American Reform Responsa

53. Responsibility of Children to their Parents

(Vol. XCII, 1982, pp. 207-209)

QUESTION: A newly married couple wishes to know the extent of their responsibility towards their parents according to the Reform view of Halacha. What are the limits of the command, "Honor your father and your mother," beyond the obvious duty of care and support in infirmity, sickness, and old age? Where is the boundary between independence and filial responsibility? (L.F.-W.R., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

ANSWER: The commandment to honor your father is the fifth of the Decalogue. This along with the statement, "You shall each revere his father and his mother and keep My Sabbath: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:3), is the Biblical source of kibud av va-em. This mitzvah, however, may come into direct conflict with other mitzvot such as, "Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they may become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). The possibility of tension between these mitzvot has always existed. The mitzvahof a new home take precedence without voiding the other (Kimchi).

The same kind of difficulty could arise with other mitzvot, too; for example, that of settling in the Land of Israel. The mitzva of Aliya took precedence (Meir Rothenburg, Responsa, vol. 2, pp. 120ff, 129). There are other areas of potential conflict, such as choice of residence, occupation, etc., but we are principally concerned with the tension which may arise between marriage and filial devotion.

Possible conflict in these matters is somewhat clouded by the fact that the father had complete rights over his daughter until she reached puberty and became a bogeret (M. Kid. 2.1; Kid. 41a), although he was cautioned to try to fulfill her wishes. On the other hand, the father had no such power over his son, though at various times the father, nevertheless, controlled the marriage completely (as, for example, in medieval Germany; see Moses Mintz, Responsa, #98). As children were likely to take matters into their own hands, various medieval synods tried to control them through ordinances (Friedmann, Toledot Erusin Venisu-in,pp. 138ff).

This question arises a number of times in the responsa literature. In most instances the authorities decided in favor of the children, as they alone could really decide what was proper for them. One of them put it beautifully and said that the couple was best able to judge the heavenly verdict in this matter. Others felt that marriage would be good only with those who truly loved one another; therefore, no element of compulsion could be introduced (Solomon ben Adret, Responsa, vol. 1, #272; Joseph Colon, Responsa, 174.3).

The authority of parents expressed only for its own sake, without need or frailty as a factor, was rejected in favor of those areas in which direct help should be provided for parents (Tos. to Kid. 32a; Yev. 5b). This point of view was reflected frequently in the responsa of the Middle Ages (Simon ben Zemah Duran, Responsa, vol. 3, #130), sec. 5; Samuel de Modena, Responsa, Yoreh De-a 90, 95; Isaac ben Sheshet, Responsa, #127). This point of view was later expressed in the Shulchan Aruchby Moses Isserles (Yoreh De-a 240.25).

Matters were seen somewhat differently in the case of a daughter, since a father might suffer financial loss through her actions. But many felt that daughters should be treated like sons and ruled for equality (Simon ben Zemach of Duran, ibid., sec. 5; David Pardo, Michtam LeDavid, #32; Ezekiel Landau, Noda BiYehuda 2, Even Ha-ezer, #45). Although this represented the majority view, another body of opinion ruled that the daughter must obey her father under all circumstances, even in the choice of a mate (Sefer Chasidim, sec. 564). Joseph of Trani followed the same line of reasoning (Responsa 2, Yoreh De-a, #27, as did Yehiel Weinberg, Seridei EshIII, p. 300). At the very least, a daughter should listen to the advice of her parents and be urged to make her decision accordingly.

Subsequent to marriage, the new wife owed her first allegiance to her husband, so honoring of parents became more the husband's duty than hers (Tosefta, Kid. 1.11; Kid. 30b). The tension can be seen in some sad discussions. Should a deceased daughter be buried with her father or in her husband's future burial place (Semachot 14)? Either way was considered proper (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 361.3). Of course, if the wife had children, then she is definitely to be buried in her husband's plot rather than her father's. This shows that a family with children represented a much more independent unit.

In cases of conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who could no longer get along in the same household, the husband was obliged to move his family out of the house (Gaonic Responsa, cited by Meir of Rothenburg, Responsa II, 81). This rule was followed especially if the financial issues at stake were considerable (Teshuvot Hage-onim, Ket. 134, p. 292; Yad, Hil. Ishut 13.14). In another instance, both Maimonides and the earlier Alfasi recommended that a neutral person try to adjust the matter (Alfasi, Responsa, #235, p. 65a; Yad, Hil. Ishut 21.lO). Sefer Chasidimtook a different course and counseled that the young couple submit to the wishes of the parents (sec. 562ff), but the codes did not follow that path.

The medieval text encouraged children to settle near their parents, but they were not expected to make unusual sacrifices in order to accomplish that. They should be close enough to look after their needs (Sefer Chasidim, sec. 564). On the other hand, if father and son could not get along, it was better if they separated (ibid.,sec. 343).

All of the preceding material makes it quite clear that everything was done to balance the interest of the older and younger generations. Normative Judaism encouraged freedom for the younger generation. The children remained responsible for the maintenance of their parents and were to look after their physical and psychological needs, but the children were not to be subjected to every whim and desire of the older generation. Through this, the full personal development of the younger generation was constantly encouraged.

Walter Jacob

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.