QUESTION: Can the community force children to support their
parents? Can the community refuse to support them on the basis of the children's obligation? (Rabbi R. Kahn, Houston, TX)
ANSWER: The basis for the support of parents by
their children is the fifth commandment: "Honor your father and your mother..." (Ex. 20, 12). This has been taken as one of the main sources for most aspects of the child-parent relationship. The question of financial support of parents by their children led to a division of opinion between the scholars of Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud. The authorities of the Palestinian Talmud felt that children had to support their parents, and of course, were also obligated to honor them through their personal service and devotion. This could be compelled by the community (J. Kid. 71b). The Babylonian authorities, in one long discussion, felt that although honor and devotion was due to the parents from their children; financial support was debatable. Arguments were presented on both sides, but ultimately the decision freed a son from any obligation to support his parents (Kid. 30a). Emphasis was placed upon personal service rather than on financial obligation. That service was to be rendered by a son, even if it led to a considerable financial loss. Such service could be forced by the community. Other discussions indicate that sons were forced to support their parents financially (Hul. 11()b; Ket. 49b, 50a). There are also numerous stories in the Midrash which emphasize this. This was the position ultimately taken by tradition.
The debate among the later authorities does not
deal with the need to support parents, which is taken for granted, but whether this could be compelled. The answer in most instances turned out to be positive, as this is a charitable duty and the community may compel charitable contributions. On the other hand, scholars felt uneasy about compelling devotion and respect.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg indicated that
charity must begin with close relatives; parents are first, then brothers and sisters; other relatives follow, and the total stranger comes last (Responsa, Vol. II, p. 118 f; Seder Elijahu Chap. 27, p. 135). It was normal in medieval Europe to support family members from the tithe allocated to the poor (Meir of Rothenburg, Responsa #75, p. 10b, ed. Bloch; Isaac of Vienna, Or Zaruda, Tzedaqa, Sec. 26). The community could go to considerable length to force a son in this direction. Solomon ben Aderet, for example, suggested that the synagogue be closed to a son and he be publicly shamed until he supported his father, yet he should not be placed under a ban (Responsa, Vol. 4, #56). In this case there was some doubt about the economic deprivation of the father. Somewhat similarly, David ben Zimiri felt that children could be compelled to support their parents in a manner appropriate to the financial status of the children (Responsa Vol. 2, p. 664). A decision akin to this was rendered much later by Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah 229). It further indicated that anything which the son possessed must be placed at the disposal of the parents.
There are, of course,
many other responsa which deal with specialized problems in which there is controversy between parents and children over other matters which cloud the nature of these obligations. We may, therefore, conclude that the community may go to considerable length to force children to support their parents. The traditional authorities, naturally, mentioned only the responsibility of sons; we would broaden that to include all children. If the community does not succeed in obtaining such support as the enforcing powers of the modern community are limited, then the community itself is obligated to support the parents.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.