By Alexander Maune
THE Talmud regards the Mitzvah of honouring parents (Kibud Av V` Em) as one of the most difficult commandments to perform properly. What’s so special about the commandment to honour parents?
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai said: “Great is the duty of honouring one’s father and mother, since the Holy One set the honour due to them above the honour due to Himself. ”
Concerning the honour due to the Holy One, it is written, “Honour the Lord with thy substance” (Proverbs 3:9). In short, you are obligated if you have substance. But when it comes to honouring parents Scripture say? “Honour thy father and thy mother,” even if you have to go about begging in doorways, that is whether you have substance or not.
According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (pp. 981): “You must be extremely careful to honour and revere your father and mother for Scripture compares their honour and reverence to the honour and reverence you must have for the Almighty,” as written in the Torah (Exodus, 20:12 and 21:15; Leviticus, 19:3; Deuteronomy, 5:16 and 27:16).
The Talmud, Shabbat 127a states that honouring one’s parents is one of the commandments in which one enjoys the fruits both in this world and the world to come.
Samson R Hirsch (2015) in his book Horeb argues that parents are to us what the stem is to the fruit. As the fruit is what it is only through the stem, so a person is what he/she is only through parents.
The Talmud in Tractate Niddah 31a explicitly states that there are three partners in a child’s formation: God, father, and mother. The father and mother contribute five items each while God contributes ten items.
What if they never supported you?
Zechariah Goldman (2016) argues that today, the path to honouring one’s parents, for many, is a long one, filled with significant internal obstacles. Many people have first to work through their anger and grief concerning their upbringing before this commandment of the Torah can be integrated and lived in its fullest expression. To honour one’s parents one needs to have attained equanimity regarding one’s past hurts and losses. When we can healthily detach from the ego and operate from a perspective of the soul then honouring one’s parents, even if they are largely the same people who hurt us, is nevertheless possible and even a liberating act.
Chazal taught that even if your parents were transgressors and sinners and if they had never earned any title to your love and gratitude, and had never troubled themselves about you, nevertheless be respectful towards them and obedient, and remember God who demands this from you. If they neglect their duties towards you, nevertheless fulfil your duties towards them for God does not require esteem and honour of parents from you as a return for benefits conferred about which you might cast up an account with them.
The commandment to honour parents does not depend on what your parents did for you, or even whether they were good parents. Rather, we honour parents simply because they gave us the gift of life.
But a child might claim, “I didn’t ask to be born, why I should be held responsible for not honouring my parents,” says the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon provides an answer to his question by quoting Rabbi Elazar HaKappar in Mishnah 29 that even though a child was created and was born against his/her will, and although he/she claims to live against his/her will, nonetheless, since one dies against his/her will — proving that one wants desperately to live — one will be forced to give an accounting of his/her life before God.
The Mishnah quoted above, however, states that: “Do not let your evil impulse persuade you that the grave is, for you, a place of refuge: for without your consent you were formed, without your consent, you will die, and without your consent, you will in the future have to give an account and reckoning before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
Chazal notes that this Mishnah lists only those realities that are not in the scope of man’s free choice. About these, Chazal taught, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos, 33b). Other areas such as sinning, doing good deeds, and all physical activities are subject to human choice and discretion.
The extent of honouring parents
Chajes Z H argues that stories aim to inspire people to serve the Lord. Moses Maimonides (Rambam) (1 135 – 1 204) describes individuals who take the homiletics of the Talmud literally as simple-minded fools since there are hidden inner meanings in the stories, riddles, and parables used in the Aggadah. The stories in the Talmud many of which are cited here have important messages.
The following stories are taught by the Sages in the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin (31a-b) regarding honouring parents.
The sages taught in Aggadah that: “When Rabbi Ulla was asked, “How far should honouring one`s father and mother extend?” He replied, “Go and see what a certain [man] named Dama ben Netinah did for his father in Ashkelon. Once, the sages sought some merchandise from him involving a profit to him of sixty myriads (of gold denars). But the key to where the merchandise was kept was under his (sleeping) father’s pillow, and he would not disturb him.”
The following year, however, the Holy One gave him his reward. A red heifer was born to him in his herd. When the sages of Israel visited him (intending to buy it), he said to them, “I know about you. Even if I were to ask all the money in the world, you would pay me. But all I ask of you is the amount I lost because I honoured my father.”
Rabbi Abbahu once taught that when Rabbi Eliezer the Elder was asked by his disciples, “How far should one go in honouring one’s father and mother?” He replied, “Go and see what Dama ben Netinah of Ashkelon did.
When his mother, who was feebleminded, hit him with her sandal in the presence of the entire council over which he presided, he merely said to her, ”Enough, mother’.’ Moreover, when her sandal fell from her hand, he picked it up and handed it back to her, so that she would not get upset.”
The Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin (31b) teaches that “It happened that Rabbi Tarfon’s mother went forth on the Sabbath for a walk in her courtyard. When her sandal split (and he could not sew it up then there because it was the Sabbath), Rabbi Tarfon held his hands under the soles of her feet, and she walked on his hands until she reached her couch.
When he went and boasted about it in the house of study, he was told, “You still have not reached half the honour due to a mother. Has she ever tossed a purse of gold coins into the sea in your presence, and you did not put her to shame?” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin, 31a).
The sages of the Talmud further taught that, “Rabbi Ishmael’s mother complained to our masters about Rabbi Ishmael. She said to them: “Please rebuke my son for he does not treat me with honour”.
At this, the faces of our masters grew pale, and they said: “Is it possible that Rabbi Ishmael does not treat his parents with honour?
- Alexander Maune is a Talmudic scholar, researcher and consultant as well as a member of IoDZA