house his parents, but in cases of loss of income, such as where the son could rent out the apartment to someone else, the child is obligated to fulfill his father’s wishes and house him.
  12. See our conclusion in position paper – ‘“How Far Does Honoring One’s Parents Go?”’ (earlier endnote 2). We rule there in line with the poskim who hold that one is not obligated to listen to their parents if there is suffering for the child, yet we limit this and write that one should consider the parents’ wishes and withhold from listening to them only in crucial matters. Therefore, it seems that one should weigh the loss of a mitzvah versus its reward, and find a way to house the parents while mitigating the burden.
  13. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut, chapter 13, halacha 14, and this is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer, 60:9-10; see the Rabbinical Piskei Din of the State of Israel, volume 1, page 201, and volume 2, page 353). According to the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, there is a difference between refusal of the husband to housing his wife’s relatives, where he does not need to explain why, and the refusal of the wife, who needs to rely on the claim that they make her life difficult. This claim, as the Rema rules on site, needs to be based on evidence. The reason for this difference is that the apartment is the property of the husband, and therefore it seems that if the apartment belongs to both of them, the woman does not need to explain her reasoning. See Shurat HaDin, volume 12, page 236.
  14. Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein (earlier endnote 9, page 230) explains this reasoning as a financial loss for the child and the obligation of a husband to love his wife. It seems that the basis for this is the obligation of “and shall cling to his wife”, see Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, In His Image, earlier endnote 6, pages 171-173.
  15. The Rashba (Rashba’s Responsa, volume 4, article 168) rules that when there is a separate entrance, one is obligated to house their parent in their home. Granted that in separate housing units there still is a possibility of conflict, and the Rashba deals with his in his responsum, offering technical solutions. Therefore, one should consider each case based on its specific circumstances, taking into account the amount of separation between the units as well as the strength of the relationship between the family members. 

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