Jewish Parent/Child Relationships

A relationship that's commanded to be respectful.

Print this page Print this page

As with other human relationships, Jewish parents and their children (both adult and minor) are, in traditional Judaism, bound to each other by a series of commanded responsibilities and sacred practices. Most societies emphasize reverence for parents; post-biblical Judaism appears to have gone further than its contemporaries in mandating that parents provide for their children with very specific preparations for the future. Furthermore, Judaism sees parents and offspring as bound to each other not only for practical or humanistic reasons, but also as a way of honoring God.

Father and son on the beachParenting in the Torah

The Torah includes numerous mitzvot regarding parent-child interaction. Fathers must circumcise sons on their eighth day of life (Genesis 17:10-14). Parents may not sacrifice their children, neither to a foreign deity (Leviticus 20:1) nor to God. Incest is strictly forbidden (Leviticus 18:6-7). Parents are responsible for educating their children (Deuteronomy 11:19). First-born sons must be redeemed from the priesthood (Exodus 13:2,13). Insults to parents are subject to grave punishment (Leviticus 20:9).

Honoring parents (kibbud av va'em) is among the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16); the requirement to show them reverence appears in Leviticus (19:1-3). The language of these two commandments provides motivations for their observance. The wording in Exodus (nearly identical in Deuteronomy) states that one who honors parents will lengthen one's life and continue one's link to the land of Israel:

"Honor your father and your mother so that your days will be lengthened on the land Adonai your God gave to you." The motivation here is one of a promised reward.

In Leviticus, we find that reverence is part of participating in God's holy plan: "And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to all the community of the Children of Israel, and say to them--'You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. A man shall revere his mother and his father and observe my Sabbaths; I am Adonai your God.' "

These laws generated much discussion among the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. Much of their wisdom is found in the talmudic tractate Kiddushin, surrounding the following teaching: "All the mitzvot of the son [incumbent] upon the father--men are obligated and women are exempt. And all the mitzvot of the father [incumbent] upon the son--both men and women are obligated" (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7, Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a).

The ensuing discussion (continuing in the Talmud until 32a) contains definitions of these two categories, explanations of their gender distinctions (e.g.mothers cannot be obligated to do for sons mitzvot which they are not commanded to do themselves), biblical derivations, stories and role-models regarding performance of the commandments. Fathers are obligated to circumcise, redeem, teach Torah to, acquire a wife for, and teach a craft to sons.

Both sons and daughters must honor mothers and fathers by providing them with food and drink, clothing and covering them, and providing for their mobility. Children show reverence by not standing or sitting in a parent's place, contradicting his/her words, or opposing a parent in a dispute.

Spiritual Aspects of Parenthood

Along with these practical concerns, we also are provided a deeply spiritual understanding of the bond between child and parent. After connecting biblical verses pertaining to honor of parents and honor of God, the talmudic sages offer the following statement: "There are three partners in a person--the Holy One of Blessing, one's father, and one's mother. The Holy One of Blessing said [to the ones who honor their parents], 'I rest over them as if I dwelled among them and they honored me.' " Parents are seen as partners in God's creation of each human being; therefore, to honor one's parents is to honor God. Similarly, to display disregard, disrespect, or violence toward one's parents is to do so to God.

The place of parent as God's representative is further emphasized through the mitzvah to teach one's children Torah--God's word. Adoptive, step-, and foster parents are included in this sacred relationship--"He who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth" (Shemot Rabbah 46:5 and elsewhere)—although the mutual legal obligations are not, strictly speaking, identical. Parents offering the traditional Friday night blessing to their children do so as God's emissaries.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.