Position Paper: “How Far Does Honoring One’s Parents Go?”: The Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents vs. Man’s Obligations to Himself

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

1. Introduction

The mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother of the most ubiquitous mitzvot which primarily deals with providing for the physical needs of the parents: “[He should] feed them and provide them with drink, dress them and cover them up, bring them in and out [of the house]” (Kiddushin 31b)1. However, the limitations of this mitzvah are so widespread that the Gemara needs to demonstrate, through different aggadic passages, the great virtue of this mitzvah and its vast reach. One of the statements mentioned in this discourse is “you still have not reached half of [what] honor [means]”. Naturally, this mitzvah has significant financial implications for the children, however even more significant is the impact on their personal lives. A fundamental issue regarding this topic is the question of how to balance the obligations of the child to their parents and the obligations and rights to oneself and one’s personal needs. Does the child need to give up everything they have – their money, time, and their personal goals and desires – in order to fulfill their obligation to their parents? Aside from the practical halachic question, we are faced with a more expansive discussion here regarding the personal world of a person and their responsibility towards themselves as opposed to their responsibility to the greater public. From this perspective, the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents sheds light on a much bigger topic2.

2. Sources

The fundamental principle 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”. This exegesis sets a general principle that is not connected exclusively to the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. Specifically in the section dealing with the mitzvah of tzedakah – the obligation of giving to a poor person – does the Torah teach that the primary obligation a person has is not to become poor himself. The Baraita words this statement as a general principle, and the Rambam writes this as well: “Man himself comes before others, no matter what”3. This principle is expressed in many places in halacha4; one of these places is the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. 

3. The Moral-Philosophic Principle: The Status of the Child as an Independent Entity

Before we look at the practical significance of this principle, we will engage in its theoretical aspects. The determination that “man himself is before others” at first glance seems like an egotistical statement, but it has deep moral ties. Rabbi Shimon Shkop, in the introduction to his sefer ‘Shaarei Yosher’5, expands on this principle and provides a basis for it; he learns that even if a person is obligated to sacrifice themselves for the public and sees this as their life’s mission, one may not do so without fulfilling their personal needs first. Love of the self engrained within man’s soul requires first and foremost accounting for man’s own needs. Building up the individual self, maintaining one’s personal property, worrying about the individual’s basic needs, and developing one’s unique place in the world are all required prerequisites that enable one to develop in the future with others and to give of their self to the public, even through mesirut nefesh. The way to do this is through expansiveness: by understanding that the self lies in the middle, one may expand the self from their personal boundaries to become the family “self”, the community “self”, the national “self”, etc.6

It is worthwhile to note that the principle “yours comes first” is not an all-encompassing principle. If one uses this principle without limitations, one could justify any sort of atrocity. This reservation is explicitly stated in the aforementioned discussion: the same Amoraim that said “yours comes first” qualify this and say “anyone who lives by this – will meet their end by this”. Man is not able to hide behind the determination that “yours comes first” and is obligated to find a way to assist others, as Rashi states there: “even though the pasuk obligates him, man should go beyond the letter of the law and not analyze how to put himself first, if it is not apparent that it would cause some sort of loss…”.

4. The Intersection of “Yours Comes First” and the Responsibilities to One’s Parents

The practical ramifications of this issue mentioned regarding honoring one’s parents extend into the financial sphere as well: is the child obligated – and to what extent – to spend of their own money or miss work in order to fulfill the mitzvah? This issue also touches on the behavioral aspects of the relationship: is the child obligated to fulfill the wishes of their father and his demands when they contradict the personal needs of the child, his will, or other mitzvot that the child is obligated to perform?

4.1 The Financial Obligations

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240:5) rules that the obligation of honoring one’s parents should be performed using the money of the father, and the child is not obligated to spend money from their own pocket in order to fulfill the mitzvah.  However, one may ask what the obligation of the child is when the parent does not have money: is he still required to honor his parents (financially) and how far does this obligation go? Rabbi Yosef Karo (ibid.) rules that when the father does not have money, the son is obligated to provide from his own funds for their parent: “and if the father does not have, and the son does, we force him to feed his father however much he can. And if the child does not have, he is not obligated to beg in order to feed his father.” The Rema adds: “and some say that one is only obligated to give of his own [money] the amount that he is obligated to give to tzedakah”7. The commentaries on site remark that the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch is the same as the Rema, i.e. the obligation is not due to honoring one’s parent but due to the mitzvah of tzedakah. Nevertheless, we find that the obligation of honoring one’s parents is technically restricted to the parents’ money. The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents by itself does not require the child to spend money even when the parents do not have money.

4.2 The Obligation to Obey One’s Parents

The issue of the child’s obligation to obey their parents is divided into two aspects: the obligation to obey when there is conflict between the parent’s wishes and the Torah and the obligation to obey parents in permissible matters8.

4.2.1 Obeying Parents When It Contradicts Another Mitzvah the Child is Obligated In: The Gemara’s discussion regarding the obligation to obey one’s parent’s wishes deals with the conflict between the parent’s wishes and another mitzvah the child is obligated in: “From where do we know that if one’s father says to him ‘become impure’ or ‘do not return [a lost object]’ we do not listen to him? It is stated, “man should fear his mother and his father, and you will keep my Sabbaths I am God” (Vayikra 19:3) – all of you are obligated in my honor” (Bava Metzia 32a). The Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch also discuss cases where another mitzvah is involved in the deliberation as to whether or not to listen to a parent. For example, the Shulchan Aruch rules that a son is allowed to go and learn Torah with a specific rabbi even if his father opposes it9; the Rema rules that the child does not need to listen to his father’s wishes regarding who to marry10; the Shulchan Aruch rules that if a father commands his son not to forgive a specific person, the child is not required to listen to him11. In all of these situations the obligation to obey one’s parents is pushed aside for a mitzvah – even a rabbinic mitzvah12.

4.2.2 Obeying Parents in Permissible Matters: Amongst the poskim we could not find an explicit ruling that states that there is no obligation to obey parents in permissible matters, however we did find some limitations to this obligation. The Spanish Rishonim rule that the obligation to fulfill one’s father’s wishes was stated specifically regarding things that the father benefits from, such as “feeding him and giving him drink”, however it does not apply to things with no benefit13. The Maharik teaches that just as honoring one’s parents is performed with the parent’s money, so too, and all the more so, that honoring one’s parents does not apply to things that cause physical harm to the child14. The Achronim disagree as to whether there is an obligation to listen to parents in permissible matters15; however it seems that the principle “yours comes first” obligates determining that the mitzvah of honoring and fearing one’s parents does not require the son to make their own wishes secondary to their parent’s. The child should conduct their life as an independent entity, with responsibilities and their own desires, with the central obligation of honoring one’s parents, listening to them regarding their needs, and considering their opinion respectfully even in matters that do not directly relate to them.

5. Summary

5.1 The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is dependent on the halachic principle “that man himself comes before others” (“yours comes first”).

5.2 The honor that the child is obligated in must be performed with the money of the parent. Even if the parents do not have money, the additional obligations of the child are part of the mitzvah of tzedakah and do not arise from the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents.

5.3 Fundamentally, the obligation to obey one’s parents is not part of honoring or fearing them. 

5.4 In matters concerning a direct need of a parent, one has an obligation to fulfill their wishes, when there is no conflict with the child’s obligations.

5.5 One should not fulfill the wishes of a parent if they request their child violate a mitzvah, even a rabbinic one.

5.6 There is no obligation to listen to one’s parent regarding matters that have no direct benefit to the parent or would otherwise cause suffering to the child.

5.7 Neglecting to obey one’s parents is both possible and the proper course of action when dealing with core aspects of the child’s personality, and not when dealing with secondary matters, where one should fulfill their parents’ wishes.

5.8 The permissibility not to listen to one’s parents is not meant to be total dismissal, and one should consider their wishes.

5.9 It is prohibited for a child to shame his father and mother. Neglecting to obey them must be done in a way that does not harm them16.

הערת שוליים

  1. This is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:4.
  2. We deal with this more expansive discussion in position paper “Man Himself Before Others”.
  3. Commentary on the Mishnah, Bava Metzia 2:11.
  4. A complementary principle is “your life comes before your friend’s life” (Bava Metzia 62a), which has halachic ramifications in all aspects of saving lives. The principle “yours comes before others” expands this to the financial world. The discussion there revolves around returning a lost object, but the poskim use this principle in a variety of different fields. We shall list here a few examples. Rabbi Yosef Karo (Avkat Rochel Responsa, article 195) rules that it is permissible for man to withhold testimony if there is a concern that he might lose money: “and we do not say to him, ‘lose your own money in order for your friend to gain money’, for one is not obligated to testify for their friend rather it is an act of kindness… and it is not an act of kindness to lose money for him, for he is more obligated to protect his own assets than his friend’s assets, similar to in the case of returning a lost object”. In the comparison between testimony and returning a lost object based on the discussion in Shevuot 30b, there does not seem to be evidence for using this principle in all of financial law, however amongst the Achronim we find the principle “yours comes first” used in additional contexts. The Chafetz Chaim, in his sefer Ahavat Chessed (volume 1, chapter 6, article 9), explains through this rationale that even though a loan to a poor person is prioritized over a loan to a rich one, if the rich person offers a business proposal that would profit the lender – he is not required to preferentially loan to the poor person. The mirror image of prioritization of the father by a son in lost objects is learning torah: there, when the father (who is obligated to teach his child) needs to learn himself and does not have enough money to teach his son and learn himself – he comes before his son (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 245:2). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe: Responsa of Hashkafa, article 3) derives this from ‘yours comes first’. It is important to note that in both the discussions in the Gemara and the Achronim there are two opposing principles: “yours comes first”, but “anyone who lives by this, will meet their end by this”. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (ibid.; Igrot Moshe Responsa, Yoreh Deah, volume 5, article 32) learns from the discussion in Bava Metzia the balance between the aspirations of the talmid chacham to move forward in learning Torah and their obligation to teach others. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that a talmid chacham should fundamentally focus on their personal development in Limud Torah, but he is obligated to give of himself as well to others and therefore it is proper to devote a ‘maaser’ of his time to teach others.
  5. Rabbi Shimon Shkop, Rosh Yeshiva of Shaar HaTorah in Grodno, Lithuania, passed away in 1939. His sefer, Shaarei Yosher, includes logical and legal analysis of fundamental principles in halacha.
  6. A similar approach can be found in Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on the verse “you must raise it +together” (Devarim 22:4). This verse obligates man in helping his friend load his donkey but allows for him to accept pay for this. Rav Hirsch explains that the Torah does not require man to perform favors ad infinitum, losing oneself in the process. This type of demand is not practical and leads to egotism. In his words: “The Jewish social principle that binds all people, gives complete moral power to the concept of self-preservation and independence, yet alongside the man’s concern for himself is concern for others”. Furthermore: man’s aspiration to care for himself is not egotism but part of fulfilling God’s will. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes similar, Igrot HaRa’ayah, volume 1, responsum 140 (pages 174-175); ibid., responsum 110 (page 134). We deal with this a number of times in the ‘Tzohar Ethics’ framework. See for example position paper ‘Is the State Obligated in Assisting Refugees’ and in Rav Cherlow’s paper, ‘Violating Obligations and the Heinz Dilemma’.
  7. This is also the opinion of the Rambam, Rif, and Rosh, as written in the Beit Yosef (ibid.). According to the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol and Sefer Mitzvot Katan, the obligation comes from honoring one’s parents, and the Bach there explains why according to them the child is not obligated to beg. For expanded discourse see Rabbi Tzion Arusi, ‘The Obligation to Take Care of Parents and Feed Them’ from: Y. Shaviv (editor), Matters Without Measure, Alon Shvut 5765, pages 126-134.
  8. See regarding this: Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, ‘Human Dignity of the Child in Honoring One’s Parents: Is the Child Obligated to Obey His Parents?’, from: Shlomo Ness and Tzvia Schiff (editors), Love of Man and Human Dignity: A Collection of Essays and Meditations, Ramat Gan 5766, pages 318-328 (and see there referrals to other essays); Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, In His Image: The Man Created in the Image, Jerusalem 5769, pages 165-171.
  9. Shulchan Aruch, 240:25, based on the words of the Terumat HaDeshen Responsa, article 40. The reason to permit it is that the son is obligated in Talmud Torah.
  10. Rema 240:25, according to the Maharik Responsa, Shoresh 166. Here the obligation to obey one’s parents is counteracted by the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply.
  11. Shulchan Aruch, 240:116, according to the Rosh’s Responsa, Klal 15, article 5. The obligation to obey one’s parents is counteracted by the mitzvah of ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’. The Rosh’s responsum is used as well in the responsum of the Maharik on marriage, see later on.
  12. Shulchan Aruch, 240:16. See also Yechave Da’at Responsa, volume 5, article 56 (=‘Learning in Yeshiva Without Secular Studies Against Parental Wishes’, Tchumin, 3 [5742], pages 235-237); Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, ‘Becoming an Officer Against Parental Wishes’, Tchumin 13 [5752-5753], pages 219-227; Aviad Hacohen, ‘Honoring One’s Parents Against Other Values’, from: Y. Shaviv (editor), Matters Without Measure, Alon Shvut 5765, pages 383-415, who brings additional examples from the Rishonim and Achronim regarding the obligation to obey one’s parents (such as choosing a place to learn Torah, making Aliyah, or refusing to emigrate from Israel against the parent’s wishes, the father’s refusal to let his child say Kaddish for his mother, choosing a synagogue to pray in, and a father’s concern to allow his son to do tevila in a mikvah with cold water). 
  13. Chiddushei HaRamban, Yevamot 6a, ‘מה להנך’; Chiddushei HaRashba, ibid., ‘מה’, Bava Metzia 32a, ‘איכא דמתני’. The Maharik derives a similar ruling regarding marriage. According to him, there is no honor or fear in “a matter that the father has no stake in”. However, compare this to the opinion of Sefer HaMakneh (Kiddushin 31b) who writes that even if the father does not benefit, if there is no loss for the child, he is obligated to obey out of awe for his father, and so rules Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot, volume 1, article 12; volume 5, article 152).
  14. Maharik Responsa, Shoresh 166.
  15. Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavat Yair Responsa, article 214) discusses the case of a mother who writes in her will that her son should not rent out her house. According to him, the child is obligated to evict the elderly talmid chacham who was living in the house, in accordance with the will. He writes that specifically in cases of mitzvot of the child is he exempt from fulfilling his parent’s wishes, but not in cases where there is no contradicting mitzvah. The Pitchei Teshuva (Yoreh Deah, article 240:22) brings the opinion of the Chavat Yair, and in subarticle 14 agrees that it is clearly understood that the child is obligated to fulfill his parent’s wishes in permissible matters. To contrast, the Gra (Biur HaGra, ibid., subarticle 36) takes a stance in line with the Ramban and Rashba cited earlier, according to which honoring one’s parents is specifically in matters that benefit them. See the opinion of the Yalkut Yosef (Hilchot Kibud Av Ve’Em, chapter 9, article 1) who rules in accordance with the majority of poskim, that there is no obligation to obey one’s parents in matters that do not benefit them, and specifically in cases where the child would suffer or it would be difficult for him, but the pious should nevertheless fulfill their wishes.
  16. According to the Netziv (Meishiv Davar Responsa, volume 2, article 50), regarding the issue of choosing a wife, when there is shame to the father, one is obligated to obey him even though the Shulchan Aruch rules that the son is not obligated to fulfill the wishes of his father in this matter. However, see the Tzitz Eliezer Responsa, volume 15, article 34; Rav Waldenberg disagrees with the Netziv on this issue. 

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