The commandment to honor parents is actually divided into two sets of laws: those that show honor and those that show reverence. These terms -- "honor" and "reverence" -- are somewhat difficult to relate to in our modern, democratic society. Both imply hierarchy of some kind.
In fact, this is precisely what the mitzvah of kibud av v'em, honoring parents, involves: hierarchy. Through acting as though there is a difference between a child and a parent, the child comes to actually experience that difference.
Judaism asserts that children and parents are equal in their human value but unequal in their status.
Judaism asserts that children and parents are equal in their human value but unequal in their status. The parent is God's representative on earth. It is the parent who is responsible to teach the child values and the proper way to live. The child who honors his parents is considered to be honoring God Himself, the One who establishes life and gives us direction.
In the Jewish family, parents accept the leadership role. They may not always be right and they certainly aren't perfect, but they are in charge. They will do their very best to guide their children on the right path. By teaching their kids how to honor parents, they know that they are giving them tools that will help ensure they have successful relationships all throughout their lives.
Laws of Reverence
The laws of reverence ask us -- no matter what our age -- to treat our parents in the manner we might treat a king or queen. The laws themselves are simple to fulfill but their impact on the developing personality of a child is great, as we shall see below.
Here is a basic rundown of the laws:
- Do not sit in your parent's regular chair
- Do not call a parent by a first name -- use a title like "Mommy" or "Abba"
- Always use a pleasant tone of voice when speaking to a parent
- Refrain from interrupting a parent who is speaking.
- Do not directly contradict a parent (you can ask a respectful question if necessary)
- Do not correct or embarrass a parent
- Do not argue with a parent
- Do not disobey a parent
- Do not confirm the opinion of a parent who is talking to someone else
- Do not start to eat before a parent starts to eat
- Do not leave the presence of a parent without permission
- Do not walk ahead of a parent
- Do not wake up a parent unless the parent asks to be woken
Laws of Honor
The laws of honor instruct us -- no matter what our age -- to behave the way that a servant would behave toward his boss. You can see from the laws below that acting in these ways shows honor to one who is of a higher status:
- Find opportunities to serve and assist parents (i.e. let them sit while you bring them food).
- Be sure to get up and greet a parent who enters the house.
- Escort a parent who is leaving (say good-bye!)Stand up for a parent who enters a room.
- When there is only one chair, offer it to a parent rather than take it yourself.
Instilling in the Home
All of these behaviors teach a child essential relationship skills. As the child practices these behaviors for 20 years with her parents, she acquires a deep consciousness of interpersonal sensitivity. Let's see how this happens.
Imagine a scenario in which a woman is trying to have a brief conversation with her husband. Their daughter Dahlia "just can't wait" and feels the need to tug at Mommy's skirt, whining "Mommy! Mommy!" while Mom tries to talk with Dad. Of course if there is some true emergency (someone is bleeding…), such behavior is acceptable. However, if the child simply feels that her need to ask Mommy something right now is more important than Mommy's need to be able to converse with her husband, then something is off.
If Mom stops talking to Dad in order to respond to her insistent youngster, then she will be teaching the child that "I don't expect you to be able to wait a few minutes to make your request." In addition, Mom will be teaching, "You are indeed the most important person in the room. No one's needs matter more than yours."
On the other hand, Mom can use a teaching moment (later on, when she has the child's full attention) to teach the child to refrain from interrupting except in cases of great need and/or emergencies. Then, on a future occasion when the child manages to wait a few moments instead of interrupting, Mom can offer lots of praise and acknowledgment of the child's patience, self-control, maturity and consideration for others. Positive feedback is the easiest and most pleasant way to teach a child how to fulfill all the commandments of honoring parents.
The mitzvah of not interrupting parents also helps a child learn humility -- the character trait that is most prized of all in Judaism. Humility allows us to learn from others (instead of being a "know-it-all"), allows us to acknowledge our mistakes (instead of needing to be right all the time) and allows us to understand others better (instead of seeing things only our way). It is a trait that makes us likeable and loveable. By having to wait a bit, a child must acknowledge that he is not the only one with needs. His parents also have a need to communicate with each other. Even a very young child can begin to develop sensitivity to the feelings of others by learning not to interrupt parents.
Let's look at one mitzvah in order to understand the impact of these rules on a child's personality. We'll focus our attention on the commandment not to not eat before a parent starts to eat. Picture a busy household. Mom makes the meal and serves it and everyone digs in. By the time she sits down, they're practically finished their meal.
Is this nice? What does it say about Mom? Is she a mere servant or some other unimportant person?
Suppose that the family followed the Jewish law of waiting for a parent to start eating. Mom makes the dinner, serves it and sits down. Everyone, including Dad, waits for her to lift her fork before they take their first bite. Everyone, including the little children, manage to sit in front of their full plates and actually wait the few minutes it takes for Mom to finish serving the meal. They are waiting out of respect for this most important person.
Now how does Mom feel?
This mitzvah teaches a child:
- self-control (he actually has to wait before diving into his dinner even if he is "starving")
- humility (he is not the most important person at the table)
- appreciation (Mom made the meal and served it and deserves recognition)
- sensitivity (Mom doesn't want to be left out, seen as just the person who does all the work but not important enough to actually be part of the dinner).
- When a child waits for his parents to begin eating, he is on his way to becoming the kind of person who thinks of others. This will help him be a better son, a better friend, a better spouse and an all around better person.
Honoring parents will help him be a better son, a better friend, a better spouse and an all around better person.
As with all the laws of honoring parents, it is up to parents to teach and reinforce the new behaviors. Teaching can be done at any pleasant moment. The lesson can be put forth in Jewish terms complete with references to the Talmud for those who are so inclined ("The Torah teaches us that it is a mitzvah of kibud av v' em to refrain from eating before one's parents start to eat…") or it can be put forth without any reference to Judaism at all ("Children need to wait to eat before their parents do and guests should wait for their hosts -- it's called ‘good manners.'").
Then in the same way they encourage other desirable behaviors, parents can try to catch the children doing the right thing. They can give lots of praise and encouragement and even reward behaviors with smiles, pats on the back or treats and privileges. Using good-feeling techniques only, parents will find that their kids actually enjoy learning and performing the mitzvah of honoring parents. Young children will find the mitzvot natural and easy to do. Older kids who have done things differently for their first decade or so will need parental understanding and patience -- old habits are hard to unlearn.
Anger has no place in the program of instruction for any age child. Rather, gentle encouragement and positive feedback helps kids and teenagers want to show respect. Interestingly, children actually feel good as they perform these mitzvot; when they act dignified, they feel dignified. Instead of feeling burdened by added responsibilities, kids feel comforted by a deep feeling of security -- it feels right to treat one's parents with respect. It feels good to be a mensch.