Clarification: The use of masculine terms is for simplicity purposes only but the content refers equally to females unless otherwise noted.
At the outset it must be stated that abuse in any form is clearly prohibited by the Torah. In addition, besides violating specific commandments such as “loving one’s fellow,” the prohibitions of hurting and embarrassing another, and if the abuse is sexual, other explicit prohibitions, abuse is clearly not the will of Hashem, and falls into the category of derech eretz kadma latorah. We are obligated to emulate God and his attributes, and abuse is clearly the antithesis of this. Nevertheless, people who unfortunately are exposed to these abhorrent behaviors still have questions of how this relates to normative halacha. It should also be noted that there are different levels of severity in terms of abuse, and there might be distinctions between verbal abuse and physical or sexual abuse.
The Mitzvot of Honoring One’s Parents
When approaching the question of honoring abusive parents, we must highlight the fact that “parental honor” is not a singular issue but includes several mitzvot and many different facets.
There are four mitzvot in the Torah that stipulate the proper relationship of a son or daughter towards their parents. Two of them are very specific and are mentioned in Parshat Mishpatim: It is a Torah violation to strike one’s father or mother, and there is a separate Torah violation to curse one’s father and mother.
The other two mitzvot, kibbud, honoring, and mora, fearing, parents are more general: Each one comprises various actions and obligations. Most of the discussion in this article will focus on these two mitzvot – honoring and fearing one’s parents.
We will first focus on the simple understanding of these mitzvot. What are the definitions of kibbud and mora? The Hebrew word kibbud when translated into English has several different meanings, such as ‘honor’ or ‘respect.’ However, from the description of the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, codifying a baraita in Masechet Kiddushin, it would seem that what we refer to as ‘respect’ is actually included in the definition of mora, the obligation to relate to one’s parent with reverence and awe. This includes, for example, not sitting in a parent’s special seat, not interrupting his speaking, and of course, not acting in a chutzpadik manner.
On the other hand, the particular obligations of the mitzvah of kibbud codified by the Shulchan Aruch focus on caring for a parent: “Feeding and giving drink, dressing and washing, bringing in and taking out.”
As previously stated, there are many obligations included under the title of “honoring” parents, and when analyzing the question of whether there is an obligation to honor abusive parents, there are queries on multiple levels with unique situations that arise with regard to the relationship between the parent and the child. It is possible that one specific obligation exists while another may not apply. In general, it can be stated that under all circumstances, a child is forbidden to curse or hit his/her parent. However, sometimes other actions are required that contravene honoring parents, as we will discuss.
Is There an Obligation to Honor Abusive Parents?
No one is perfect and we all make mistakes; this applies to parents as well—parents are not perfect. They make many mistakes. That being the case, the mitzvah of honoring one’s father and mother exists even for parents who make mistakes.
However, we must differentiate between legitimate mistakes and abuses that have no place in society. Unfortunately, there are many instances of parents who are abusive and that behave towards their children in a harmful manner, often chronically and consistently. In an extreme case, parents cause harm to the child, physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually—in a manner that creates emotional problems that call for clinical psychotherapy in order for him to emerge from the trauma.
In these cases, there is already a fundamental question with regard to the mitzvah of honoring the parent, as the performance of this mitzvah may adversely affect the health of the child. The child’s resistance to the parent’s words or demands, which is often needed, seemingly conflicts with the mitzvah of kibbud and mora. Furthermore, specific psychological therapy, complaints against the parent, or the revelation of feelings towards the parents would most definitely sadden and pain the parent.
To What Extent Must One Honor and Fear a Parent?
The Gemara relates the story of how the mother of Dama ben Netina tore his clothes and spat in his face in public, yet he didn’t react or humiliate her. This story is described in more detail in the Shulchan Aruch: “To what extent does one need to fear him? If the son was well dressed and sat at the head of the crowd, and his father or mother came over, tore his clothes, hit him on his head and spat in his face, he should keep quiet and not demean them. Rather he should remind himself that he was instructed to behave thus by the King of all Kings.”
From this source it would seem that the child is expected to be silent and accept all of these harmful attacks by his parents. However, Tosafot quote a midrash that the mother was insane (i.e., mentally ill or senile). This would obviously have far reaching implications halachically. If we accept the opinion of Tosafot as normative halacha, it would seem that the mitzvah of honoring parents applies to a parent who is deemed senile, but in a case where they are verbally abusive or worse, it may be permitted to respond.
In addition to this, the Maharshal posits that the child can object to a parent hurting him even monetarily, and most certainly physically. Similarly, a child can sue the parent in beit din for the damage caused to him. Dama ben Netina, however, did not sue his mother because she was senile.
However the Tur and Shulchan Aruch mentioned quote the Gemara without mentioning that the parent was mentally sick. It would appear from this that they posit that a child is obligated to be silent and not object with regard to sane parents as well. The Maharshal answers this by saying that the case being discussed was a situation where he couldn’t object before the actual act, and because we are discussing the situation after the act there is no benefit in humiliating the parent in retrospect. The language of the Shulchan Aruch does indeed lend itself to the interpretation that it refers to the reaction of the child after the act.
Honoring Wicked Parents
From the Gemara in Yevamot it emerges that a son is exempt from hitting or cursing his wicked father if he has not yet repented. The Gemara in Sanhedrin also concludes that a son who hits or curses his father who is on death row is exempt if the father has not yet repented. But the Gemara there concludes that the son cannot be an agent of the beit din to hit or curse his father except when the father is a meisit. This law seems to apply even in a case where the father hasn’t repented. One way of resolving these rulings is that there is still a prohibition to hit a wicked parent, but he is exempt from the punishment of death, etc. This is how the Rambam understood the Gemara, that the son is still obligated to honor his father, but is exempt from punishment if he does hit or curse him. Tosafot on the other hand understands that there is no obligation if the father has not repented, as the majority of sugyot imply.
The Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the Rambam that the son is obligated to honor his wicked father despite his lack of repentance. The Rema posits that if the father has not repented, the son is not obligated to honor him, which follows the opinion of Tosafot and other Rishonim. The Aruch Hashulchan rules like the Rema, stating that most poskim rule this way. He points out that the term “wicked” applies only when the transgressor violates the transgression repeatedly and not just one time.
Other Reasons Why Kibbud Would Not Apply in our Case: The Maharik
The Maharik deals with the case of whether a son must heed his father’s requests not to marry a woman that he wishes to wed. The Maharik concludes that he does not have to listen to his father. He gives three reasons, which might be applicable in clarifying our topic as well.
- There is no obligation to pay a monetary price, and certainly not an emotional one.
The Maharik quotes the halacha that honoring one’s father comes from the father’s money. The son is not obligated to pay for the expenses of honoring his father. If he must feed his father, his father must supply the money to buy the food.
It stands to reason that if the son is not obligated to pay the monetary costs, then all the more so he is not obligated to pay a personal price that at times is worth more than money, for example, to marry a woman he isn’t interested in marrying, and the like (for people are prepared to pay a lot of money to marry a woman of their choice). The son is not obligated to pay an emotional price and suffer personal harm.
One could derive a kal v’chomer from the Maharik’s reasoning to our case that a son definitely need not become sick in order to honor his father. Furthermore, logic dictates that if a person is not obligated to do a positive commandment that causes him to give up more than one fifth of his assets, then certainly one is not obligated to make himself sick in order to perform the commandment. Clearly, the imposition placed on a child suffering abuse to honor his abusive parent would only deepen his emotional hardship and intensify his suffering.
- There is no obligation when obeying one’s father opposes Torah law.
The Maharik quotes the Gemara that it is prohibited for a man to wed a woman without seeing her first before the wedding ceremony. This stems from the importance the Torah places on there being an attraction between the man and woman. If a man marries a woman without seeing her, there is a good chance they will have less shalom bayit. Therefore, a father that forces his son to marry a woman he is not interested in wedding is as if he is ordering his son to go against the Torah. In this case, the halacha dictates that the son not listen to the father, since the father too is obligated in Torah commandments.
This argument could also relate to a case of abuse, as certainly it is prohibited for the father to abuse his son. If the son surrenders to his father, it is as if the father is commanding his son to go against Torah law, and we have seen that in such a case there is no obligation of honoring one’s parents. Furthermore, it might actually forbidden for another reason of k’ein mesayea, almost enabling the father to commit a Torah violations. It is possible to say that the son is prohibited to honor his father because by doing so he is harming himself emotionally and it is prohibited for a person to bring harm on himself. Similarly, one could argue that it is prohibited for the son to allow his father to embarrass him in public, as this is “equivalent” to murder, and he must stop his father from doing so.
However, one could argue this point, as we find numerous times where the Gemara states: “Haneelavim v’einam olvim, shomim cherpatam veina meshivim, those who are insulted but do not insult back, who hear their humiliation but do not answer back,” are lauded and held as very virtuous. In those passages, the Gemara does not state that it is wrong to be silent because it enables the wrongdoer to violate transgressions. The simple answer to this question is that the Gemara there was referring to one’s reaction, but not that one has to willingly endure it. The Sefer HaChinuch offers a similar explanation. Furthermore, one could argue that there is a big difference between hearing an insult and suffering abuse.
- It is an obligation to listen to the father only when the request helps him personally.
The Maharik concludes that a son is only obligated to obey a request that helps the father directly, for example feeding him, etc. He is not obligated to obey the father in matters that do not have a direct benefit on the father, such as choosing a spouse.
In the case of abuse, the benefit the father receives is not directly beneficial. It is more comparable to the benefit he would receive knowing his son is marrying the woman that he (the father) wishes. The Maharik already established that such a benefit does not warrant a son listening to his father. This is true all the more so if the benefit is due to a sadistic enjoyment in which the father enjoys being abusive.
Clinical Considerations and Psychological Therapy
There are other considerations to our case as well, of which we will focus mostly on the psychological ones. Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein was asked the following question by a therapist regarding a child that was abused by a parent:
A large portion of the problems, difficulties and emotional pathologies of children (and adults that are stuck in their childhood) emanate from and are attached to the behavior of their parents. During psychotherapy the therapist attempts to help the child (and the adult) to understand, identify and recognize the hidden feelings and conflicts, the difficult reactions that have developed as a result of this and to express these feelings and to deal with what happened to them in their past in a more adult and healthier manner.
(Question) Does therapy intervention such as this conflict with alacha in the sense that the therapist allows during therapy the awareness and expression of feelings of anger that may cause the person to not honor his parents as required and even transgress the prohibition of “cursed is he who curses his mother and father”?
The goal of the therapy was that she should stand up to the inappropriate and unhealthy behavior of her father in a consistent and beneficial manner, and to direct her anger and her realistic objections outwardly and not at herself.
With practical encouragement from the therapist, the patient began to stand up to her father’s attempts at getting close to her; she became more used to standing up for herself, spent less time at home and became more aware of her anger and learned to express this anger aloud, to reveal her hidden and pent up anger and hate towards her father during therapy and outside the therapist’s office.
Rav Zilberstein’s basic answer was that when we discuss professional and serious therapy that is done for the person’s benefit, not only is it permissible but it is a mitzvah to save the child from abuse.
In his reasoning, he explains that if the father did not repent, there is no need for honoring him. And although the Shach writes that it is still forbidden to cause the father pain, and if he knew about the therapy he would pained by it; it is still permissible because it is possible that the Torah prohibited this only when the goal in belittling the father is only for the benefit of embarrassing him, but not in the case where the goal is to heal the daughter. It also benefits the father that his daughter should be emotionally healthy and fit to get married.
Rav Zilberstein added another explanation for his ruling based on the Gemara in Pesachim where Chizkiyahu plundered his father’s bones in order to atone for his humiliation. Herein is a reason to conduct therapy for the good of the father and his honor so that he will be atoned for, especially since he plundered his world. Moreover, even if the father repented, one can still assume that he would desire her to have the therapy.
Rav Eliezer Melamed also addresses therapy that encourages expressions of negative feelings towards the parent. This is what he writes:
Question: There are some psychologists that are inclined to pinning the problems of the patient on the parents: They were angry and they may have struck him. And because the parents are responsible for all the problems and troubles he brings on himself and his friends, the therapist can free him from his discomfort. Sometimes, the psychologist advises throwing the blame for these faults on the parents in order to unburden the load that gnaws at the patient’s heart. Is this psychological therapy allowed?
Answer: If the therapy will cause the worsening of the relationship of honor and fear between the son and the parent, this type of therapy is forbidden as it infringes on the commandment of honoring your parent. Additionally, even if we were certain that the therapy would be beneficial psychologically, it is prohibited to participate in it. Just as it is prohibited for a person to steal in order to reduce his suffering, so too it is forbidden for him to transgress the commandment of honoring your parent in order to reduce his suffering.
At first glance, it appears that this ruling stands in disagreement with the direction of this article until this point. Dr. Sorotzkin begs to differ with the description of therapy described by Rav Melamed and posits that the therapy is much more complex than “the parents are to blame for all his problems.”
It is worth noting that Rav Melamed’s answer does not refer to a child that has already suffered abuse. It seems more likely that he was speaking about normal issues whereby the person feels that parents caused his problems, and not about an abusive parent.
Rav Nachum Rabinovitch posits that this type of therapy is permitted even if we are not talking about an abusive parent, because “if the expression of negative feelings act to provide a therapeutic result—it is certainly acceptable.”
It seems likely that Rav Melamed would agree that in cases of abuse, therapy of this sort is permitted.
I would like to point out that in all probability not only does the therapy not violate the commandment to honor one’s parents, it actually enhances it. The first sentence in Rav Melamed’s response is critical to the understanding of the issue: “If the therapy will cause the worsening of the relationship between the child and the parents,” this is a condition that would prohibit therapy. However, we are discussing unhealthy relationships and the therapist’s goal is to heal this relationship and restore the proper honor that the child should feel toward the parent.
There is no honor to the parent in hurting his son, belittling him and making him fearful of standing on his own and acting in a manner unacceptable to his father—the opposite is true. This is a humiliation to the father. The therapist is trying to change the situation and to heal the son. Without the healing of the son, he would never be able to honor his father. It would appear that the therapy is the key to the rehabilitation of child’s honor for his parent and even from the point of view of honoring the parent this is the correct thing to do.
Although honoring and fearing parents are Torah obligations, with clear definitions and parameters; we have shown that in certain extreme scenarios such as abuse, the obligation to fulfill these requirements might be limited or irrelevant altogether. One who is a victim of abuse should seek treatment and therapy. As a community in general we need to encourage people to seek help and reassure therapists.
May Hashem save us from obstacles and light up our eyes in Torah, and may all those in pain be relieved of their suffering.
 Shemot 21:16: “One who hits his father or mother shall be put to death,” and verse 17: “One who curses his father or mother shall be put to death.”
 Shemot 20:12 and Devarim 5:16: “Honor your father and mother.”
 Vayikra 19:3: “A man, his mother and father he must fear.”
 Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3
 Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:2,4
 Masechet Kiddushin 31b. Both the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch quote the baraita almost verbatim.
 In truth, it seems that these rules are intended for an elderly or ailing parent, or one who is need or disabled on some level, as other parents do not generally require that they be fed, dressed, walked, etc. However, the broader meaning of the mitzvah includes honoring even a healthy parent who requests these types of assistance. In essence, the main focus of the mitzvah is that the son must take care of his father when the father cannot take care of himself. We find here a recurring cycle with the basic attribute of hakarat hatov — acknowledging the good done by another — since when the son was young, the parents took care of him until he assumed his independence. The description of Rabbi Tarfon (Kiddushin 31b) also seems to suggest this, as he helped his mother climb in and out of bed. The Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1) adds that he put his hands on the floor to protect her from walking on the cold floor, which also supports the same idea.
 See Masechet Sanhedrin 85b for a noted exception to this is in an extreme case. The baraita states that a son may not act as an agent of beit din to carry out administering lashes to his father unless he has the status of meisit, an inciter (to idolatry).This is codified by the Rambam as well in Hilchot Mamrim 5:14.
 Masechet Kiddushin 31a
 Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240
 Tosafot, Kiddushin 31a, s.v. uvat imo
 Yam Shel Shlomo, ibid.
 Masechet Yevamot 22b
 Masechet Sanhedrin 85b
 Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 6:11
 According to Tosafot, the concluding sugya in Sanhedrin didn’t specify when the parent repented, as it relied on what was clarified previously.
 Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 240:39
 Responsa of the Maharik 166
 Shulchan Aruch 240:5
 Article of Dr. Sorotzkin
 Masechet Kiddushin 41a
 Shulchan Aruch 240:15
 Such as chovel bechaveiro, veahavta lereiacha kamocha, and if the abuse has any sexual nature, many other explicit prohibitions in the Torah.
 Of course we are not blaming the victim of abuse, chas veshalom. We are merely suggesting this reasoning to justify treatment halachically.
 These arguments are suggested by Dr. Sorotzkin in his article quoted above.
 Masechet Shabbat 88b, among other places in the Talmud.
 Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 338
 It is worth noting that even when the son is not obligated to obey his father’s request, it does not negate totally the commandment of honoring and fearing his parent.
 Shiurei Torah LeRofim, vol.4, p.398
 Unlike the Shulchan Aruch, but rather relying on the pesak of the Rema.
 Shach, Yoreh Deah 240:20
 Masechet Pesachim 56a
 See also Bava Kamma 94b and Bava Metzia 64b that orphans should give a stolen cow they inherited back to its rightful owner for the sake of honoring their dead father who stole it. The Gemara says that it applies only if the father repented. However, we can learn from this that atoning for the father is a form of honoring a parent.
 Peninei Halacha, Likutim 3, Kibbud Horim, 18
 Article of Sorotzkin, p.10