Treatment of the Elderly and the Sick – “Until 120”?

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Chapter 2 – What is the Extent of Honoring One’s Parents?

As in any domain, whenever we are confronted with new technology – or when different ideological perceptions are granted different weight than in the past – halacha is required to determine its position in light of these changes. Halachic discussions are directly tied to the expansion arc of our constantly renewing reality and require clarifying fundamental principles; and this at times require us to go back and analyze the most basic roots of halacha.

Occasionally, families will deal with these issues many years before reaching the crossroads of life and death decisions. The deterioration in the state of those who are elderly brings with it many questions – halachic, moral, and fundamental – and they mainly relate to the extent of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. On the one hand, this mitzvah is easily understood: it is a moral obligation, and it seems that most people would keep it without a mitzvah from the Torah directing them to do so. On the other hand, many times in order to fulfill the mitzvah precisely, a halachic and ethical discussion must be performed. 

The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is part of a long list of positive commandments which “have no measurement” (even if the Mishnah does not note this mitzvah as such). Its basic obligations are defined (as stated earlier): “What is awe and what is honor? Awe – do not stand in his place, and do not sit in his place, and do not contradict his statements, and do not choose sides [in an argument]; honor – give him food and drink, dress him and cover him up, bring him in and out [of the house]” (Kiddushin 31b). Granted these are just the basic obligations and halacha does not define what one should perform beyond this. Later on in the discussion, the Gemara expands the extent of this mitzvah by bringing a number of extraordinary stories detailing the ways the Amoraim honored their parents – and there we are confronted with a much more expansive circle of obligations. These stories serve to deepen the confusion regarding the extent to which one is obligated to serve their parents – even before looking at the clash between this obligation and others. The requirements are not clearly defined in halacha – and due to its very nature, it cannot be defined – for this matter varies from family to family due to the many components unable to be classified by an overarching normative halacha.

The Talmudic discussion deals with the issue of funding this mitzvah as well and not just its extent. Practically it is determined that the funding for the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is dependent on the parents and not the children; and only if the parents do not have money does the obligation fall on the children. However, even here the limitations are not clear: what is the meaning of “not having money”? What amount of money must the children spend in order to care for their parents’ wellbeing and which needs are considered part of the responsibilities placed upon them to fulfill?

The phrasing of the halacha in the Shulchan Aruch qualifies the boundaries yet does not qualify the details:

One who feeds [his parents] and provides them drink [should do so] from the father and mother’s [funds] – if they have; and if the father does not have [funds] and the son does – we force him to feed his father as much as he can, and if the son does not have, he is not obligated to go door-to-door in order to feed his father.

Rema: there are those who say that [the child] is only obligated to give what they are required to give as charity[…].1

Other details are halachically determined later in the same article of the Shulchan Aruch, however even that which is written up to this point leaves a great amount of space for definition: what does “he has funds” mean? What is the explanation of “as much as he can”? How much is one obligated to give to charity according to the opinion referenced by the Rema? These are very practical issues that arise at times regarding families with limited funds.

Beyond the focused discussion surrounding the mitzvah of honoring parents itself, many familial and halachic issues develop in both directions. Firstly, what is the halacha and the most appropriate path when, in the moment where one has responsibilities to their parents, there are other obligations, whether to oneself or via other relationships in man’s life – their partner, children, or other people? Do the responsibilities towards one’s parents override any recognition of “your life comes first” (see later on), or is there a halachic guide telling us how to consider these different factors?

The second trend is expressed mainly when aspects of dementia begin to develop in the parent’s world. Development of dementia adds additional issues that impact life: what is the level of responsibility and to what extent should one ensure fulfillment of mitzvot from an elder dealing with dementia of who it is unclear if there is cognitive reason to continue putting on tefillin or preventing the violation of Shabbat or eating chametz on Pesach? Should one continue to tell the patient the truth or is this not registering in their consciousness and therefore one should tell them things that the speaker believes will improve quality of life, even if they are incorrect? Many issues exist surrounding non-Jewish caretakers, from the issue of Bishul Akum to the issue of their personal worship, and from the issue of actions performed on Shabbat for the sake of the elderly to the topic of Yichud and Shmirat Negiah when dealing with a worker who is not the same gender as the elderly person.

Understandably, alongside these discussions which are familial in nature, there are much more expansive systemic discussions, such as the relationship between the responsibility one has towards honoring their parents and the roles that the government has taken upon itself (such as the establishment of rehabilitative centers or psychiatric treatment facilities). These topics run parallel to the discussions surrounding the mitzvah of tzedaka in the modern state (the issue of personal responsibility to give tzedaka in contrast with government benefits such as social services) and the like.

We do not observe sweeping and definitive halachot in these domains, for as previously stated a large portion of these issues were not relevant in previous generations, whether for technological or structural reasons. Furthermore, we are dealing with two types of halachic rulings: rulings in situations where the issue concerns just the person themselves; and rulings in situations where one must bring together different clashing halachic principles, most commonly the practical tension between the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, one’s marriage, and the responsibility one has to the rest of their family members. Elsewhere we claim that one of the central barriers to clarifying the true halacha in these topics is rooted in false perceptions of the halachic position, and even here we are confronted with this reality.

Surprisingly to many (as has become clear from our rabbinical experience), despite the lofty importance of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, halacha restricts this mitzvah when it clashes with other familial obligations. The Mishnah determines that “one’s own lost object and their father’s lost object – one’s lost object comes first” (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 2:11); i.e. when a person’s father loses his wallet and he has also lost his wallet – it is permissible for him to prioritize searching for his wallet over his father’s. The Gemara qualifies this ruling by determining a general principle: Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: the verse states ‘but there shall not be amongst you a poor man’, yours comes before any other person” (Bava Metzia 33a). Even at first glance this determination seems to contradict the seemingly proper attribute, which is one of the most fundamental moral pillars of Jewish faith. However, from the words of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav which follow – “and Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav said: anyone who lives their life by this [principle], they will meet their end by this [principle]” – we see that it is proper not to utilize this halacha; however, this is a matter of piety and not the basis of the halacha. Even the Shulchan Aruch rules:

[…] that one’s lost object comes before even the lost object of his father or rabbi, as we expound from ‘but there shall not be amongst you a poor man’. And even though [this is the case], a person should go beyond the letter of the law and not be precise and say: mine comes first if there is no great loss. And if they always are exact, the yoke of performing acts of kindness is thrown off him by making him require [financial] assistance.2

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter

Treatment of the Elderly and the Sick – “Until 120”? – Introduction and Table of Contents

For Additional Reading:

  • Does the Mitzvah of Honoring One’s Parents Apply to Grandchildren as well?
  • Can One Employ a Non-Jewish Caregiver for their Elderly Father Against his Consent?
  • Is it Permissible to Slip Medication to an Elderly Mother?

הערת שוליים

  1. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 240:5.

Sending a question about the article

אתיקה - לפנייה בכתב ניתן למלא את הטופס - אנגלית



Do you have a question? Fill out the form

digits only

אנא כתבו כאן את שאלתכם

Especially in this difficult time,
Do you have a question and wish to consult with us?
We are happy to assist you – call now

At no cost

Skip to content