The third verse of Parashat K'doshim says, "Ish imo v'aviv tira'u" (One should revere his mother and father) (Lev. 19:3). The same mandate appears twice as the fifth commandment, "Kabed et avikha v'et imekha" (Honor your father and your mother) (Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Honoring parents was considered a virtue in the Roman world. Parents took care of their children, and children were expected to return the favor when parents grew old. But Rome did not create a legal obligation to care for parents, and a child who refused to do so could not be compelled by the courts.
Unlike the Romans, the rabbis made this rule legally enforceable. The obligation to honor parents appears in the Mishnah in the first chapter of Kiddushin (1:7), regarding marriage law. This may seem like a strange location. When discussing women's exemption from and obligation to mitzvot, the rabbis single out honoring parents for special mention. They say that sons and also daughters are obligated to perform this mitzvah. Why did they mention it separately, given that they subsume almost all other mitzvot under general rules? The answer is that when a woman marries and moves in with her husband's family, she needs to know that her obligations to the parents she left behind do not cease. In addition, the Mishnah implies that she acquires new obligations to her husband's parents. It is she who will be burdened with the responsibility of caring for them. This becomes clear when the Mishnah says elsewhere that a husband may stipulate that his ex-wife continue to care for his parents for a period of time, even after the divorce (Mishnah Gittin 7:6). Surprisingly, both Talmuds later reduce a woman's obligation to her own parents. They say that for so long as she is married, she is exempt from honoring them. It seems that caring for her husband trumps caring for her parents. We thus see that honoring parents has a direct connection to marital law and to women.
What is it that women (and men) are obligated to do for parents? The rabbis say that reverence involves not sitting in a parent's place, contradicting a parent, or arguing a parent down. Honor is defined as offering food and drink to one's parents, helping them get dressed, and helping them to go out and in (Bavli, Kiddushin 31b). The many anecdotes that the Talmud brings to illustrate honor to parents all feature old and sometimes even demented parents. The conclusion is that the Torah, according to the rabbis, is not telling parents how to keep rebellious kids in line—which is what many parents erroneously think the verse is saying—but rather telling adults in the prime of life how to deal with their aging parents.
The Torah is saying that children must take care of aging parents day by day, meal by meal. This is surely a taxing demand. Most parents today would not dream of asking their children to look after them, and most children today could not imagine doing so. But that is how the rabbis understand the Torah. And since they make no distinction between good and abusive parents, the rabbis imply that the same rules hold for all parents.
The very next question is: who pays the bills? Daughters and daughters-in-law are expected to engage in the day-to-day caregiving. But who provides the food and clothing? The Talmud Bavli says the father must spend his own funds on his, and his wife's, care (Bavli, Kiddushin 32a), but the Talmud Yerushalmi places the financial burden on the son (Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 1:7, 61b-c). It is likely that this difference results from a difference in economic circumstances. Israel was a poor country in the talmudic period and it was assumed that parents would not have put aside money to care for themselves later in life. Babylonia was richer. If a father had resources, he was expected to exhaust them before turning to his son. Later commentators combine the two views by saying the father must first expend his own money. When it is used up, the son is required to take over. Both Talmuds report that rabbinic courts forced children to support parents, either by publicly shaming sons who resisted doing so or by extracting funds from them (Bavli, Ketubot 49b; Yerushalmi, above). This made good sense, for if the child did not support parents, the community would have to.
Honoring parents also has an extremely challenging passive aspect. When R. Tarfon came to the study house and boasted to his colleagues that he fulfilled the mitzvah of honoring parents in an exemplary fashion-because he served as his old mother's footstool, crouching down for her to step up on him when she climbed into and out of bed-the rabbis shot right back at him: has it ever been the case that your mother threw a purse full of gold coins into the ocean, in your presence, and you did not shame her? If you have not been tested in this way, you have not come close to fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring parents (Bavli, Kiddushin 31b). In other words, as hard as it may be to feed and attend regularly to the needs of parents, it is even harder to hold one's tongue when dealing with a parent who is "slipping away." Not to dishonor parents turns out to be the deeper meaning of the requirement to honor them.
So the reason the Torah states three times over that children should honor and revere parents is that it is all too easy to gloss over these words and tell ourselves that of course we will honor and revere our parents. We need to be reminded often that the Torah's call to honor your father and mother is a charge to adult children to care for parents who are failing physically and mentally. We need to hear from the rabbis that honoring parents is the absolute hardest of the hard mitzvot, hamurah she-ba-hamurot. Knowing how the rabbis view this mitzvah will spur us on when faced with the frustrations of dealing with difficult parents.
The name of this week's parashah is Kedoshim tih'yu, "Live holy lives." The Torah has a firm grasp of what creates a holy society. One indispensable element is the devoted care of older people, one's parents in particular.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.