by Amir Zinkow and Yair Lichtman, Senior Fellows
Up until this week, we spent the summer engrossed in the theoretical realm of Gemara, Rishonim, and codes. Now, we have finally arrived at more practical issues. Ironically, many of the more practical cases of kibbud av va’em focus on those people who are in situations that may result in their being exempt from the mitzvot of kibbud and yir’ah. These include cases of parents who tell their children to do things they do not want to do, how to live their lives, or situations of abuse, R’’L.
A seminal decision comes from the 15th century Italian posek Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabotto (Shu’’t Maharik 366). The question that came before him was complicated, with many aspects, but the part relevant to us is this: If a father forbids his son from marrying a specific woman, must the son obey? Does kibbud av require absolute obedience?
Maharik brings three reasons why a son should not have to obey his father in such a case. First, he notes that the Talmud records a dispute as to whether expenditures required to take care of a parent are borne by the child, or rather by the parent. The consensus psak is that they are borne by the parent. Maharik argues that if we do not require a child to pay actual money for the care of his father, all the more so do we not require a child to go through the emotional suffering that would result from not marrying the woman with whom he desires to spend his life.
Maharik’s second argument is that, in a way, the father is asking his son to commit a sin. For if the son does not marry this woman, he will have to marry someone else, whom he will inevitably come to resent, and Chazal were careful not to create marriages in which resentment is present (He derives this from the prohibition against men marrying women they have never seen, although he concedes that this prohibition can be relaxed when the alternative may be not marrying).
Finally, Maharik claims that kibbud av is limited to providing direct physical benefit to a parent. In our case, no physical benefit is present.
In shiur, we noted several interesting aspects of Maharik’s argumentation that may affect the way we posken in other cases. One issue we saw is that his first argument is very easily trivializable. How much emotional distress must children suffer before it is too much and they no longer have to listen to their parents? How do we even quantify this? What if someone just really does not want to take out the trash!?
We also observed that Maharik greatly lowered the standard of what kind of transgression a parent must ask of their child in order to remove the child’s obligation of kibbud. In the responsum, the Maharik uses the language of “nidnud aveirah“. This phrase is difficult to translate, but indicates an action that is close to sinning but not actually sinning.
Lastly, Maharik made the claim that obeying parents is not part of kibbud or yir’ah; we were unsure whether we were comfortable writing obedience completely out of these mitzvot.
R. Moshe Isserles (Rema) in Yoreh De’ah 241:25 brings down Maharik lehalakhah, ruling that if a father is refusing to allow his son to marry someone, the son has no obligation to obey. However, Netziv, in his Meishiv Davar, reins in this general pesak. He reasons that if the marriage will cause the parent any tza’ar or embarrassment, then the son will be in transgression of the mitzvat lo ta’aseh of “arur makleh aviv v’imo”, “cursed is one who is makleh his father or mother”. (The word makleh is difficult; one can translate it literally as “lighten”, or else as a lesser form of mekallel, or cursing.) In such cases, the son is obligated to obey the parent and not marry the wife of his choice.
We noted again how difficult it is to quantify tza’ar and embarrassment. When weighing a son’s tza’ar against his father’s, it becomes even more challenging to decide: Whose tza’ar is greater? We also noted that the prohibition against being makleh parents does not appear in the Talmud, although it does in Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim, end of Chapter 5), and in any case Netziv expands it well beyond Rambam to include causing parents tza’ar or to indirectly cause them bizayon.
Whether or not one accepts (some or all) of Maharik’s arguments will determine the extent of the obligations of kibbud av va’em in a variety of practical cases. For example, Rabbi Chaim Jachter spoke to SBM about the possible application of harchakot d’Rabbeinu Tam by a son on his father. These sanctions, sometimes imposed by a beit din on a recalcitrant husband to encourage him to give his wife a get, involve the cessation of most forms of social interaction with the husband, including business interaction and casual conversation. May a daughter participate in such sanctions against her father? Would that extend to refusing direct requests for food or conversation? Rabbi Jachter didn’t issue a definitive ruling on the matter, but it may depend on such issues as whether one must endure emotional pain in the pursuit of this mitzvah, whether the father’s attempts at interaction would be considered “requests to violate the Torah,” and whether maintaining social contact is part of the mitzvah. Rabbi Jachter also raised a potential distinction between teenagers and adult children, considering the effect on both the children and the parents at these varying stages of life.
Another situation in which Maharik’s arguments play out is the case of a mother instructing her son to violate a personal religious practice which falls short of a complete obligation. Shu”t Arugat HaBosem (OC 19), by Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, relates to a man who wants to know if he must listen when his father instructs him to refrain from immersing in a mikveh before prayer. In his discussion, Rabbi Greenwald evaluates whether there is, in fact, an element of mitzvah in such an immersion, and concludes that
כיון דמעולם היה מנהגך כך
א”כ פשיטא דלא גרע ממאי דאיתא ביו”ד סי’ ר”ד דבכל דבר מצוה אם נהג כן ג’ פעמים אפילו לא הוצא בשפתיו צריך לקיים מצד נדר…
Since your practice has always been to do this,
if so it is obvious that this is no worse than what is found in Yoreh Deah 204, [which says] that in every matter of a mitzvah, if one acts in that way three times, even if he did not articulate it with his lips, he needs to fulfill it as a neder…
Rabbi Greenwald allows a person to disobey his parent only after determining that this practice constitutes a mitzvah of sufficient weight.
Shu”t B’tzel HaChochmah (2:55) deals with a case of a son who learns that his father has cancer, whose father asks him to tell him about the diagnosis. Rabbi Betzalel Stern, presuming that it would be bad for the father’s health to hear the news, discusses whether listening to the father’s request falls within the realm of kibbud. He concludes that the son should not tell his father, as he seems to accept Maharik’s claim that kibbud only relates to the father’s personal needs.
This being our final week of shiur, we had a discussion about how these halakhot of kibbud av va’em would be applied given various modern values and realities. For example, given today’s sensitivities towards the emotional pain that come with certain strained relationships, how much do we require a child to go through in order to fulfill kibbud av va’em? We also considered meta-halakhic factors: As focus shifts from the family to the individual, how does this affect our pesak regarding kibbud av va’em? If kibbud av va’em as previously paskened assumed that individual identity (the Self) is at least partially constituted by family membership, and that this halakhah is fundamentally about the creation of a family unit rather than about the fulfillment of the individuals in the relationship, whereas we share modern culture’s position that individual fulfillment is a greater value, and see the self as existing prior to its membership in the family, perhaps this should affect our attitudes towards this mitzvah. Or perhaps the mitzvah should challenge us to rethink our acceptance of cultural assumptions on these issues.
The modern phenomenon of ba’alei teshuvah raises another issue. One standard rationale for these mitzvot is that they inculcate respect for the wisdom of the past, and thereby for Jewish tradition. How do we conceive of and justify these mitzvot for people and societies in which Torah and Halakha are revolutionary instead of traditional? In other words, when children of non-frum parents become frum, they are breaking with tradition – with the way their parents think and act. How does our tradition deal with this? Are ba’alei teshuvah obligated in kibbud av va’em even though their parents do not keep halakhah? Does it matter whether the children’s return to observance is experienced as a fulfillment of shared values that the parents did not live out, or as a rejection of parental values?
As we enter our week of teshuvah writing, we are struggling with these questions and more. We hope to consider the cultural, meta-halakhic, and modern realities as we write. Perhaps most importantly, we look forward to weighing the values that underlie all of kibbud av va’em and producing responsa that reflect those values.