The mitsvah of kibud av va-em is extraordinarily strict. The Gemara tells us that the Biblical phraseology used in regards to parents parallels the language used in regards to God; as if to emphasize the point, the Talmud gives several examples of how various rabbis honored their parents. One of them, relevant to my comment about language, used to rise when he heard his mother coming, and say, "Let me get up before the Divine Presence that arrives!" In another celebrated incident, the mother of R. Tarfon bragged to other rabbis about how her son treated her (since walking on the hard ground was difficult for her, he allowed her to walk on his hands), only to be told that that wasn't so impressive, that the mitsvah really calls for much more. In another extreme expression, a rabbi who was an orphan expressed some relief as to having avoided the challenge of fulfilling the mitsvah well.
At the same time, there are, as always, legal and technical sides that define the mitsvah, and we do not always need to go beyond those. At a base level, the mitsvah seems to be to guarantee that the parent is fed and clothed and has the way to get out and about (meaning: is not isolated at home). That suggests that the point is to insure that the parent's basic needs are met; at an ideal level, then, the mitsvah would include parts of living that might not have been enumerated by the Talmud.
This gets more complicated when there is monetary pressure in the fulfillment of the mitsvah. If a child has limited resources, there are complicated questions to ask about how to prioritize the economic aspect of the mitsvah, but the mitsvah stays in force. In one famous example, a man asked a rabbi (I believe it was R. Hayyim of Brisk) whether he could charge his father for his train ticket home to visit and care for him, since he was not required to spend his own money on the mitsvah. R. Hayyim answered that that was not the choice; the man did not have to spend his own money to get to where his father was, he could walk!
I do not pretend to have summarized all the relevant halachot, but I hope the basic thrust is clear: we are supposed to experience our own parents as God's partners in our creation and, as a result, treat them with honor and awe, in the ways laid out by Jewish law.
The mitzvah of honoring one’s parents (kibbud av v’em) is very strict.It is the cornerstone upon which Jewish family life and much of Jewish communal life is built.In fact, this mitzvah appears twice in the Torah, each in particularly important places: a) The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12) and b) The Holiness Code (Lev. 19:3).Moreover, the Talmud (B. Niddah 31a) is very clear that parents are partners with God in the creation of every human being, which itself demands a certain level of respect.
Your question, however, is similar to that of the Rabbinic sages, namely, what does “honor” and “revere” actually mean in practical terms with regard to parents?In short, the Rabbinic answer assumes that to honor and revere parents involves fulfilling parents’ physical needs and offering personal presence.(Note: the wording is such that it does not include love; Rashi claims that children are obligated to love their parents, while Maimonides claims that children are only required to honor, revere, and obey them).
The sources also indicate that there are cases in which a child does not need to heed a parent’s unreasonable demands:
“It is forbidden for a man to impose too heavy a yoke upon his children by being overly insistent on his due honor, for he thereby brings them close to sinning.Instead he should forgive and turn aside, for a father may forego his honor if he wishes” (Maimonides, MT, Laws of Rebels 6:8).
Furthermore, if a child cannot bear the burden of responsibility for a parent (e.g., due to mental illness or the need of long-term medical treatment), he or she can transfer some of that responsibility to others (e.g., housing for the elderly).
It is also important to note that the Conservative Movement forbids beating a child in any way (as well as any form of spousal abuse), even though there are traditional sources that permit it (e.g., Prov. 23:13-14 and Mishnah Makkot 2:2).
How strict is the mitzvah of kibood av v’am? How much honor do we owe our parents?
This question was addressed in 1982 in a responsum by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform rabbis. The question was in regard to a recently married couple who wondered about the limits of filial duty to one’s parents. The responsum can be found at:
In summary: Honoring one’s parents is so important, it is in the Ten Commandments, and it is one of the few commandments for which there is an explicitly promised reward, for Exodus 20:12 says: 12“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”
However, there are limits to the law. Genesis 2:24 says brides and grooms must leave their parents to stick to their new spouses. Fathers traditionally were in control of their daughters, including deciding who their daughters would marry, and yet they were admonished not to force their daughters into marriage against their will. Parents’ wishes are expected to be consulted about where their adult children live, but if the children’s economic security depends on moving away, then that is what they should do.
Overall, children are expected to look after their (aging) parents’ physical and emotional needs, but not to the extent of sacrificing their own well-being. A balance must be found between the competing needs of the generations, but the final decision tends to favor the needs of the younger generation.
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