Honor Thy [Grand]father and [Grand]mother

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Vayigash

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Is there a halachic obligation to honor one’s grandparents? 

So Yisrael set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheva, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzchak. (Genesis 46:1)

Rashi cites the Medresh in Bereishis Rabbah (94:5) which takes notice of how the verse exclusively acknowledges Yitzchak while omitting Yaakov’s grandfather, Avraham: 

The duty of honoring one’s father is more imperative than that of honoring one’s grandfather; therefore the sacrifices are associated with the name of Yitzchak and not with that of Avraham.

According to the Medresh, it would seem that while it does not rise to the same level, there is indeed some form of a halachic obligation to honor one’s grandfather (see also Kesubos 103a). While the Rema (Y.D. 240:24) codifies an obligation to honor one’s grandfather on the basis of this Medresh, but also cites the position of the Maharik (no. 44) who believes that no such responsibility exists. The Gilyon Maharsha (ad loc.) supports the contention of the Maharik based on the following passage in the Talmud (Makkos 12a):

It is taught in one baraisa: In the case of a father who killed his son, his surviving son becomes his blood redeemer [and may kill him]. And it is taught in another baraisa: His son does not become his blood redeemer?…Rather, it is not difficult, as this baraisa is referring to his son, and that baraisa is referring to the son of his son.

In a case of negligent homicide (shogeg), the relatives of the victim are empowered to avenge their loved one’s life by taking the life of the killer (provided that he leaves the city of refuge). However, the Gemara informs us that the dynamics become more complicated when both the killer and victim share the same family members: If a father inadvertently kills one of his sons, the other sons are not empowered to take the life of their father. However, they would be allowed to avenge their brother’s life should it be taken by their grandfather.

Thus, if we accept that a child may not take the life of his father, due to the honor he is required to grant him, then the fact that there is no similar limitation on taking the life of one’s father’s father would suggest that there is no such obligation to honor one’s grandfather – thus supporting the assertion of the Maharik and rebutting the Rema’s conclusion.

However, we will presently suggest two ways to reconcile this Gemara with the widely held belief that there does exist some form of a halachic imperative to honor one’s grandfather:

(A) Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mamrim 6:11) rules that “even when one’s father was a wicked person who committed many transgressions, one must [still] honor him and revere him.” The Klei Chemdah (no. 1) notes that according to the Rambam there exists merely a requirement to honor one’s father who is wicked, but not one’s grandfather. Ostensibly, we can suggest that when a person commits an act of murder, even inadvertently, they are classified as wicked for legal purposes (even though he is not necessarily considered wicked from a moral standpoint). Thus, while one would remain constrained to honor their father, they would not be similarly bound to honor their grandfather and would be legally permitted to exact retribution.

R. Mordechai Carlebach suggests that in order to comprehend why we would distinguish between the honor of one’s father versus grandfather, we need to ask what fundamentally requires a person to honor them under ordinary circumstances. R. Carlebach suggests that one is compelled to honor both his father and grandfather equally vis-a-vis “his obligation to Heaven,” or as a general moral-religious imperative. However, in addition to the aforementioned, one is also obligated to honor specifically their father out of a shibud, an indentured entitlement. This latter category is unaffected by the father’s moral standing and will remain in force even in the event that the father, God forbid, kills one of his children as an act of negligent homicide. 

(B) R. Shlomo Kluger (Tuv Ta’am V’Da’as, Vol. 1) suggests that the source for honoring one’s grandfather is not a distinct commandment, but stems from the obligation to honor one’s parents. By honoring one’s father’s father, one is indirectly demonstrating honor to their father who actually bears the obligation vis-a-vis the grandfather in our scenario. Therefore, if the grandfather kills the father there is no conflict between the values of honoring one’s father versus honoring one’s father’s father because there is, in truth, only the single root obligation of honoring one’s father. Therefore, there is no limitation on taking the life of the grandfather to avenge the father’s life – since it is fundamentally the latter whom the son should be concerned for. (However, this framework would not as easily address a case in which one’s maternal grandfather kills their father.)

After all is said and done we should reiterate that the mainstream position is that there exists some form of a halachic desideratum to honor one’s grandparents. May it be God’s will that one’s responsibilities vis-a-vis their parents and grandparents should never be in conflict.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected]

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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