Relationship Between Parent & Child

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Resource Contents

Rabbi Yitzchak Seltzer

Relationship between Parent & Child

The Torah places great emphasis on the commandment to honor and fear one's parents. The commandment is among the Ten Commandments[1], which seems to imply that is of integral importance and defines the Jewish people. There are many hints in the Torah to its importance. Another example is that in both citations of the Ten Commandments a reward of long life is mentioned along with the commandment. There are very few commandments in which the reward is written next to it. This prompts the question; what makes this commandment more important than others.

There are many reasons that come to mind that can explain the importance of this commandment. The more obvious reason is that this is the most basic form of gratitude. A person is obligated to express gratitude to ones parents because they provide ones needs during their early stages of life. The moral value of gratitude is so high since one who has gratitude for what one receives will come to show gratitude to G-d for all that he has provided which will bring him to accept the Torah in its entirety. This seems to be supported by Sefer hachinkh in his explanation for the reason of the commandment.[2]

To honor ones father and mother, as it is stated, Honor your father and mother, etc. The explanation is given: What constitutes this honor?-to provide food and drink, clothing and raiment, and to take them in and lead them out.

At the root of this mitzvah lies the thought that it is fitting for a man to acknowledge and treat with loving-kindness the person who treated him with goodness, and he should not be a scoundrel, an ingrate who turns a cold shoulder [to him]-for this is an evil quality, utterly vile before God and mankind. It is for a person to realize that his father and mother are the cause of his being in the world; hence in very truth it is proper for him to give him every honor and every benefit that he can, since they brought him into the world and then, too, labored through many troubles over him in his early years.

When he sets the quality firmly in his character, a person will rise from this to recognize the goodness of God, blessed is He, who is the primary Cause of his existence and existence of all his forebears, back to Adam, the first man. And [he will realize] that He brought him forth into the light of day, provided for his needs all his days, brought him to his proper estate with all his limbs whole, and gave him a cognitive and intelligent spirit-and if not for this spirit with which God endowed him, he would be like a horse, like a mule, without understanding (Psalms 32:9). Then let him reckon in his mind how very, very right it is for him to take care about serving and worshipping Him, be He blessed.

However, the precept does not seem to discriminate between how good the parent was to the child. This does not negate the great value of gratitude. Rather, it suggests that the precept was meant to teach us more than gratitude and that its importance may also have to do with an inborn responsibility. Also, strikingly, there is no commandment to support one's children. If the Torah wanted one to learn about gratitude from one's parents, it might have been more logical to command the parents to provide. To our dismay, there are many parents who do not provide adequately for their children. Yet, the honor and fear they receive does not diminish regardless of how the parent provides for the child. This seems to point out another reason for the importance of this precept. Through thorough analysis of the Talmudic text one can see another reason developing which gives us a greater understanding of the natural inborn relationship between a parent and a child.

It is important to define the commandments to honor and to fear one's parents. That Talmud states:[3]

Our Rabbis taught: What is fear and what is honour? Fear means that he [the son] must neither stand in his [the father's] place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. Honour" means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

According to this passage fear is showing authority. It does not mention listening to one's parents or any act that shows fright. Rather, acts that might express the child's own authority over the father, the child must refrain from. Honor is providing needs for one's parents. The Talmud then brings many stories, which broaden the definition of honor to trying to avoid any form of discomfort to the parents. This will be referred to later when defining these commandments further

The Talmud also brings a very puzzling statement [4]

Our Rabbis taught: It is said: Honour thy father and thy mother; and it is also said: Honour the Lord with thy substance: thus the Writ assimilates the honour due to parents to that of the Omnipresent. It is said: Ye shall fear every man his father, and his mother; and it is also said: The Lord thy God thou shalt fear, and him thou shalt serve; thus the Writ assimilates the fear of parents to the fear of God.

This is very strange. How could the fear or honor of anything be compared to the honor and fear of God?

The Talmud continues:

Our Rabbis taught: There are three partners in man, the Holy One, blessed be He, the father, and the mother. When a man honours his father and his mother, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: I ascribe [merit] to them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honoured Me.

This is a very peculiar statement. Is God an equal partner? Is this the reason why one should honor one's parents? Why is honoring ones parent "as if" one is honoring God? Is this because it is as important as God's honor since God is an equal partner? Perhaps, it is also suggesting that through honoring one's parents one also honors God. This connection between the honor and fear of one's parents and the honor and fear of God requires further investigation.

There is another commandment compared to the fear and honor of God, the commandment to honor and fear Torah scholars. The Talmud sates:[5]

Simeon the Imsonite, or as others read, Nehemiah the Imsonite, used to expound [the term] eth wherever it occurred in the Torah. When, however, he reached, Thou shalt fear eth the Lord thy God, he abstained. His disciples said to him: Rabbi, what is to be done with all the expositions of [the term] eth which you have already given? He said to them: Just as I have received reward for the [previous] expositions so have I received reward for the [present] abstention. When R. Akiba, however, came, he taught: Thou shalt fear eth the Lord thy God implies that the scholarly disciples are also to be feared.

The conclusion of the Talmud is striking. It would seem logical that Simeon 's argument is correct. After all, how could the fear of anything be equal to the fear of God?! However, Rabbi Akiba explains that the fear of a Torah scholar is supposed to be equal to that of God. This is because a Torah scholar represents God in this world. He is God's adversary to teach us all of His wisdom. Our entire perception of God comes from Torah scholars. Therefore, if we show fear for our sages we are in turn are showing fear of his teachings, which are the basis for our perception of God.

This is seen in the way the Torah commands us to honor sages as well. The Torah states:[6]

And you shall rise before the wise.

The Talmud explains[7] that the verse does not necessarily mean elder, but one who has acquired vast knowledge of Torah. The Talmud later[8] concludes that although the Torah is referring to a Torah scholar one still needs to show respect for an unlearned elder even if the elder is not Jewish. The reason for this is that it is virtually impossible for someone to be on this earth for such a long time and not learn about the wonders of Hashem. His honor is also due to the knowledge of God that he possesses.

Sefer Hichinukh writes:[9]

To honor Torah scholars and rise before them: for it is stated, You shall rise up before the hoary head (Leviticus 19:32), which Onkelos translated "You shall rise up before one who studies Torah"; an honor the face of an old ma-on which our Sages of blessed memory explained: "an old man" means none else but one who has acquired wisdom. As to why the Writ expresses the concept of a Torah scholar by the term "an old man," the reason is that a young Torah scholar sees through his wisdom what an old man sees through the multitude of his years.

At the root of the precept lies the reason that the main point of man's having been created in the world is for the sake of wisdom, so that he will become aware of his Creator. It is therefore fitting for a man to honor one who has attained it. As a result, others will be bestirred about it. And for this root reason, 'Issi b. Judah explained in the Talmud tractate Kiddushin (32b) that even an uneducated old man, i.e. who is not wise, is included in this precept:; it is right to honor him-because in his great number of years he has seen and recognized a bit of the workings of the Eternal Lord and His wonders; hence he is deserving of esteem.... Yet this rule that they stated holds only on condition that he is not a confirmed sinner; for if he is, he has deprived himself of honor.

Sefer Hachinukh supports the conclusion drawn above. Through honoring and respecting Torah scholars one is honoring and respecting the wisdom and knowledge he possesses and transmits. This is in fact directly showing respect for God.

This reason for honoring and fearing Torah scholars is also found in respect to honoring and fearing one's parents. When the Torah discusses fearing one's parents[10] Rashi Notes:[11]

The Holy One, blessed be He, placed the honor of the father before that of the mother. It is revealed and known to Him Who decreed, and the world came into existence, that a son reverences his father more than his mother, the Holy One, blessed be He, put the fear [reverence] of the mother before that of the father. It is revealed and known to Him that a son honors his mother more than his father, because she sways him by words;

Rashi explains why a mother a child a more inclined to honor her for she is more persuasive. Rashi does not mention why one naturally fears his father. The natural reaction would be that the father is more intimidating because he is physically larger and it is therefore natural to grant him authority. However, The Talmud[12] sites the same Midrash and adds that one naturally fears his father because "he teaches him Torah." This seems to imply that his authority does not stem from his strength rather because a father teaches his son Torah. This coincides with the Talmud's conclusion that a father (and not a mother) is obligated to teach his son Torah. It is then possible that the persuasive words of the mother are not seduction to take care of her, rather lessons in ethics of the Torah. The reverse of the order of the father and mother coincides with the verse in Proverbs:[13]

One should listen to one's mother's Torah and father's ethics.

The verse is advising the value the teaching of the parent even though they are more naturally inclined to value the Torah of the father and ethical teachings of the mother.

It is then possible to conceive that what earns parents authority and honor is the teaching of Torah and its ethics. A parent is a natural educator of their children and commanded to do so by the Torah. The impression that one has of God or the Torah is solely dependent on how the parent teaches it. It is the parent's job to transmit the Torah not the Torah scholar. If the parent cannot teach his own child it is the parent's responsibility to hire the scholar to teach his children in his place.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch takes this point further. He writes:[14]

...lnt ,tu lhct ,t scf..We have tried to indicate the significance of parents to which they have to thank their high position in G-d's Torah. We understood them to be considered not only the medium of the physical existence of the child, but as the medium through which the mission and calling of Jewry, its history as well as the Torah is to be transmitted from God's Hands to every coming generation. We told ourselves that it was not the measure of what parents do for their children, but the great and lofty mission which God has given parents concerning their children....

The honor and fear of one's parents are not just because they teach Torah and provide the education but because of the responsibility as an educator that they bear. This honor and fear are due to the parents even if they do not carry out their responsibility for the sole reason that they bear the responsibility. One honors and fears one's parents because of the responsibility the parent bears in educating their children.

It is also possible to add to this understanding. A parent is an inborn educator of their children. Everything they do has an everlasting impression on their children. A bad parent is educating his children just as much as a good parent. However, the children may be learning different things. Even if a father abandons a child, that also teaches the child something and leaves and everlasting impression. The impression that a parent makes on a child is of enormous importance and perhaps more important than any other precept in the Torah. For it is this everlasting impression, that will stick with the child and guide him for better or for worse for the rest of his life and continuing generations that populate the world. It is for this reason that parents are truly a partner with God in sustaining the world.

It is for this reason that the honor and fear of parents is given such great importance in the Torah. Not just because of the enormous gratitude that a child must pay to a child's parents. Rather, it is the enormous educational responsibility that a parent bears for their children. For this reason, God himself assists the deliverance of a child in the world[15] and is an equal partner in the creation of the child.

This is why the Talmud defines fearing ones parents as showing the authority. By granting them authority, one is acknowledging their overpowering effect that they have on their children and give it the proper authority that is naturally given to any parent. Children need to realize what a powerful role their parents play and draw from it appropriately. It is also understandable why honoring ones parents includes ridding them of any discomfort. Since, they bear such an overwhelming responsibility towards children which includes everything they due down to the smallest detail. Children need to honor their parents down to the smallest form of discomfort.

The responsibility naturally placed on every parent requires a life long devotion to this great task. It would therefore be very fitting that one is rewarded with a long and good life for honoring one's parents. One who truly honors and fears one's parents recognizes the great responsibility the parents have towards him and will be ready to accept the responsibility themselves for the generations to come. This commandment is one of the secrets to the everlasting nature of the Jewish people.



[1]Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16

[2] Sefer hachinukh Commandment 33

[3] Kiddushin 31b

[4]Ibid 30b

[5]Talmud bavli, Babba kamma 41b

[6]Leviticus 19:32

[7]Kidushin 32b

[8]Ibid. 33a

[9] Sefer hachinuch mitzvah 257

[10]Kidushin 19:4

[11] Rashi, liviticus 19:3

[12] Kidushin 31a

[13] Proverbs 1:8

[14] Rav Shimshon Rafael hirsh commentary on Leviticus 19:3

[15] See Taanit 2a God holds the key to childbirth



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