Q. For years I have been supporting my aged mother, but now my business is failing and I just don't have the means. Do I have to risk my livelihood?

A. This is an extremely painful dilemma that many people face at some time during their lives. Our parents are the most important and irreplaceable figures in our lives; for the vast majority of us, when we were vulnerable youngsters they unquestioningly fulfilled their obligation to support and protect us. It is only natural that we feel a sense of gratitude and concern, and as adults seek to do everything in our power to help them when the situation is reversed and they become vulnerable.

The question of fulfilling our obligations to our parents in difficult circumstances is a complex one, and we will divide it into two columns. This week we will discuss the non-monetary aspects of helping parents, and next we will focus on the issue of financial support.

Honoring parents is a foundation of our faith, a principle so important it is one of the Ten Commandments. In the book of Exodus (20:11) we read:

Honor your father and your mother, in order that you may lengthen your days on the land which the Lord your God gave you.

Beside the commandment to honor our parents, there is a separate command of awe. This is often translated as fear, but it doesn't mean a person has to be afraid of their parents. It means that a parent is a special, larger-than-life figure. In the book of Leviticus (19:3) we read:

Fear each man his mother and his father, and keep my Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.

The conjunction of the commandment of awe of parents and keeping the Sabbath reminds us that while from a dry, detached viewpoint all people may seem alike and all days just the same, in God's plan the parent's status is elevated above all others, and the Sabbath day is sanctified above all others.

What are the parameters of these commandments to honor and fear parents? They are certainly demanding, but perhaps surprisingly they do not include the obligation of financial support. As we will explain next week, that obligation has a different source.

The rabbis taught: What is awe, and what is honor? Awe – don't stand in his place, and don't sit in his place, and don't contradict his words or judge them. Honor: feed, and give drink, dress and cover, bring in and bring out. (1)

The passage uses the masculine gender, but all of the conditions apply equally to the father and the mother. The rules of "awe" correspond to what we call honor or respect; these are things you wouldn't do to your boss and which you shouldn't do to your parents. The rules of "honor" involve tending to the physical needs of the parent. These obligations apply even when the parent is able to take care of himself, but obviously their importance is much greater when the parent's independence is limited.

The Talmud then asks, at whose expense? The child has the responsibility to feed and clothe the parent, but is he or she also responsible for paying? After a discussion, the Talmud concludes that the commandment to honor parents does not in itself oblige the child to spend money on the parent. The "honor" of the Ten Commandments is primarily directed to personal attention and concern.

Of course this is not limited to physical needs. Our sages point out that emotional support can be even more important. Earlier in the same Talmudic passage we read:

One person may feed his father delicacies and yet this expels him from the world, and another may work his father at the millstone and yet this will bring him to the world to come.

Rashi explains that the first case refers to a son who feeds his father delicacies, yet does so grudgingly. Whereas in the second case, "he honors him with his words, with encouraging words and solace, and he imposes the work on him with gentle language while explaining the urgent need, that there is no other way for them to support themselves."

What this means for you is that even if you are unable to help your mother financially, it does not mean you can't be a good son. You need to make an extra effort to help your mother in every other way, tending to her physical needs to the best of your ability and being in close contact with her to cheer and encourage her.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31b

Next week we will discuss financial obligations to needy parents

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.