Parashat Va'et'hanan

Whom Should You Honor?

Although relationships between parents and children are complex, our honor for our parents should remain unwavering.

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In Exodus [20:12] the command is to honor (kabeid) our parents…. In Deuteronomy [5:16] we are told also that things will go well with us for fulfilling this obligation…. More compelling, however, is the interpretation found in Gersonides' medieval Torah commentary. He argues that it is not a reward but rather a natural result. Respect for parents will ensure that succeeding generations will accept the teachings of their elders. The pattern repeats generation after generation, and we [will] live a long life in the values that are perpetuated. (Rachel Mikva, Broken Tablets, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1999, p. 63)

Honoring one's parents is directed to the concern for the physical needs. The Talmud teaches, "Honoring one's parents is observed by helping them to eat and drink, clothing and covering them, and helping them to go in and out" (Kiddushin 31b). Feeling respectful or feeling honor is not central to the Talmud. Rather, acting in a way that makes the parent feel that she or he is a significant and special person to the child is what Jewish law demands. (Michael Chernick, "Who Pays? The Talmudic Approach to Filial Responsibility" in The Journal of Aging and Judaism, Spring/Summer 1987, pp. 109–117)

All fathers fail, of course. All of us see in our children's disdain the judgment of heaven. But we do not wholly fail. We mediate the divine love in which we all live and move and have our being. Biology (or its equivalent in the case of adoption) will win out. Nature and nurture always prevail. Our children replicate as they supersede our selves. Most important in my view is the task of commanded honor. Our inevitable ambivalence can only be resolved in action. We are commanded, whatever our mixture of love and hate, of regret and gratitude, to do honor. Doing changes everything. (Arnold Jacob Wolf, "Ten More Words" in Broken Tablets by Rachel Mikva, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 1999, p. 134)

The fifth commandment forms a transition from the first to the second group of declarations because it incorporates both the religious and the social dimensions. Honoring parents is a way of honoring God, the ultimate source of all life and care. (Etz Hayim, The Jewish Publication Society, p. 446)

Your Guide

Does the linking of the commandments from each of the tablets provide you with further insights into their meaning?

Do you agree with Gersonides' teaching about respect?

Is Chernick correct in stating that the commandment to honor one's parents is about caring for their physical needs? Are there other aspects to honoring one's parents?

According to Rabbi Wolf, how does the doing of the commandment to honor one's parents change everything?

D'var Torah

Honoring our parents is first among our duties toward other human beings, just as it is one of the first laws of holiness in Leviticus 19:3. However, in that passage the order of parents is reversed--with "mother" coming before "father"--and a different verb is used to describe the commanded action--"revere" or "respect" rather than "honor."

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Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael

Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, California. Previously, he was the first Director of the Department of Adult Jewish Growth at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1996 to 2003.