Family, Parent & Child:
  Laws, Issues and Relationships
Responding to Family Trouble With Halacha and Healthy Priorities














In 1998, there was a painful, heart-tugging story of a 15 year old girl who was neglected so much that she was ready to kill herself by taking poison pills.

Her mother was a self-proclaimed baalas-chesed, a "kindness factory" who spent her days doing for others outside of the family, coming home late every evening. Responsibility for the family fell on the 15 year old. After school, she would cook and feed a crew of little siblings, help them with their homework, bathe them and put them to sleep by about 9 p.m. The 15 year old would first then start her own homework. She was so stressed and fatigued that she would fall asleep in school. When criticized for sleeping during class, she told her principal that her mother was out doing chesed [kindness] for others all day, neglecting the family and dumping motherly responsibilities on her. Instead of obtaining needed help or support which she was longing and desperate for, the principal belittled and attacked her for not appreciating what a tzadekess [angel/saint] her mother is.

The last straw came for her when she found out that her father, also lacking time and attention from his "saintly" and-too-busy-for-the-family wife, got himself a girlfriend with whom he obtained companionship and other things not fit for a Torah Jew to write in public about. This "last straw" trauma broke the 15 year old to the point at which the relief promised by death seemed a more inviting option than life in this family. Baruch Hashem the label of the poison warned that one taking the pills could become nauseous. Since the girl had a severe aversion to nausea, she called the suicide off. But her deep and long-term psychological wound and trauma was unresolved.



This tragic story shows how ostensibly frum [seemingly religious] people can live a life AGAINST halacha, to the detriment of all concerned. If a person picks and chooses, he has no involvement in the Torah of Hashem. By deciding which parts of halacha to keep or violate, (s)he makes him/herself a god, a giver of one's own Torah, and, as such, this phoney person serves avoda zara [idolatry] - with him/herself the idol - which, in Torah law, one must die rather than do!

THE CHAZONE ISH WROTE THAT THE FIRST TEST OF WHETHER A JEW IS TRULY FRUM [observant] IS WHETHER HE KEEPS THE ENTIRE BODY OF HALACHA. Since many social problems would be addressed if Jews were committed to ALL halacha (including those less convenient to keep such as inter-personal relationships, monetary honesty and talking in shul), I will address the need for sound priorities and a sampling of the segment of halachos about priorities, since insane priorities are at the root of the above tragic story - and in some way or other at the root of many domestic trouble cases. Perhaps with objective Torah data, further human damage may be averted. When you have practical questions, take them case by case to a rov. I will also address some of the psychological issues that the mother and the callous schoolmaster displayed, and which pertain to mental health in family relationships and conduct.



Unfortunately, with the burgeoning of the contemporary "relationship crisis;" among singles, couples and families; more and more marriages seem headed towards sub-human, rather than the above-human, as expected of people of the G-d-given Torah.

I've seen people who would be punitively abusive or neglectful towards a spouse and/or children, but would be philanthropical to the outside world, do enormous favors for the approval of strangers or for political or business advantage. It is perverse and destructive.

Throughout Torah law you find sets of priorities. For example:

* When two people come to you for a kindness and you can only do one,

* When two people come to you for charity and you can only afford to give to one,

* Yibum (the mitzva to marry a deceased relative's widow), when there are more than one "eligible" surviving relatives (i.e. who should be more obligated to marry the widow?) or

* Inheritance law (in what order do relatives have priority to receive assets).

One basic rule of thumb in determining priority levels generally is: the closer a person is, the higher the priority. There are some exceptions, such as: a starving and destitute stranger gets food money before your rich cousin gets a business-improvement loan with the same money.

A second rule of thumb is: the more something means to the other person, the greater the obligation can be to do for the person. For example, if a person is dependent, needy, in trouble, hurting, vulnerable, weak or has declined from a higher station in life to a lower station; these can be halachic reasons for treating a person as a high priority for kindness or charity.

A third rule of thumb is that kindness must be consistent with honest good. Indulgence is not necessarily good. "Never let KINDNESS AND TRUTH abandon you (Proverbs 3:3)." Sometimes something truly good may be painful. Sometimes something that seems pleasant is not objective or long-run good. Sometimes doing good thing A creates bad thing B. Since the gemora [Suka 30b] says that there is no mitzva if it comes through a sin, bad for the sake of good is not meritorious - the whole thing remains a sin.

A fourth rule of thumb is that different issues have different levels of weight in Jewish law. Sometimes 1. individual conditions and/or 2. the combination of complex issues in any specific question affects what constitutes a priority in a given case. Therefore, you very often probably cannot make decisions about priorities without knowing the entire gamut of Jewish law. Therefore, take all practical questions to an orthodox rabbi who is a high-level authority in Torah law; who is known, accepted and respected by the entire Torah-observant community and who is known to be experienced and successful in the subject at issue.

These same rules of weight or priority apply in family: 1. the closer any person is to you, 2. the more a thing means to (or impacts upon) a person, 3. the more true long-run good to be produced and 4. when your action is clarified and formulated by da'as Torah, the higher the priority.


The esteemed sixteenth century mystic, Rabbi Chayim Veetal, writes kabalisticly on family priorities. "The characteristics of a person are measured exclusively by his relationship to his spouse. This means that one may engage in kindness to the general population: loans, gifts, caring for the sick, comforting mourners, giving joy to newlyweds, and more. Certainly the person will be happily rewarded at the time of his accounting [after death], for he has many merits for his acts of goodness. However, know and believe that Heaven investigates how he behaves with his spouse. If he also bestowed kindness upon one's spouse all of his life, it is happy and good for him. However, IF THE PERSON IS CRUEL, NEGLECTFUL, ANGRY, STRICT, MERCILESS, UNKIND OR IRRESPONSIBLE IN HIS HOUSE, THIS OUTWEIGHS ALL THE KINDNESSES THAT HE DID FOR THOSE OUTSIDE OF HIS FAMILY, IN HIS HEAVENLY JUDGEMENT."

Chazal say, in a variety of contexts, that a man must supply his wife's and children's needs; the mother is responsible for the home; that both spouses must honor and stay peaceful with the other; and that the mitzva for a child to fear a mother comes first in the Torah [Leviticus 19:3] because it is presumed a mother is sweeter and warmer to the child (giving less cause to a child to fear a mother than a father). There is no question that a spouse must literally treat the other spouse and each of their children like each is the single most important person in the entire universe CONSISTENTLY. Your family's approval means more than the approval of your manager at work, more than your biggest customer, more than the political hack who can get you elected or can obtain funding or a favor for your dream project, more than your neighborhood, more than the institution that will make you the guest of honor at its big dinner for being a living doll. No one is born to be anyone else's dish-rag or victim. A SPOUSE AND CHILDREN BRING LIFE'S PRIME OBLIGATION FOR A HUSBAND AND A WIFE TO DO KINDNESS AND CHARITY.



Major halachic works; such as Shulchan Aruch, [the Chafetz Chayim's] Ahavas Chesed, Rambam and Chasam Sofer, etc.; codify Kedimos (priority levels) in halacha and I will give some representative examples to dispel any notion that the Torah wants one to be a tzadik in the street and a cruel, impenetrable, negligent and blindly callous lunatic in the home. This will convey how much one needs to consult a rov for guidance.

A poor person, or a rich person who is on the verge of collapse, takes precedence over a wealthy person. We see from this halacha that there is a halachic concept of "prevention" so if your neglect of family can cause now-healthy children to be psychologically destroyed (or already-harmed children to become worse), it is an avaira [sin]. A poor person who needs food comes before a poor person who needs clothes. We see from this: the more basic the need, the higher on the priority scale. In our present context: THERE IS NO MORE BASIC NEED AND PRIORITY THAN CARING FOR YOUR EMOTIONALLY, PHYSICALLY, MENTALLY AND SPRITUALLY DEPENDENT CHILDREN!

A relative comes before a neighbor, and a neighbor before the poor people of your city, who are before poor people of another city. One's children come before one's siblings. A Kohain comes before a Levi who comes before a Yisroel who comes before a momzer [one born illegitimately from a coupling prohibited by the Torah]. The more one knows Torah, the higher the priority, so a momzer Talmid Chachom (Torah scholar) comes before an "am ha'aretz (ignoramus)" Kohain Gadol. The wife of a Talmid Chachom is counted equal to her husband. However, a relative (depending how close) generally comes before a Talmid Chachom, except one's rav muvhok (prime Torah teacher), and a poor person comes before any talmid chachom who is not poor.

An orphan girl comes before an orphan boy but a male relative comes before a female non-relative. Orphans and widows must be treated with extraordinary compassion. This includes orphans and widows who have wealth or high rank. This also includes any non-orphans and non-widows whose spirits are down, who are suffering or who are weak or needy in any way.

Danger to life, limb or health comes before any financial help. The more respectable a person is, the more it is a mitzva to give kindness or charity to him. If two people are equal (e.g. financially or how distant they are as relatives) and you hate one and love the other, you help the one you hate to break your yaitzer hora (evil inclination). A close relative comes before a non-relative who you hate, but if the relative is not quite close you must ask a shaalah. You only favor one you hate in order to break the evil trait of hate. Do not favor someone you hate when the hate is for his being an intentional "rasha (one proven to be evil in the eyes of Torah)."

If you cannot sustain yourself when you sustain another, your life comes first. Until you take care of higher priorities, there is no mitzva to give to lower priorities. Someone who comes to you now has priority over a possibility that you may perhaps need to give to a higher priority person in the future, because the need is present and definite. However, if someone comes to you now for chesed or tzadaka and you know clearly that someone on a higher priority level will be coming to you, and you are not able to give to both, you withhold from the lower priority person now to be able to give to the higher priority person later.

There are many more principles of priority in halacha and there can be many factors that can apply in any given case. Please bring specific questions to a competent and G-d-fearing rov.



There are certain criteria by which psychology judges mental health. For example, signs of good psychological health include 1. adaptability, 2. living in the present, 3. the capacity to be affected by input from outside of one's own self and own mind (e.g. other people, rules or principles, realistic response to circumstances, etc.) and 4. the ability to grow.

Obviously, a person 1. who is rigid, 2. who lives in the past or future (e.g. present-day neurotic associations stemming from childhood dysfunction, or overpowering anxieties about what might happen in the future), 3. who is closed to, or is unaffected by, input from another person (the other's needs, feelings, opinions, harm, requests, vulnerability, etc.) or is callously indifferent about another person, or who fails to deal with circumstances or principles as they really are, or 4. who refuses to grow as a human being... does not show signs of good psychological health.

These provide "tools" or "data" that help to define what the situation is. All of these unhealthy signs indicate that there is serious work to be done. When a person has psychological difficulties which stem from abuse, emotional trauma, dysfunction, a neurotic parental role model, etc., the person's relating patterns are essentially 1. continuations of their "psychological training," 2. defenses against the damage, fright or suffering they went through in the past and/or 3. defenses against what they presently associate with it. This makes their relating very complicated because present behavior is very enmeshed with nasty, unhealthy and complex origins in the past. Since such people tend to be somewhat blind to the meaning or impact of their behavior, and are generally judgmental and defensive, it is difficult to get them clear or anchored in what the issues are, or what they have to do, to not do and/or to change. They always have an explanation. What is tragic, of course, is that the person, regardless of denial, is causing "human damage" by abuse or emotional harm to family members. DAMAGE WITH AN EXPLANATION IS STILL DAMAGE! Their refusal to recognize the reality outside of the "private reality in their mind" does not help those whom they are damaging. It is critical that they come to deal responsibly to repair their personality, behavior and perceptions.

If the person is "reachable" we can work to increase awareness of the hurtful, destabilizing and disruptive impact of behavior on others, to accept his or her responsibility to shield spouse and children from harm and to gradually bestow good on other family members while working out the inner turmoil, conflict, pain, anxieties, tension, frustrations, damage and confusion.

If the person is not reachable, the road is more difficult and slow. We would have to strategically work around the resistant individual by changing other people or elements in the scenario; for example, build self-esteem, teach "emotional self-defense," increase the sense of value in the marriage or family (to maneuver the offender to having more fear of losing the marriage or family unit, and to having more motivation to change) or make the offender's behavior be ineffective or backfire. Then, we can, hopefully, bring the partner into the counseling process. This, of course, does not apply if someone is "closed tight" or dangerous. It's always a case-by-case question.

Sometimes psychological or emotional problems stem from early in life. Sometimes the problems originate in the marriage or are brought to the surface in the marriage. To the extent that the marriage originates or triggers psychological or emotional difficulties, the marriage itself must provide repair (deeper or earlier problems have to be dealt with using different therapeutic processes). As Rambam writes, to fix a bad extreme you must go to the other (good) extreme. The couple must be supportive, nurturing, sensitive and understanding; to create together an environment of emotional comfort, stability, responsiveness, fulfillment, cooperation and security. This is crucial to gradually making the family more wholesome, calm, trusting, healthy and functional.



In the case of this tragic 15 year old near-suicide, her parents have proven to be highly dysfunctional and unreliable. Her schoolmaster does not seem to be operating on all burners either, or has a serious lacking in hashkofa and halacha, and may be sufficiently incompetent to be guilty in halacha of theft for paychecks received.

Besides the damage done to the oldest daughter, I would be concerned that all children in the family be checked out for psychological impact or damage. Since we are talking priorities, the highest one in this situation would be to get those children into a normal and nurturing setting; shielded from what already is too much evil, sickness and harm in these young and vulnerable lives.

The 15 year old should be made aware that she is not to blame and should be taken out of that destructive environment. She cannot repair her parents. That is up to them. It must be impressed on them that their behavior does not work and cannot be accepted. The mother appears to be very confused or disturbed, which does not offer high hopes for short-run resolution. She has to make her husband and children the primary (or only) focus in her drive for "tzidkuss [saintliness]," "till further notice." For most practical purposes, there is no mother in this family at present. This will continue to be the case until her husband and children have all of the kindness, charity, love, compassion, time and attention that they need from her. If, due to her "psychological baggage," she cannot be prevailed upon to change, she is probably a sick woman whose activities are not le'shaim Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven) but are rather for a deep need stemming from childhood (which the mother may not even have conscious awareness of without deep and sustained therapeutic counseling) for approval, love and validation. Since the mother has no insecurity about her children's love, regard or need for her; their claims upon her devotion are 1. meaningless in her disturbed mind, and 2. impotent in the practical world. Although no one can make a fair or definitive judgement without knowing the woman in great depth, we can see that her actions make her somewhat of a "rodaif [assailant]" and the damaging affects of her behavior do have to be guarded against.

If the father can do tshuva shlaima (complete and permanent repentance) for his personal weakness and despicable lapse in judgement and behavior; FOR THE SAKE OF THE FAMILY; and can assume a more DOMINANT, MATURE, DEFINING, WHOLESOME AND TRUSTWORTHY ROLE IN HEADING AND DIRECTING THE FAMILY; the family (at least father and children) might be salvageable. If not, then the children have, for all intents and purposes, neither father nor mother, Rachmana Litzlon [G-d save them]. Perhaps concerned and responsible relatives or others might take the 15 year old and the younger siblings in, at least sometimes. They should be people who are in the vicinity, are loving and who will enable the children to have as normal and unchanged a life as circumstances can allow.

By no definition is paining a Jew to the edge of suicide a frum or justifiable thing to do. An aberration cannot be whitewashed by putting payos on it. Anything which is not le'shaim Shomayim will, in the end, not succeed and not endure. King Solomon wrote (Proverbs 3:17) that the Torah's "ways are pleasant and all of its paths are peace."