Parshat Yitro – Honoring parents: Great expectations, practical limitations
There’s a well-known question: “What are the limits of honoring parents?” The answer is just as famous, the story of Dama ben Netina who lost a profitable business opportunity because he would not wake his father. But what are the Torah’s actual expectations regarding honoring parents? Are children meant to spend their lives serving their parents? Or does the Torah also want the children to be independent and lead their own lives? Let’s attempt to answer this question by following the Torah’s instructions and the rabbinic interpretations on the matter.
There are two Torah commandments that dictate the proper way to act toward our parents: the mitzvah of kibbud horim – “Honor your father and mother,” and the mitzvah of yirat horim (fear/awe/reverence) – “A person must revere his mother and father.” Chazal explained that these commandments are fulfilled through practical applications. Kibbud horim is interpreted as positive action that includes taking care of the parents’ physical needs – food, drink, clothing, helping them get around in and out of the home. Conversely, yirat horim is interpreted as showing reverence for parents by refraining from actions – not sitting in the parent’s chair, not sitting when they enter a room, not contradicting them (or even supporting what they say in a way that makes it sound like the child can “decide” if the parent is correct).
The importance of kibbud horim
These instructions can be seen as two aspects of kibbud horim – a positive commandment and a negative commandment, physical care and showing honor. Yet these instructions also relate to different stages of life. When the children are young and the parents are at peak strength and still taking care of them, it’s important that the children learn how to show respect for authority – this is expressed through the demand to revere their parents. As the children grow and the parents age, the child’s obligation to care for their parents’ physical needs and be there when required becomes more relevant.
Our sages emphasized the value of kibbud horim, teaching that the Torah compares honoring our parents to honoring our Creator. A person who learns to honor the people who brought them into the world and show them gratitude, will know how to serve the Holy One, blessed be He, making space for God in this world.
At the same time, the comparison to the Holy One creates high expectations that may be almost impossible to deliver. The sages spoke so highly about the importance of kibbud and yirat horim that Rabbi Yochanan said it’s better to be born an orphan, and avoid the intense demands (and almost inevitable failure). Therefore, it was necessary to create balance and assess when there is an obligation to listen to parents and when it is not obligatory.
Limitations of kibbud horim
Alongside the sweeping demands, there are also several boundaries to the obligations of kibbud horim. The first boundary is financial. Are children obligated to provide for their parents’ needs with their own money (as one would have thought) or is that care accomplished through physical assistance, without financial expenditure? The sages determined that children are obligated to physically care for their parents, but they are not responsible for any financial burden incurred. Nevertheless, if the parents are poor and they can’t support themselves financially, their children have a greater obligation to give them charity than to other people. While Dama ben Netina incurred a great financial loss to ensure his father’s sleep went undisturbed, it’s unclear that he was obligated to cover it out of his own pocket.
What about obeying parents? When a mother tells her child to wear a sweater because she’s cold, or wants her child to study economics instead of art to ensure the child’s financial stability, does the child have to listen to the parent?
The matter is disputed. Some Rishonim limited the child’s obligation to obey their parent to matters that specifically relate to the parents’ physical needs (along with showing the proper reverence, as we saw). Others only limited the obligation in specific circumstances – for example if the parent tells their son to marry an inappropriate woman, or asks them to commit a transgression, or to change where they learn. But even if the matter is not related to the parent’s needs, if obeying the parent does not cause the child any great pain or difficulty they must do so. Others interpreted the commandment not to contradict one’s parents as an obligation to obey them. Although, they also agree that this does not apply in cases when the child would suffer or incur great loss. Acharonim added that while there is an obligation to obey one’s parents, the parents should try to avoid using this power.
Continuing this line of thought, since kibbud and yirat horim is important for children on both a practical level, as it benefits the parents, and on an educational level, as it can improve the child’s service of God, it seems that the parents should do their part to encourage and aid their children’s successful fulfillment of this mitzvah. It may be worthwhile for parents to remember the lessons of their own childhood, and that, ultimately, they too are here to serve – not supplant – God.
 TB Kiddushin 31a
Shemot 20:12, Vayikra 19:3
TB Kiddushin 31b
 I learned this idea from Rav Yaakov Medan.
 TB Kiddushin 31b
 TB Kiddushin 31a
 Shulchan Aruch OC 240:5
 According to Rema, ibid. If someone had the means to do so they should support their parents without using tzedaka funds.
 For example, Ramban on TB Yevamot 6b
 Respectively: Responsa Maharik Shoresh 166, 3; TB Bava Metzia 32a, Responsa Rosh 15:5; Shulchan Aruch, YD 140:25
 Sefer HaMakneh, Kiddushin 31b
Chazon Ish, YD 149:8