Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yithro

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.


Parashat Yitro 5759/1999

Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff

Department of Talmud

Respect for Parents vs. the Independence of Children

Military systems and legal systems have the following in common: the authority to command others how to behave is vested in certain people, and those receiving the orders are obliged to comply. Those who do not comply are subject to sanctions. The following collection of biblical quotes might seem to confirm the widespread view that the halakhah calls for running one's family in such a manner:

"Honor you father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your G-d is assigning to you" (Ex. 20:12); "You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your G-d" (Lev. 19:3); "He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death" (Ex. 21:15); "He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death" (Ex. 21:17); "Cursed be he who insults his father or mother. --And all the people shall say, Amen" (Deut. 27:16); "If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, 'This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.' Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid" (Deut. 21:18-21).

These sources paint a clear picture: on the positive side, it appears that the reward for honoring one's parents is long life, and from the positive one can deduce the contrapositive; if fearing one's parents is equivalent to observing the Sabbath, where one who violates the Sabbath is subject to being cut off or stoned, then striking one's father or insulting him are offenses that carry the death penalty; whoever is not mindful of his father's honor is cursed; a son who "does not heed his father or mother" must be stoned.

The Talmud would seem to confirm this impression and to complete it with further detail:

The Rabbis teach: What does it mean to "revere" and what does it mean to "honor"? Revering means not standing in his place, not sitting in his seat, not contradicting his words, and not overpowering him; honoring means providing food and drink, clothing and covering, taking out and bringing in. (Kiddushin 31b)

One of the answers offered by the Talmud regarding the limits of respect for one's parents ("How far should one take respect for one's parents?") is as follows: "Rav Dimi said once he was wearing a garment woven of gold and sitting with the great men of Rome, when his mother came and tore the garment off him, smacked him on the head, and spit in his face, but he did not put her to shame" (Kiddushin 31a). Similar sources can easily be cited in apparent support of the conclusion that the halakhah calls for total abnegation of children before their parents, giving parents absolute authority over their children, including the right to torment and humiliate them.

Deeper investigation, however, reveals a different picture. We shall cite several examples from acknowledged halakhic sources proving that sons and daughters have the right to insist on their own views and to shape their lives as they choose. The duty of obeying parents is limited to things that concern the parents alone and does not extend to the lives of the children. Without going into the issue of the "wayward and defiant son" at length, suffice it to say that a person who does not heed his father and mother is not sentenced to death for that unless many other circumstances mentioned in the reading also pertain. Indeed we are taught, "A wayward and defiant son never was and never will be. So why was the law written? So that we can study it and be rewarded" (Sanhedrin 71a).

A fundamental principle governing parent-children relations is the law that states that the financial burden of caring for parents' physical needs ("honoring" them, as defined above), is placed on the parents, not on the children. This ruling entails many things regarding childrens' independence of their parents.

1. The right of children to defense against parents who are about to cause them monetary injury or insult, or who have caused them monetary injury. The halakhah follows the lines set forth in the Talmud: "How far does honoring one's parents extend? Even if parents were to take from their child a purse full of gold coins and cast it into the sea, the child should not insult them, nor show them sadness, nor be angry at them; rather, he should accept the decree and remain silent" (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah, 240). The Rema adds in his glosses, "Some say that if he wishes to cast his son's money into the sea, the son may prevent him." This right, however, has limitations: "Action must be taken before it is thrown away, since the father might be prevented and not do so; but if he has already thrown the money away, the child may not insult him." On the other hand, even after the fact a person is not left helpless in the face of a parent who has caused him monetary injury. Although the parent may not be insulted, the Rema adds that he may be sued. Legal proceedings against a parent do not constitute disrespect. Hence, parents do not have absolute control over the property of their children.

The same seems to me to hold when a parent is about to offend the honor of his children or grieve them, since such things must not be done. A parent may be forestalled from doing so beforehand, of course on condition that action be taken in a way that does not offend the parent's honor. On the other hand, after the fact, the right which others generally have of responding when their honor is offended is not given sons and daughters; rather, they must accept the offense and remain silent. While bringing suit in a Jewish court is not considered an offense to one's sensibilities, nevertheless it follows from what we have said here that children should learn from experience and find a way of preventing their parents from hurting them.

2. Children's rights to their own opinion. Among the illustrations of "revering" one's father and mother we noted "not contradicting his words." This might seem to imply that sons and daughters have no right to opinions that differ from their parents or, even if they have a right to their own opinion, they may not express an opinion that differs from their parents. This difficulty, which arises almost daily in any family, is especially pronounced in the kibbutz setting, where all sorts of issues might come up to a vote in a general meeting (see "Kibbud horim be-asefat haverim," Rabbi Raphael Auerbach, in Ha-Kibbutz ba-Halakhah, Kevutzat Sha'alavim, 1984, pp. 325-330).

In the halakhic discussion of this question, the rabbis distinguished between views concerning religious questions and general views about the world. With respect to religious issues, the Arukh Ha-Shulhan states emphatically (Yoreh De'ah, 240.12): "How can one say that disagreeing with one's father over religious law is forbidden; is it not the Lord's teaching, a teaching of truth that does not tolerate hypocrisy? A son may even argue with his father face to face, challenging his views and bringing counter-arguments, so that the halakhah be properly established. Indeed, in the gemara we often find that sons challenged their fathers and brought counter-arguments, for this is the way of the Torah." From this we conclude that the statement about "not contradicting his words" does not pertain to the content of what parents say, but rather to the way children express their disagreement. It is permissible to take a different stand and argue substantively. However, the Arukh Ha-Shulhan continues, "But one may not contradict him [emphasis D. M.] to his face, for this is disrespectful, but must deliberate the matter with him, until one acknowledges the other's point. Even if the son holds fast to the view that his father is incorrect, he should keep that to himself, and not say outright, 'I cannot agree with what you say.'"

Regarding non-religious matters, Arukh ha-Shulhan raises the possibility that even this limitation on the form of expression is unnecessary, for disagreeing with someone, even one's parents, in non-religious matters is not an insult to the person's honor. I quote: "There is some doubt whether in general issues a child may contradict a parent and press the point. Perhaps this should be seen as showing lack of respect precisely when a Torah matter is at issue, not general affairs; or, perhaps the other way around: if it is forbidden [to contradict] even in cases concerning the Torah, all the more so regarding general matters." The Arukh Ha-Shulhan tends towards this latter view. Thus we conclude that children may challenge their parents' views and argue the point with them even in general matters, but they may not conclude the argument with such words as, "I do not think so." ( Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Ibid.)

May parents run their family in an open way? Arukh ha-Shulhan says, "It is clear that if a father says to his son, 'I would like to hear your views,' the son must answer as he sees the issue, both concerning religious questions and general matters, even if his views are diametrically opposed to those of his father" (ibid.)

3. The right of children to determine their social life and choose their place of study on their own. Parents do not have the authority to prevent their children from associating with whomever they wish, as it says in the Shulhan Arukh: "If a father commands his son not to speak with so-and-so, nor to pardon him until a certain time, and the son would like to make up with the person immediately, were it not for his father's command, in such a case he should not be concerned by his father's command" (Yoreh De'ah 240.16).

Parents do not have the authority to prevent their son from studying with a given teacher whom the son expects will benefit him, or from studying in any specific place, as it says in the Shulhan Arukh: "If a pupil wishes to go to some other place, being sure that he will benefit from studying under the rabbi there, and his father protests since he is worried about the influence of non-Jews in that city, the son need not heed his father in this matter" (ibid., 240.25).

4. The right of children to choose a spouse independently. Parents do not have the authority to prevent their son from marrying whomever he chooses as a mate. As the Rema writes in his glosses on the Shulhan Arukh, "If a father protests against his son marrying the woman whom the son has chosen, the son need not heed his father" (ibid.) Great posekim in earlier generations as well as in our own time have been asked whether this right also pertains to daughters. Below we cite part of the response by Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenburg to a father who objected to his daughter's choice of spouse (Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, 13.78):

The question is ... whether a [twenty-year-old] young woman may get married against the will of her parents; i.e., whether the waiver of filial obligation to respect parents in matters of marriage applies only to men or also to women?

In response ... all agree "whether it is the father's, whether the son's" (whether the cost of honoring parents devolves on the parents' property or on that of the children, as mentioned above -- D.M.), that it applies only in matters pertaining directly to the father's body--the father's livelihood and physical needs and sustenance. Regarding that which does not pertain directly to his being, clearly the father has no right to object to the son, neither on the grounds of respecting nor of revering; for "respecting" pertains only to such things as providing food, drink, clothing, etc., and "revering" only to not sitting in his seat, contradicting his words, etc., as pertains to the father; but regarding things that do not directly pertain to the father's being, clearly the father has no power to object to his son's action, ... certainly the duty to respect his father should not be grounds for him to refrain from taking to wife a woman who suits him and is pleasing to him ... this also holds for daughters.

Rabbi Waldenburg reiterated this opinion on several occasions (loc. sit., 14.73 and 15.34). The same conclusion has been confirmed by modern sephardic rabbis, such as R. Ovadiah Yosef (Resp. Yabia Omer, part 8, Yo.D. 22). One of the posekim that R. Ovadiah Yosef cited in support of this view wrote:

I am surprised at this father, who worries about his own self, but cares not at all for the body and soul of his daughter; for it is written, "As a father has compassion for his children" (Ps. 103:13), all the more so in such a matter close to the soul. Therefore, let it be said to her father in my name, that I plead with him and caution him not to forestall his daughter from this. If he listens to me, it is for the best; if he remains intransigent, his daughter should be informed not to mind him or heed him... (Resp. Avnei Tzedek, Yo.D. Part II, 99).

This has implications governing far more general and comprehensive matters than the choice of a spouse. A person is not obliged to comply with his parents' wishes in matters that do not directly concern them.

For all this, we must stress that the intention here is not to create a breach between parents and their children, rather to establish relations between them on the basis of mutual respect coupled with parents' sincerest interest in the well-being of their children. In the above-mentioned response Rabbi Waldenburg explained:

Thus, any intelligent person can easily see that good manners and breeding surely would indicate that all daughters, and also sons, should consult with their parents regarding marriage--and this is indeed usually the case. But when it happens that they discuss the matter with their parents and inform them, and the parents are opposed, their opposition having no foundation in the halakhah, and the only question is whether not listening to them would be a violation of the commandment to respect one's parents,... then in this matter one need not heed one's father...

Yes to consultation, but no to coercion.

As a general rule it should be born in mind that the duty of children to respect and revere their parents is balanced by the duty of parents to give their children the best guidance they can, in a suitable manner. In Kiddushin 30a we read: "Rava said to R. Nathan bar Ami: 'As long as your hand is on your son's throat...'" ('As long as your hand has force over your son' (Rashi, loc. sit.) i.e., as long as you have influence over your son -- D.M.). The three dots at the end of this quote indicate that the sentence was not completed in the Talmud, and may be interpreted in a variety of ways. Rashi considered the most appropriate interpretation to be: "While you still have control over him, take care that you teach him sternly." In other words, while you still can, it is your duty to influence him by your experience and wisdom in life, being older than he. We see that this is the intention of the words from what follows immediately thereafter: "From age sixteen to twenty-two, others say from eighteen to twenty-four." Rashi explains, "What is the proper time for this? From age sixteen to twenty-two, since under sixteen years of age he does not have enough understanding to receive such admonishment and you should not overburden him with teaching and admonishment, and over age twenty-two there is the fear of his rebelling."

In the laws governing respect for parents as set forth in the Shulhan Arukh the only rule formulated as a prohibition is addressed to the parents, hoping that they will know to treat their children wisely: "A person is prohibited from overburdening his sons by being overly fastidious about his honor, lest he cause them to stumble; rather, he should be forgiving and willing to look the other way, for a father who does not stand on his dignity has no honor."