“The Torah’s Radical Approach to Parenting
(Revised and updated from Va’etchanan 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This past Saturday evening (August 10th) and Sunday (August 11th) we observed Tish’ah B’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. How fortuitous it is then, that in this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter a basic law of the Torah that, if properly observed, may actually result in the rebuilding of the Temple.

In parashat Va’etchanan, the Decalogue, the so-called “Ten Commandments,” are recorded in the Torah for a second time. The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus 20, and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5.

The name, “Ten Commandments,” is a well-known misnomer, which is why traditional Jews refer to these verses as עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת “Aseret Ha’dibrot” or the Decalogue. Decalogue, which means “ten words” or “ten statements,” is more correct than “commandments,” since not all of the ten “statements” are actual “commandments.” In fact, according to some commentators, there may even be many more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments.

The fifth commandment, as it appears in Deuteronomy 5:16 reads: כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ , Honor thy father and thy mother, that your days may be lengthened. The fifth commandment is often referred to as the “swing commandment,” since it is the statement which relates both to the first set of five statements and the second set of five statements. The first five “commandments,” concern human relationships with G-d, while the second five “commandments” concern human relationships with their fellow human beings. However, the fifth commandment does not really fit with the first four commandments, since it deals with the inter-human relationship of parents and children. The rabbis, however, say that since parents are “Loco Deus”–G-d’s representatives in this world, it is entirely appropriate for the fifth commandment to bind or meld the first set of five statements with the second five, hence the appellation, “swing commandment.”

In Leviticus 19:3, we find another verse describing child-parent relationships: אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ , every person should fear his mother and his father. The Torah there introduces the concept of יִרְאָה“Yir’ah,” generally translated as “fear.” The rabbis explain that fear in this context does not really mean to be afraid in the conventional sense, but rather to express awe or reverence. Children are expected to be in awe of their parents and revere them, meaning that they should never do anything that will hurt them. This is what is meant by the Talmudic expression, יִרְאָה מִתּוֹך אַהֲבָה , reverence resulting from great love–not fear of punishment, but rather great love that results in a reluctance to do anything that might hurt a parent’s feelings.

Code of Jewish Law, in Yoreh De’ah 250, deals extensively with the laws of both honoring and fearing parents. “Honor” is interpreted to be the positive actions that children must perform on behalf of their parents, while “Yir’ah,” reverence, are negative behaviors to avoid.

According to Jewish law, every child has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport one’s parents. If parents have their own money, then children may use their parents’ funds to ensure that these services are properly provided. If the parents are impoverished, and the children have the wherewithal, the children are expected to support their parents from their own resources. If both the children and the parents are impoverished, then children are not required to collect for their parents, but should rather take care of their own needs first.

“Yir’ah,” reverence, according to Jewish law, means that a child must show utmost respect. Thus, children are not permitted to stand in the place where parents stand during prayer, or sit in the seat that is usually occupied by a parent. Children are prohibited from calling parents by their first names. They are not permitted to disagree with their parent’s words, or even say, “It appears to me that what you are saying leads to the following conclusion.”

The Code of Jewish Law offers a hypothetical Talmudic example, expressing the extent of a child’s obligation of “Yir’ah,” fear. Even if a child were a famous rabbi, sitting in his finest clothes, delivering a Torah lecture to a huge congregation, and his mother and father come, rip his garments, hit him on his head and spit in his face, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents, but must remain silent, because that is what the Al-mighty, King of Kings, has commanded. Another version has the parents taking the child’s life savings and throwing the savings into the sea. Once again, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents. However, the child does have the right to sue them for the losses.

Interestingly, the amount of money expended in service of a parent is often not the decisive factor in determining whether one has properly honored one’s parents. Often, “attitude” is the determining factor! Even if a child finds a menial job for one’s poor parent, but does it with the clear intent of benefitting the parent, then the act is considered favorable. However, if a child feeds one’s parents the finest foods every single day, but does it begrudgingly, it is not considered meritorious, and may even be deserving of punishment.

What emerges from this brief survey of the laws of honoring parents, is that according to the Jewish understanding, parents are G-d’s mortal representatives on earth, period! Parents have all the rights, while children seem to have no rights. Thus, there are very few instances cited from the Talmud, or in the Code of Jewish Law, which permit a child to disagree with a parent–one may choose a mate to marry or go to study in a particular yeshiva in a city, even over one’s parents’ objections. However, in almost all other instances, it seems as if the child has no rights, while parents have absolute authority.

This radical formula for parenting espoused by Judaism requires careful review and analysis. Apparently, the Torah wants to, first and foremost, set down the law, a priori, that father and mother, who biologically bore the child, deserve ultimate respect, simply because parents have “created” their children’s lives. They may be miscreants or scoundrels, but they are still entitled to the respect and honor of their children.

Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that in circumstances where parents are crazed and the child cannot possibly be respectful, the child may move away, making certain that the parents are cared for properly by hired help. However, under normal circumstances, since parents represent G-d in this world, children owe their parents total and unconditional allegiance and respect.

Sounds pretty harsh and unrealistic!

Now here comes the clincher!

While the Code of Jewish Law and the Talmud unequivocally record that parents have all the rights, the Code of Jewish Law clearly and strongly suggests that parents should not be too onerous or overly didactic in exercising those rights. In fact, there is a fundamental principle of Jewish Law that totally mitigates unilateral parental authority: parents who renounce respect due them, may do so! This means that although the positive obligations may never be canceled: feeding, clothing, sheltering, and transporting–children may indeed call their parents by their first names if the parent explicitly allows it. A child may sit in a parent’s place or stand in the parent’s place of prayer, and a child may even disagree with a parent, if the parent is so disposed.

We see here that Judaism attempts to create a very delicate balance. Initially, every child must know and learn, that without doubt, parents are the ultimate authority, and total respect is due to parents. Parents are to lay down the law, set up firm parameters, and let children know precisely the rules of the game. However, once a sense of respect and reverence is established, a parent may, in fact should, be lenient. Of course, the cards are always in the hands of the parents, and if things get out of hand, they may once again choose to enforce the stricter rules.

These radical regulations of parenting, that are set down in our Talmud and in our Code of Jewish Law, are based on the insights of our Torah. While they’re ancient, they are extremely insightful–and they work!

May we all merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our days, soon in our lifetime!

May you be blessed.

Postscript: It must be noted that the Code of Jewish Law strongly condemns any form of physical or emotional abuse. Hitting a child, while permitted in limited instances, is considered extremely counterproductive.

The Shabbat after Tisha b’av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana.“Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.
Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 15th and 16th, 2019. Happy Tu b’Av (for more information, please click here)