SALT - Monday, 4 Kislev 5780 - December 2, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Vayeitzei of Yaakov’s decision to leave Lavan’s home with his wives, children and herds.  As the family left, the Torah relates (31:19), Rachel took with her Lavan’s “terafim,” a term referring either to idols (Rashi, Rav Saadia Gaon) or oracles (Radak).  Later (31:34-5), we read that Rachel hid the terafim and Lavan was unable to find them when he caught up to Yaakov.
            Chida, in his Midbar Kedeimot (Ma’arekhet Khaf, 4) and in Devash Le-fi (Ma’arekhet Alef, 39), cites the Zohar (vol. 1, 164) as condemning Rachel for causing her father grief by stealing his possessions, going so far as to attribute Rachel’s tragic, untimely death to this sin.  Chida notes the implication that although Lavan was a habitual sinner, who worshipped idols and routinely lied and deceived, Rachel was nevertheless expected to show him respect, and she was thus punished for causing him distress by stealing his terafim.  If so, then the Zohar’s condemnation of Rachel’s act would perhaps lend support to the Rambam’s ruling in Hilkhot Mamrim (6:11) that the obligation to respect parents requires one to respect even a sinful parent.
            By contrast, the Mishna in Masekhet Pesachim (4:9) tells that after the death of the cruel, iniquitous King Achaz, his son and successor, Chizkiyahu, publicly disgraced his father by having his bones dragged by ropes, instead of arranging a respectful funeral.  The Mishna states that this was done with the approval of the Torah sages.  This would certainly appear to indicate that one has no obligation to respect a sinful parent.  This conclusion also seems to emerge from the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Bava Kama (94b) concerning the case of stolen goods that are still intact after the thief’s death.  The Gemara rules that the children must return the stolen goods to preserve the honor of their deceased father – but only if the father had repented and then died before returning the goods.  As many have noted, the Gemara’s ruling appears to directly contradict the Rambam’s position requiring giving respect to even a wicked parent.
            To resolve these seemingly conflicting sources, Chida suggests a distinction between the respect owed to a living parent, and the respect required after a parent’s passing.  Halakha requires respecting a deceased parent’s memory (Shulchan Arukh, Y.D. 240:9), but the parameters of this obligation do not necessarily correspond to those of the obligation to respect a living parent.  Chida thus postulates that one is required to show respect to a sinful parent only during the parent’s lifetime.  Hence, Rachel was punished for disrespecting her father, who was still alive, whereas Chizkiyahu was justified in disgracing his deceased father, and the Gemara does not require children to return items stolen by their deceased father to preserve his honor unless he repented.  This answer was also advanced by the Lechem Mishneh commentary to the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
            In any event, other Rishonim, including Hagahot Maimoniyot, dispute the Rambam’s ruling, and maintain that one is not required to show honor to a sinful parent, and this is the view accepted by the Tur (Y.D. 240) and the Rama (Y.D. 240:18), whereas the Shulchan Arukh follows the Rambam’s position.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (240:39) sides with the lenient ruling of the Rama.  This is also the conclusion of Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, in his Binyan Tziyon Ha-chadashot (112).