Kibbud Av Va-Em Doesn’t Mean Honoring Parents

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Yitro

Is Honor the Right Word?

Everyone knows we are required to honor our parents, but as Mark Twain supposedly said, “it ain’t what we don’t know that gets us in trouble, it’s what we know that just ain’t so.” Rambam’s Obligation 210 of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot records the verse from the Aseret Ha-Dibberot (the Ten Pronouncements, I prefer to call them), kabbed et avikha ve-et imekha, the key word being kabbed, as far as I know universally translated to mean “honor.”

Here’s the thing: Sifra’s list of what qualifies as kibbud, reproduced in Kiddushin 31b, consists of helping the parent eat and drink, making sure s/he is clothed and covered, bringing the parent home and taking him/her out. Aruch Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 240;17 stresses the child must perform these services cheerfully, not give the parent the sense it is a burden.

Not what we colloquially think of as “honor,” more like “tending to, taking care of.” Of the further examples we will see, here’s one more to kick us off: In Mishneh Torah, Rambam put these halakhot in Mamrim, laws of those who rebel against authority in various ways. With his placement, he implies kibbud [and yir’ah, but that’s not our topic] is about rebelling or not.

The Gratitude of the Mitzvah

Once I’m questioning certainties, I point out Sefer Ha-Hinukh 33’s suggested reason for the mitzvah. He says we should all recognize any good someone has done for us and reciprocate, rather than be a naval, mitnaker, and kefui tovah, someone of low character, who treats people s/he knows as strangers, denies the good people done him/her. These are bad traits (Sefer Ha-Hinukh discusses them as all one trait, rejection of the good the person did), roundly denigrated by God and people.

Children are supposed to remember their parents are the reason for their existence, obligating the child to do whatever the parent needs, because the parent did so when the child was little. [A first weakness in his reasoning: the obligations of kibbud apply regardless of whether the parent raised the child; it is a biological mitzvah, independent of good or involved parenting.]

Minhat Hinukh gives another example, a mamzer must provide kibbud for the parent, certainly if the parent repented the sin that produced the mamzer, according to Rambam (but not the Tur, who obligates the child regardless of the parent’s penitence. Since the parents’ illicit relationship handicaps the mamzer’s marriage prospects, and those of all his/her descendants in perpetuity, I could easily imagine not obligating gratitude).

The Reference to God in the Mitzvah

Here, Sefer Ha-Hinukh adds a piece I find more convincing, that training ourselves to recognize what our parents did for us (whether the bare fact of creation or also the efforts put into us as children) leads us to acknowledge the good God has done for us as well. Hashem is the reason all humanity has ever existed, arranged for a world that sustains us, and has given us the intellectual and physical capacity to live worthy lives.

This awareness leads us to focus on living the kinds of lives Hashem wants, since our whole lives come from Hashem, are supported by Hashem, and only continue with God’s good graces.

Ways in Which It Is About Honor

On the other hand, there are ways it fits honor in the usual sense. A parent can be mohel, can forego, the obligatory kavod, which makes it about them and their rights. Should a child see a parent violating the Torah, the child is supposed to raise a question, didn’t you teach me that the Torah says this?, rather than admonish the parent directly.

Last, Hazal inferred from the Torah that we must not listen if a parent tells us to violate the Torah. That it was even an option the Torah felt the need to rule out means that in general we are supposed to obey a parent’s commands, much closer to honor than to tending the parent’s needs. [This halakha spawned a slew of questions about where we must listen to parents, such as for marriage partners and/or aliyah].

Aruch Ha-Shulhan, paragraphs 23-24 is certain kibbud involves standing for a parent as soon as one hear his/her approach. For a more intricate example, he rules a child should ask a favor in the name of a parent if s/he knows the other person will respond positively, even if that person would also have done it for the child. Making clear how much others respect a parent is part of kibbud as well.

An example courtesy of Minhat Hinukhhalakha assumes a child must also provide kibbud for a parent’s spouse, in the parent’s lifetime. While there, too, it means care for the spouse’s needs, it is a function of the parent seeing and enjoying knowing the spouse is taken care of. [I could argue this takes care of the parent, too, but let’s not descend into semantics.]

Ramban held the obligation of kibbud for an elder sibling is limited to the parent’s lifetime– Minhat Hinukh tells us, an extension of our kibbud for the parent– where Rambam does not limit it, seems to think Hazal set it up separately, thought we should experience elder siblings somewhat like parents.

What’s Biblical and What’s Not, A Brief Digression

The topic allows me a moment for a pet interest. Rambam says the obligation is Biblical, where kibbud for an older sibling is Rabbinic.  Minhat Hinukh tells us Kessef Mishneh assumed Rambam inferred the distinction from the different sources the Gemara provided.

The Gemara derives the obligation towards parents’ spouses from the two uses of et, a word the verse could do without, where the sibling kavod came from the vav of ve-etand your mother. Kessef Mishneh says any rule inferred from an et is as if it is written in the Torah, and therefore a de-oraita obligation, where ve-et, the added idea taken from a vav, is Rabbinic. A reminder that even derivations need to be examined for the level of obviousness in the text tradition ascribes to them. [Minhat Hinukh struggles more with this, but I am moving on for now.]

Aruch Ha-Shulhan Captures the Issue

Aruch Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 240;1 cites Kiddushin 30b, Mishlei 3;9 speaks of kibbud of Hashem to link it to our kibbud of our parents.

In the next two paragraphs, I think Aruch Ha-Shulhan captures the issue very well. He says this is a rational mitzvah, practiced by all the peoples of the world, yet we are supposed to observe it because God commanded it. To me, it suggests what I am: we all know the need to honor our parents, but the Torah teaches us to be mekhabbed them, which includes honor (although really, I think, yir’ah does more of the work) but extends further, to caring for their needs.

Who Pays

Sefer Ha-Hinukh raises a question the Gemara did, whether the cost of the kavod comes out of the parent’s or child’s bank account. Halakha concludes it is the parent who pays, if s/he has the money. If not, the child should pay, although can theoretically count it as tzedaka money. If the child, too, does not have the money, Sefer Ha-Hinukh says halakha expects him to beg for it.

I find the whole financial discussion illuminating, because “honor” does not usually cost money. It adds to my sense the word misleads us about the nature of the mitzvah.

Daughters Are Less Obligated

More to my original claim, Sefer Ha-Hinukh points out what the Gemara did, daughters are theoretically equally obligated in kavod to their brothers, except they must operate within the parameters of what their husbands are comfortable with, so if the husband insists, the daughter will be exempt.

[I recognize the picture of marriage will strike many as sexist, so I allow myself a few points: 1) The couple can work it out for themselves. 2) Ever since I’ve been young, it’s been more likely that daughters take in an aged parent than sons, and while husbands grumble, I think it’s rare they actually object. 3) It’s plausible to me that in the time of the Gemara, a man’s investment in marriage was lower than the woman’s, and it was therefore wise to tilt the scale of power more towards the man, in the name of the health of the marriage.

Not our topic here, so I won’t go on about it, only raise the question: given what’s theoretically right, how much do we concede, where the other person is wrong, for the sake of the marriage? I don’t think the answer is at all clear or unequivocal.]

Given its cultural foreignness, I bring it up here only because the idea that kibbud could be something a husband wants his wife not to do shows it involves activities, feeding the parents, tending to them, etc. Were it only “honor,” there would be no reason it should arouse opposition.

Neglecting the Mitzvah

Sefer Ha-Hinukh always concludes his summary with what happens should the person violate the mitzvah. Here, the child has neglected an obligation, and Sefer Ha-Hinukh often stresses how bad that is. When he for our case says it incurs a great punishment, he says because the child is as if s/he is becoming a stranger to his/her Father in heaven.

To me, he is saying the mitzvah is about the parents’ role as representatives of God, reminders to us we are created by this partnership of the parents and Hashem, and through our treatment of them we remember our need for a relationship with Hashem as well. To ignore their role in our lives—as creators, we hope with the additional credit of raising us, but not necessarily so—runs the risk of letting us ignore our Creator.

More details won’t change the basic point: kibbud might include honor, but it is a mitzvah from God that adds a requirement to treat our parents as our creators, and to help them with their needs, when they need it.

About Gidon Rothstein

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