Family, Parent & Child:
  Laws, Issues and Relationships
Rules, Roles and Dynamics in The Jewish Family














In January, '81, Rabbi Avraham Kaminetsky was flying back from Israel with his renowned father, Rav Yaakov, z'l. On the plane, throughout the flight, Rav Avraham exhibited repeated manifestations of practical, devoted honor to his father. He learned "daf yomi (the daily page in the standardized Talmud learning program)" with his father, at one point he took off his father's shoes and put on slippers, he brought his father water with which to wash, they conversed in noticeably dignified fashion. Rav Yaakov also had a granddaughter on the flight who came over and behaved with stunning derech eretz (manners, courteous and refined behavior).

All this while, Secretary General Meshel of the Histadrut, was sitting across the aisle and looked on in amazement. Meshel said to Rav Yaakov, speaking in Yiddish, "It is remarkable how the younger generation serves you and what they do for you!"

Rav Yaakov replied, "The greatness of the Jewish people was the standing at Mount Sinai [to receive the Torah]. My children and grandchildren know that the older generation was closer to Sinai, so the younger generation has derech eretz for the older. In the secular world, people believe in Darwin's theory which stated that people originally came from the monkey. Each generation is progressing more and more away from the monkey. Since the younger have more progress and intelligence, why have derech eretz for the older generation? With Torah Jews, the older generation is closer to Sinai and has more progress and intelligence, so the younger have derech eretz for the older" [true story as told to this author by Rabbi Avraham Kaminetsky].


Two women, old friends, met after several years. Mrs. Moskowitz had her son Akiva with her. Mrs. Bernstein hadn't seen Akiva since he was six and she was taken by what a pleasant, warm and well-mannered mentsh he turned out to be and said, "I'd give twenty years of my life to have a son like that!" Mrs. Moskowitz responded, "That's exactly how I did it. I gave twenty years of my life to have a son like that" [true story, names changed].


A woman had an elderly, infirm mother.  The mother required constant attention and the woman personally took care of her mother on a full-time basis. In order for her to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, she wanted to hire a woman to stay with her mother. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky told her, "No. The order of prayer is derabonon [from the sages] and honoring parents is de'oraisa [from the Torah]" [true story told to me by Rabbi Aaron Weitz of Echo Institute, Monsey, NY].




Hebrew has two words for the noun, "teaching." "Leemud" is a teaching that is for the sake of knowing. "Torah" is a teaching that is for the sake of doing.

The word "Torah" means instruction. It is Hashem's means for showing us what He wants us to do and what He wants life to be. Through obeying His Torah, we do what He commands us to do and we do not do that which He prohibits. Through obeying His "system" of mitzvos, laws, ethics and values; we elevate our spiritual, eternal selves; we obtain reward; and we honor Him.

But, Hashem is intangible and infinite. How can humans, limited by being physical and finite, understand and honor Him? It seems a paradox.

Further, the Torah, to be a functional "system," has to have a mechanism through which to implement its instruction in our practical world. As Pirkei Avos [chapter one] says, "Study is not the essential thing, action is."

It is through the mitzvos of honoring and revering father and mother that parents give children the opportunity to somewhat concretize in the physical world the concept of Hashem. Through the halachos of chinuch (raising and training children), children give parents the opportunity to actualize the commanded perpetuation of our people and tradition. And, parents and children together constitute the family, which is the building block of Jewish society in each community and generation. This gives a role and responsibility in Hashem's "system" to each individual parent and child as well as to the family unit.

The commandments and laws incumbent upon parents and children produce the behaviors and the atmosphere conducive to a constructive and purposeful life and the part in the divine system that each person is to fulfill, and to the role in the community that each person and family is to fulfill. These rules and roles define the goals and standards by which we know when Hashem's will is satisfied. Let us be careful to stress that it goes far beyond technical activity. The "system" requires warmth, spirit, values, priorities, fine attitude, good-heartedness and strength of character.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Torah in Parshas Vayishlach, insightfully points out on a few occasions (in the story of the reunion of Yaakov/Jacob and Esav) that a key difference between Esav (who represents Western gentile values) and Yaakov (Jacob, who represents Torah values) is that Esav represents power, militarism, materialism, politics and achievement outside the home; while Yaakov represents the compassionate husband, father, student and teacher of Torah, provider, nurturer. Work and politics, to Yaakov, are tools for human endeavors, organizations are for humane and spiritual goals. To Esav, family is in the background. To Yaakov, family is in the center, and comes first.

In Numbers, chapter 32, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, who had abundant cattle, asked Moshe for permission to stay on the other side of the Jordan River (which is flat land - ideal for cattle). They asked for permission to stay outside of the land of Israel on behalf of their 1. cattle and 2. children. The Torah tells us that Moshe's answer (after specifying that they would have to help their brethren conquer the land of Canaan whether they enter Israel or not) was that they could remain on the other side of the Jordan River on behalf of their 1. children and 2. cattle. Moshe reversed the order, teaching that children are the first priority and business is not the first priority. Family is the purpose of livelihood. Only to Esav, who characterizes the gentile in our present exile, is family incidental to work or livelihood.

The family is the fundamental element of the social order and avodas Hashem (service of G-d). To the Jew, work or business are only means of providing responsibly for the family, never a pre-empting of it, never substitute for it.

When the plague of darkness came upon Egypt, "There was light in the Jewish homes" (Exodus 10:23). Light symbolizes Torah. It was observance of Torah, even in an environment of spiritual darkness and filth in the exile of Egypt, with subjection to gentile influence, that kept the Jewish family in tact and its "spiritual health" invulnerable.

Bain Adom LaChavairo (interpersonal) laws, in general, are among the most severe in the entire Torah. How we treat and effect people is not a matter of personal discretion or preference. The Torah's rules for derech eretz, interpersonal behavior and spiritual conduct are very strict and apply at all times. And, the closer people are to you, the greater the impact of your behavior upon them; the more they are dependent on you and vulnerable to you. Accordingly, the closer one is to you; the higher the level of obligation that the Torah imposes on you.

The Torah requires never paining a widow or orphan, and G-d becomes furious at and viciously punitive towards a perpetrator [Exodus 22:21]. Rashi says this is not limited to a widow or orphan. The reference to widow or orphan is only as an example of someone who is weak. Therefore, the verse actually means one may NEVER PAIN ANYONE who is DEFENSELESS, WEAK OR VULNERABLE in any way. Rambam (Hilchos Dayos) says that this must be fulfilled by giving such weak or needy individuals "rachmanuss yesaira (active and extraordinary compassion)."

The closer someone is to you, the more their well-being and state of mind is impacted by your behavior. There is no greater closeness, and therefore no greater impact of behavior, than on one's spouse and children. Some people make the serious mistake of being angelic to outsiders while being brutal tyrants with those closest and most vulnerable and dependent. This is a serious and costly mistake.

The closer, weaker, more dependent or more vulnerable any person is, the higher and finer the Torah's standards and demands are upon you; and the more it is incumbent on you to behave with love, respect, giving of self, responsibility, patience, gentleness, self-control, appreciation, compassion, humility, sensitivity and on-target responsiveness; with this all being consistent, pleasing, providing emotional security and enabling others to trust your behavior.

That being the case, the relationships between family members are serious matters, comprehensively and strictly governed by the Torah. When considering the shortcomings and quirks of human nature and emotions, as well as the potential and power of the human personality, we discern that G-dly instruction brings to fruition the dynamics, interactions, atmosphere and relationships that constitute the Jewish family and the home of Torah values and "light," and, thereby, the honoring of Hashem - when the instruction is faithfully carried out.



When a child is born, he grows up seeing in his parents towering authority, loving nurturance, differentiation between right and wrong - all of which are metaphors to adult perceptions of Hashem. Born small, the child is dependent upon the grown-up. The child's mind is steadily increasing in understanding of an outer world.

The child is gradually trained for Jewish life, for living with other people, for increasing his capacity: to give of him/herself rather than to take, for accepting responsibility towards others rather than requiring that others accept responsibility for him/her, for discipline, for self-control and for serving Hashem.

It is incumbent on the parents to warmly and gently inculcate understanding, appropriate and socialized behavior, good hashkafos (views and values), good midos (character traits), derech eretz (civil, polite, refined and thoughtful behavior), a healthy and developed personality, mature judgement, a healthy and developed personality, individuality, self-esteem, drive to achieve one's potential, love for learning and observing Torah; as well as to provide for the physical maintenance of each child.

As the child proceeds to grow, developments occur in the responsibilities of both the parents and the children. The needs of the child become more sophisticated - intellectually and emotionally, in particular - and increasing obligations come to bear on the child, back towards the parent.

When each does his part in the Torah "system," the "whole equals more than the sum of its parts." There is growth in dignity, love, generosity, unity, peace and spiritual level. With these qualities, the family unit, interactions, dynamics and relationships become holier and holier. The Jewish family actualizes its charge to be a solid building block in the community, as well as a link in the chain of generations and Torah tradition since Mount Sinai. But, the family unit cannot be a component of the community unit unless its individual members are components of a close, peaceful, stable, functional and solid family unit, whose members all fulfill the mitzvos, laws and obligations of each to the others - in spirit as well as in practice. A unit must be composed of solid "sub-units" for it to be a solid unit.

As the family matures, roles shift with the passage of time. The children mature, marry and move out; acquiring obligations to their spouse, their children and their older parents. The family structure and relationships, as always, are dictated by - and protected against corrosion by - halacha (Torah law). The older generation becomes increasingly dependent, and obligations to provide care increasingly come upon the "sandwich generation" which is between its younger children and its older parents.



Real life is more complex than an idyllic and oversimplified picture. What do we do where problematic or contradictory forces enter into the picture? For example, while it is within the mitzva of honoring parents to feed and clothe a parent, as well as to obey the instruction of a parent (when the instruction constitutes no violation of Torah), what does the adult child of an elderly and somewhat deranged parent do with the parent who demands to be left unkempt or unfed? When this question was taken to a rabbinical authority, the rabbi said to appoint a non-family member to feed and clothe the cantankerous, stubborn old man as gently, as thoroughly and as respectfully as circumstances would permit.

Also, there are two vital issues of 1. what one does for a parent and 2. the manner in which one does it. The "classic cases" of this are brought in gemora Kidushin 31a-b. If a child feeds a gourmet meal to a parent, but does so with a negative attitude or tone (e.g. contemptuous, nasty, insulting, shrill or begrudging), there is more harm than good in the act and it is punishable by Heaven. On the other hand, if a child does something unpleasant or harsh to the parent - sincerely for the parent's good; in a gentle, loving, respectful and comforting way; in a case where this is the kindest or most protective thing that the child can do for the parent under prevailing circumstances; he is truly fulfilling the mitzva to honor the parent. The child's behavior is meritorious and rewarded by Heaven.

There are actually two separate mitzvos devolving upon children, regarding their parents: to honor and to fear. Each has its own set of halachos (laws) and the demands which these impose upon the child are heavy and non-compromisable. Correspondingly, the law prohibits parents from being harsh, cruel, unreasonable, antagonistic, provoking or otherwise making it unbearable for the child to remain in the parent's presence or to fulfill the halachos of honor and fear, or worse, to cause the child to strike or to curse the parent. This would violate the Torah commandment, "Do not place a stumbling block [Leviticus 19:14]" by provoking the child into "stumbling" through sinful violation.

These laws are the will and wisdom of our Creator Who knows the true kochos hanefesh (personality powers) of the human being. These laws, by virtue of their existence and divine origin, teach, barring extremely aberrant or abusive conditions, that we are capable of the necessary restraint, coping power, self-control, discipline, inner strength and capacity to give of self to fulfill all of them. We are not being told to shut off our feelings, but rather to muster, develop and dominate them. Even though obeying and accommodating parents can run counter to human feelings, we, by definition, can measure up to all of the halachos. If a parent is difficult to tolerate, one does not have the option to have, or at least to vent upon the parent, bad feelings, grudge, vengeance or any harsh or disrespectful response. The halacha beckons us to grow. The restraint, practical honor and beneficence to parents provides for our spiritual growth and benefit, as well as such practical benefit as non-escalation of trouble that can harm the family unit. The goal is not to control or to stifle bad feelings but is, rather, to develop the ability to not have bad feelings.



There can be extreme, exceptional cases wherein the parent is genuinely dangerous or unbearable. If the child is an adult, (s)he should (depending on the degree of abuse and harmfulness of the parent) have minimal, neutral contact in some form of danger-free or risk-free setting (e.g. only by telephone, by mail or in large-crowd family gatherings). If the parent is truly destructive, move a safe distance away. By living far enough away, you avoid any violation of obligatory behavior towards the parent(s) while protecting yourself from harm. The gemora (Kidushin 31b) tells how Rabbi Ossi's mother was unbearable, so he moved to another country and never saw her again. This way, he would simultaneously protect himself and not do any wrong in his behavior towards her.

There is no obligation for you or your property to be damaged by a parent. If a parent causes damage, like any other Jew, the parent is subject to a din Torah, conducted by qualified dayanim [G-d fearing and knowledgeable Torah judges] for damages.

If the child is still young, honoring parents does not preclude nor prohibit telling a competent adult about abuse or need for help or protection. The telling is only allowable in Torah law when it is for a "to'elless (a validating beneficial purpose)." One cannot just speak to people to gossip, be spiteful or be vengeful. The speaking must be designed to be constructive. There is no violation of honoring parents when telling a responsible and appropriate adult about a harmful parent, when that adult is capable of effectively achieving an improvement or solution (e.g. a rabbi, teacher, relative, guidance counselor, psychologist, social worker, etc.). Telling the adult must be on condition that this adult is a person who can reasonably be expected to effectively help, who is a yoray Shomayim [one who reveres Heaven] and whose methods will accord with Torah. This is considered "to'elless." There is no mitzva to be emotionally or physically maimed, threatened or endangered by a parent. Every Jew, including a parent, is obligated to obey the Torah and is not entitled to merely self-servingly take advantage of it. There is no violation of lashon hora (prohibited evil speech that maligns or harms) if the person who the child tells about parental abuse or threat can be reasonably expected to offer practical help and if that person is a yorai Shomayim who can be trusted to behave according to Torah.

In "real life," circumstances can contain complicated, conflicting or troubling elements. Each individual case must be taken as a shaalo (Jewish law question) to an orthodox, reputable and G-d fearing rabbi for Torah instruction. These are serious matters which are not for individual discretion or simplification.



The law is not enough. The Vilna Gaon defines "chesed" (lovingkindness) as that which is beyond the letter of the law. After all, the Torah presumes that we all must fulfill bottom-line law. But, for behavior to come from your genuine will and feelings - instead of mechanical "rule book" behavior that a robot could do - "you" really starts where law stops. The true goal of the law is your going beyond the letter of the law, of your own free will choice and with your full heart. The gemora says that the Holy Temple was destroyed because people only did according to what the law required for one another and no more (Bava Metzia 30b).

With people in general, and with family most particularly, a spirit of chesed, stability, security, love, respect, peace and spirituality is of highest priority in the Torah. This comes by voluntarily and cheerfully going beyond the letter of the law - to fulfill the spirit of the law.

Here is a profound insight to the adage of the sages (Vayikra Raba) that "derech eretz comes before Torah." Starting from derech eretz as a foundation that is practical, consistent and fully contributed to by all members; with Torah providing the "light" in the Jewish home; with sensitivity, dignity, steadiness and Yaakov Avinu's compassion and humanity; with Moshe Rabainu's prioritizing of the family; the Jew can produce the family unit that is a building block of our people for all generations.

Family life, when practiced from each member's heart, on a daily basis, with the spirit and substance of the "instruction" of Torah, can be one of the most constructive and fulfilling parts of life.