Parashat Yitro: Kibbud Av ve-Eim (Honoring Parents)
The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #17: Kibbud Av Va-eim
By Rav Binyamin Tabory
There are two mitzvot asei pertaining to children's relationship with their parents. The Torah commanded us to honor one's father and mother (Shemot 20:12) as well as to treat them with reverence (Vayikra 19:3). The gemara (Ketuvot 103a) deduces from the extra word "et" which appears in the command to honor parents before both "your father" and "your mother" ("et avikha ve-et imekha"), that one is obligated to honor even his father's wife and his mother's husband. The gemara further comments that the extra "vav" ("ve-et") teaches that we must also respect our older (or perhaps only oldest) brother.
In his discussion of the principles governing the listing of the mitzvot (in Shoresh 2), the Rambam elucidated his opinion that mitzvot derived from seemingly extraneous letters or words should not be enumerated in the list of the 613 mitzvot. He explained that anyone who disagrees with this theory should list as three separate mitzvot the obligations of honoring one's father's wife, mother's husband and older (or oldest) brother.
The Ramban (in his comments, ad loc.) explained that these three people are not really the focal point of the mitzva. The basic mitzva is to honor one's father and mother, but the obligation to honor one's father would include a requirement to honor his wife, honoring one's mother would include honoring her husband, and honoring parents would include honoring one's older (or oldest) brother. Since parents would wish to have their older children respected by the younger siblings, the obligation to honor an older brother is part of the mitzva of kibbud av va-eim and does not constitute a separate mitzva. The halakhic ramification of this position is that the obligation of honoring a stepmother, stepfather or older brother would not, according to the Ramban, apply after the given parent's death.
One might still ask why "kibbud av va-eim" is counted as a single mitzva. After all, the requirement to honor one's mother is just as strict and mandatory as that of honoring one's father. I recall a comment in this regard made by Rav Soleveitchik zt"l shortly after the death of his mother. After the death of the Rav's father, Rav Moshe zt"l, the Rav delivered his annual yahrzeit shiur in his memory. When the Rebbitzen died (more than two decades after her husband), the Rav said that whatever he did in memory of his father should be done for his mother as well, as "kibbud av" and "kibbud eim" are identical. However, he felt that he did not have the strength to deliver two yahrzeit shiurim so close to one another. (The yahrzeit of Rav Moshe occurs in Shevat, and the Rebbitzen's, in Adar.)
The Ramban suggested that since the verse presents the two obligations with but a single verb - "honor," we should consider it one mitzva. He then argued that even if respect for an older (or oldest) brother stands independently of the respect for parents (and would then presumably continue even after the parents' death), it would still not qualify as a separate mitzva because it is also included in the general command ("honor").
One might argue, however, that although it is true that only one verb is employed, nevertheless, since one's father and mother are two separate people, and the Torah requires honoring each equally and independently, two mitzvot should be counted.
The Semag does indeed appear to count two mitzvot that children are required to perform. Although his elucidation of these mitzvot (111,112) might imply that he referred to one mitzva of honor and another of reverence, some have interpreted his list to mean that indeed two individual mitzvot exist - one to honor one's father, and another to honor one's mother. Rabbeinu Tzvi Hersh Chayut (Sanhedrin 56b) cites the Mishneh Le-Melekh as saying that both the Ramban (!!!) and the Semag count two individual mitzvot. R. Chayut notes, however, that this position becomes very difficult in light of the gemara's explicit comment that TEN mitzvot were given to us at Mara. Given that the Gemara there lists "kibbud av va-eim" and nine other mitzvot, it follows that "kibbud av va-eim" counts as only a single mitzva.
This argument indeed seems conclusive, but it does not explain the conceptual basis for considering "kibbud av va-eim" one mitzva.
The Minchat Chinukh (mitzva 33) mentions that if a child does not fulfill the mitzva of "kibbud av" properly, he most certainly can and should do teshuva. He questioned, however, whether we should classify this mitzva under the category of "bein adam la-Makom" (Between man and God) or "bein adam la-chaveiro" (between man and man). If we consider this mitzva "bein adam la-Makom," then the violator need not ask his parents for forgiveness as part of his repentance. However, if this mitzva falls under the category of "bein adam la-chaveiro," then he must appease his parents as a prerequisite for forgiveness. He reasoned that mitzvot "bein adam la-chaveiro" include all men and all relationships. Since honor of parents is obviously restricted to only two people, perhaps it is "only" a mitzva "bein adam la-Makom."
In a recently published volume (Minchat Asher Shemot, p.251), Rav Asher Weiss questions this assumption upon which the Minchat Chinukh classifies "kibbud av va-eim" under the category of "bein adam la-Makom." Why can't a mitzva "bein adam la-chaveiro" apply to one person? On the other hand, Rav Weiss cited the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachye who explained that the obligation to honor parents evolves from their being partners with God Himself in the birth of a child. The Ramban finds an allusion to this special relationship in a phrase in Sefer Devarim (5:16). The Torah said that we should honor our parents "as the Lord your God commanded you." Although Rashi explains that this refers to God's having already commanded us with regard to "kibbud av" in Mara, the Ramban explains that we should honor our parents as we were commanded to honor God, as they are partners in birth. (The reader is advised to see the practical application of this concept in the Ramban's commentary to Shemot 20:12.) Thus, according to the Ramban and Rabbenu Bachye, "kibbud av va-eim" indeed falls under the category of "bein adam la-Makom" (only not for the reason suggested by the Minchat Chinukh).
Rav Meir Simcha Ha-Cohen of Dvinsk (Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 19:3) suggested a slightly different approach. He cites the halakha that if a parent would ask a child to violate a law of the Torah, he need not and should not obey the parent. Rav Meir Simcha asked why this halakha requires mentioning at all. Why should any mitzva "bein adam la-chaveiro" override a law between man and God? He therefore explained that the obligation to honor parents relates directly to one's relationship with God. One's parents, who are partners in his physical creation, also transmit to him the message of God. Therefore, we might have thought that one should always listen to his parents under all circumstances, and it was therefore necessary to mention that God's commandments take precedence over parents' wishes.
If we assume the "bein adam la-Makom" nature of the mitzva, then the mitzva is really to honor God's "partners," and we therefore understand why there is a single mitzva to honor one's father and mother.
It should be pointed out, however, that the Rambam writes quite clearly (in Peirush Ha-Mishnayot, Pe'ah I:1) that "kibbud av va-eim" is a mitzva "bein adam la-chaveiro." One might suggest that there are in fact two aspects of this mitzva, and it is both "bein adam la-Makom" as well as "bein adam la-chaveiro."