Position Paper: The Fundamentals of the Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents

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

1. Introduction

Honoring one’s parents is a great and fundamentally important mitzvah likened to the mitzvah of honoring God. In this manner does the Rambam introduces the halachot of honoring one’s parents:

“Honoring one’s father and mother is a positive commandment of great importance, as is fearing one’s father and mother. The Torah equates the honor and fear of one’s parents with the honor and fear of God Himself.”1

It is understood that the commandment to honor one’s father and mother is not one that is dependent on age or sex. It is not specific to a young child who is dependent on their parents to raise them and fulfill their needs, nor to an adult caring for their elderly parent’s needs and incapabilities. Women are also obligated in honoring their parents, apart from a married woman, who is exempt from honoring her father and mother due to her marriage. Despite this, if the woman divorces or is widowed, she is obligated once again in the mitzvah. So determines the Shulchan Aruch:

“Both man and woman are equal in honoring and fearing one’s father and mother, however the woman is unable to perform this, for she is bound to her husband. Therefore, she is exempt from honoring her father and mother while she is married, and if she gets divorced or is widowed, she is obligated.”2

The issue discussed in this paper is what is the fundamental principle of this mitzvah: does the mitzvah require an approach of reverence and honor in the manner by which people act towards respected dignitaries, regardless of the needs of the parent, or is the root of the mitzvah to provide for the needs of the parent?

If the fundamental principle is providing for their needs, then the mitzvah is primarily one of adulthood and not in youth, since in adulthood one’s father and mother require more support and the child is of financial and physical capability to assist. In childhood, the parents require less support, and the child cannot be responsible for themselves. If the fundamental principle is a relationship of respect towards a great person, the mitzvah is not dependent on the independent status of the child or his capabilities as an adult, and therefore it would equally apply in youth and adulthood.

2. Sources

2.1 Discussions in the Talmud and Psak Halacha

The main halachic source that defines the practical expression of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is a baraita in Mesechet Kiddushin:

“Our rabbis taught: what is fear, and what is honor? Fear – [one should] not stand in his place, sit in his place, contradict his statements and should not choose a side [in an argument with him]; Honor – feed him and offer him drink, dress him and cover him up, bring him in and take him out [of the house for his needs].”3

According to the simple understanding of the Baraita, the obligation of honoring one’s parent is providing for their physical needs. The determination that the obligation is not by honorable speech but by practice is said explicitly in a Baraita in the Mechilta: “’Honor thy father and thy mother’, I could learn from this [honor them] through words, the verse teaches ‘honor God through your assets’, with food and drink and nice clothing.”4

The father mentioned in the aforementioned baraitot is an elderly father who requires assistance in activities that a healthy individual can perform on their own. For example, the obligation to feed and provide drink is an obligation towards a parent that requires assistance because they are having difficulty or are unable to eat independently. This is also the case regarding the obligation to help them get dressed and leave the house.

From the ensuing discussion in Kiddushin, dealing with the issue of whether the commandment of honoring one’s father must be done using the money of the child or the father, we can see that the son being discussed is an adult with financial independence:

“It was asked of them, from whose [money]? Rav Yehuda says: from the son, Rav Natan Bar Oshiya says: from the father. The sages taught Rav Yirmiyah, and some say the son of Rav Yirmiyah, in accordance with the one who said from the father. It was challenged: it says ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ and it says: ‘honor God with your assets’, what is [the case] there? Through spending money, so too here through spending money; and if you say [the money] is from the father, what difference would it make for him? For his loss of income [while performing the mitzvah].”5

The Amoraim were divided on the issue of if the honoring of one’s father should come from the father’s money or the son’s. According to both opinions, the mitzvah is dealing with an adult son with financial independence. Even according to the one who says that the son does not need to pay for the act of honoring his parent, the son is obligated to act in order to perform the mitzvah and even to miss work as a result.

The Shulchan Aruch rules according to the opinion that the honoring of one’s father should come from his father’s money:

“That in which [the son] feeds him and offers him drink, should be from the father and mother, if he has [the money]. If the father does not have [the money] and the son does, we force him to provide for his father as much as he is able. If the son does not have [the money], he is not obligated to go around begging in order to feed his father… but he is obligated to honor him physically, even if he would miss work as a result and have to resort to begging. This is specifically when the son has food for nourishment of that day, but if he does not, he is not obligated to miss work and beg.”6

The son dealt with in this discussion is an adult son who works and provides for himself and is not dependent on his parents financially. 

It seems that one may learn this not only from the halachic aspects of the discussion in Kiddushin, but also from the aggadic sections. The Gemara there7, and in the parallel discussion in the Talmud Yerushalmi8, bring a number of stories about Jewish sages and righteous gentiles in order to learn from them “how far honoring one’s parents goes”. All the stories describe adult children – torah scholars, as well as one of the roman dignitaries – who honor their elderly parents.

2.2 The Rishonim

In the words of the rishonim one can differentiate between different perspectives regarding the purpose of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. The Ramban sees respecting one’s father as the fundamental principle of the mitzvah, since it is derived from the obligatory relationship towards God. This also explains the placement of this mitzvah in the Ten Commandments, immediately following the mitzvot between man and God: “and the verse does not state what honor is, for it is learned from the honor stated earlier of the first Father, may he be blessed, that he should admit he is his father, not deny him by saying another man is his father, and commit to not serve another as a son for his inheritance or something else he could expect from him, and he should not take the name of his father and swear on his father’s life in vain and lie. And included within this honor are other aspects, for we were commanded in all of his honor, and these are expounded in the words of our Rabbis, and they have already said that [one’s father’s] honor is compared to the honor of God”9.

Honoring one’s father and mother mirrors the honor we are obligated to provide towards God Himself. The honor towards God is definitely not fulfilled by providing for his needs, but relating to him in a way that expresses utmost appreciation and greatness. Therefore, the reason that honoring one’s father and mother is connected to honoring God is that the fundamental aspect is the relationship of reverence towards one’s father.

In the words of the Sefer Mitzvot Katan one can find a different definition, of which providing for the father’s physical needs is the fundamental principle of the mitzvah: “and the main aspect of the mitzvah of honor is to feed and provide drink for one’s father and mother10“. Practically, the Ramban agrees that the physical expression of honor is through matters “expounded in the words of our Rabbis”, i.e. the matters explained in the Baraita in Kiddushin, mainly providing support for one’s parents (generally elderly) through fulfilling their needs when they have difficulty fulfilling them themselves.

It seems that emphasizing the practical piece of the mitzvah through providing for one’s parent’s needs is derived from the idea that the mitzvah is a way of repaying the debt one has to their parents for bringing them into this world and the effort they spent raising him. This is written by the Sefer HaChinuch:

“At the core of this mitzvah is that one should recognize and act positively towards one who does them a favor, and should not be perverse, alienating, and ungrateful… and they should understand that their father and mother are the reason they exist in this world, and therefore it is truly fitting to act with as much honor and benevolence that one can, for they brought them into this world, as well as exerted themselves in his childhood11“.

Truly, the mitzvah of honoring one’s elderly father and mother can be a difficult burden for adult children, but this mitzvah elucidates its reward alongside it, as Rabbeinu Bachayei writes in the name of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon:

“And that which the Torah attributes the reward of longevity of days to honor [of one’s parents], the Gaon Rav Saadiah gives a reason, for sometimes the father is destined to live with their sons for a lengthy time, and the fathers are a difficult burden for their sons and the respect they must give them, therefore [the verse] determines the reward for this mitzvah as: ‘in order for your days to be lengthened’, in other words, you must honor them and you shall live with them, and if you are upset about their life, know that you are upset about your own.”12.

3. Summary and Conclusions 

3.1 The mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother is one of the most important mitzvot, and its loftiness is emphasized in the words of our sages. However, the Torah recognizes the difficulty that this brings with it.

3.2 The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is derived from two principles: the honor towards God and repaying the debt owed to one’s parents.

3.3 The core aspect of the mitzvah is providing for the physical needs of the parents.

3.4 The practical implementation of the mitzvah primarily involves elderly parents who need assistance and providing for.

הערת שוליים

  1. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim, chapter 6, halacha 1.
  2. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 240:17.
  3. Kiddushin 31b.
  4. Mechilta DeRebbe Yishmael, Mesechta DeBeChadash, Parsha 8.
  5. Ibid., 31b-32a.
  6. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, article 240:5.
  7. 31a-b.
  8. Yerushalmi, Peah, chapter 1, halacha 1.
  9. Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah, Shemot 20:12.
  10. Sefer Mitzvot Katan, introduction.
  11. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 33. Yerushalmi, Peah, chapter 1, halacha 1, also defines the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents as ‘repaying a debt’.
  12. Rabbeinu Bechayei’s Commentary on the Torah, Shemot 20:12.

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