– Author: Rav Avichai Goodman

This article will discuss the halachic obligation to honor one’s parents after their death and clarify whether there is any similarity between this obligation and the obligation to honor one’s parents while they are still alive.

Respecting One’s Parents After their Death

We learn about the obligation to respect one’s parents after their death from the following baraita:[1]

תנו רבנן: מכבדו בחייו ומכבדו במותו.

בחייו כיצד? הנשמע בדבר אביו למקום, לא יאמר: שלחוני בשביל עצמי, מהרוני בשביל עצמי, פטרוני בשביל עצמי, אלא כולהו בשביל אבא.

במותו כיצד? היה אומר דבר שמועה מפיו, לא יאמר: כך אמא אבא, אלא כך אמר אבא מרי הריני כפרת משכבו. והני מילי תוך שנים עשר חודש, מכאן ואילך אומר: זכרונו לברכה לחיי העולם הבא.

The Sages taught: One honors his father in his life and honors him in his death. How does he honor him in his life? One who goes to a place on the command of his father should not say: Send me on my own behalf, or: Hurry up on my own behalf, or: Allow me to take leave of this business on my own behalf. Rather, he should say all of the above in the following manner: Act in this manner on Father’s behalf, as a mark of respect for his father.

How does he honor him in his death? If he says a matter he heard from his father’s mouth, he should not say: So said Father. Rather, he should say: So said Father, my teacher, may I be an atonement for his resting soul. And this applies within twelve months of his death. From this time onward he says: May his memory be for a blessing, for the life of the World to Come.

Since the baraita gives a specific example about speaking, we must clarify whether speaking is considered to be unique in this regard or is merely an example of a broader category of honor to a parent after death that includes other things as well.  After all, respecting one’s parents during their lifetime is clearly not limited to speech, but is expressed in actions and many other dimensions as well.

In addition to the notion apparent from the baraita that one should quote one’s father, the baraita also emphasizes that the correct manner in which to describe one’s father for the first twelve months after his death is the phrase: “אבא מרי הריני כפרת משכבו”. Rashi[2] explains this statement as taking responsibility for all the punishments and bad things that should befall the father, i.e., the son is asking that all these punishments be placed upon him and not upon his father. Clearly, Rashi understands that there is a general obligation of honoring one’s parents after their death. According to Rashi, it is also clear why this description should be said for twelve months only, for after this time the trial of פושעי ישראל בגיהנום is over, and even if the father was the greatest sinner, after twelve months he would no longer receive any punishments.[3]

The Shulchan Aruch[4] codifies the baraita as halacha that a person must honor his parents even after their death, and the Rema adds that in this regard, there is no difference between a father and a mother.

Which Takes Precedence: Honoring One’s Father or One’s Mother?

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi appears to address this issue in the following baraita:[5]

תניא, רבי אומר: גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שבן מכבד את אמו יותר מאביו, מפני שמשדלתו בדברים, לפיכך הקדים הקב”ה כיבוד אב לכיבוד אם. וגלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שהבן מתיירא מאביו יותר מאמו מפני שמלמדו תורה, לפיכך הקדים הקב”ה מורא האם למורא האב.

It is taught in a beraita that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son honors his mother more than he honors his father, because she persuades him with many statements of encouragement and does not treat him harshly. Therefore, in the mitzva of: “Honor your father and your mother” (Shemot 20:11), the Holy One, Blessed be He, preceded the mention of the honor due one’s father before mentioning the honor due one’s mother. The verse emphasizes the duty that does not come naturally. Similarly, it is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son fears his father more than his mother, because his father teaches him Torah, and consequently he is strict with him. Therefore, in the verse: “A man shall fear his mother and his father” (Vayikra 19:3), the Holy One, Blessed be He, preceded the mention of fear of the mother before the mention of fear of the father.

The Tur[6] quotes the baraita as teaching that “שניהם שוים בין לכיבוד בין למורא,” “both parents are equal in terms of the obligation to honor and fear them.” However, the Gemara[7] records the following story, which indicates that if there is a conflict between the two, the father’s wishes come first:

An orphan came to R. Eliezer and asked him which parent should he honor first. R. Eliezer responded that he should honor his father first, because both the father and the mother are obligated to honor the father, and since the mother is also obligated to honor the father, his honor precedes hers.[8] He asked R. Yehoshua the same question and was given the same answer. So he continued to ask if the ruling would change when his parents divorced, as now his mother is not obligated to honor his father. R. Yehoshua understood that the question was not practical, for the questioner’s eyelashes had fallen out due to his excessive crying since he was an orphan. Therefore he gave him a sarcastic reply that he should put the cup down between his father and mother and let them decide who takes it first. In other words, in this case the father does not receive precedence.

The Shulchan Aruch rules[9] that honoring one’s father takes precedence over honoring one’s mother, as the mother is also obligated to honor the father. However, if the parents are divorced, they both have equal status and the son may choose whom to honor first. The Pitchei Teshuva[10] takes this principle one step further and writes that if one’s father told him to perform an action that is not one of the wife’s obligations towards her husband, and at the same time his mother asks him to perform an action, since the action requested by his father is not one of the mother’s obligations, he may do whichever he chooses first, because his parents have equal status in this case as well.

Honoring One’s Parents During their Lifetime vs. Honoring Them After their Death

We have seen that a person has an obligation to honor his parents after their death, and also that in certain cases, honoring one’s father takes precedence over honoring one’s mother. These two halachot can provide insight into the question of whether the obligation of honoring one’s parents after their death is similar in nature to honoring them during their lifetime or whether they are two different principles.

The Beit Yosef[11] quotes[12] the Responsa of the Tashbetz,[13] where it states that if a person’s mother died and she requested that her son recite Kaddish for her even though his father is still alive, and the father insisted that he doesn’t, he must not say Kaddish because “honoring one’s father takes precedence over honoring one’s mother.” However, the Beit Yosef elsewhere quotes the minhag as being that the son does recite Kaddish and the father may not object. This latter ruling is the one cited by the Rema.[14] Nevertheless, the reason for this psak is not clear. Did the Beit Yosef and Rema reject the principle that “honoring one’s father takes precedence” since the mother is no longer alive? Is it possible that it still applies, but since the minhag is to recite upon the death of a parent, it is as if the father is ordering a son to violate halacha, and that is why he doesn’t listen to the father?

The Noda B’yehuda[15] describes a letter that Rav Shmuel of Manheim sent him, in which he details the following case: Shimon and Levi were brothers. Shimon was single, while Levi was married and had children. For some time, Levi wanted to marry his daughter off to Shimon his brother, for the two brothers were business partners and loved each other. Their father Yaakov was also in favor, but Shimon hesitated marrying his niece because of “מחמת מיעוט הנדן,” the small dowry. Despite the fact that Shimon’s refusal caused some distance between the brothers, they still loved each other and were very close. Levi then became ill and on his deathbed instructed his wife as follows:

“ידעתי כי אחרי מותי רבים יתאמצו שתתן בתי לאחי שמעון. לכן מצוה הוא לה שלא תאבה ולא תשמע אליהם לעשות כן”.

“I know that many people will try to ensure that you give my daughter to my brother Shimon as a wife. Therefore, it is a mitzvah for her not to desire this nor listen to them concerning this matter.”

After Levi died, many tried to convince the widow to give her daughter to Shimon in marriage, claiming that the poor orphan would not find a better shidduch, as among other reasons, they were very poor. Of course, the grandfather Yaakov also pressured her, as he too wanted the marriage to take place. The widow admitted to all that she would also like to see her daughter marry Shimon, but what could she do – her late husband had instructed that she should not give in to any pressure on this matter.

The question was brought before Rav Shmuel (mentioned above), and he responded as follows: The woman’s concern to uphold her late husband’s request is a minor issue, for even if she doesn’t adhere to his demand, this would only be a rabbinic violation. The main problem, though, lies with the daughter – she is obligated on a deoraita level to uphold her father’s demand, so how could she marry her uncle against her father’s wishes? This is the case despite the fact that by marrying him she would be upholding her mother’s wishes, since we know that honoring one’s father takes precedence over honoring one’s mother! He continued that we can also not say that a widow is equivalent to a divorcee concerning the requirement to honor her husband, because there are several “covered and uncovered” differences between a widow and a divorcee (who is no longer obligated), and it seems that a widow is still obligated to honor her husband.

In conclusion, Rav Shmuel of Manheim permitted the daughter to go against her father’s wishes, based on the ruling of the Rema[16] that regarding marriage, children are not required to adhere to their parents’ demands. But he concludes that the mother’s permission to annul her late husband’s request is still in doubt. This is where Rav Shmuel ends his story.

The Noda B’yehuda disagreed with him and wrote a lengthy response[17] to Rav Shmuel’s claim. In summary, the Noda B’Yehuda claims as follows:

  1. There is no distinction between a divorcee and a widow, and neither is obligated to honor the requests of the husband. The reason a divorcee is not obligated in her husband’s honor is that she is already free to marry another man, and therefore has no obligation to honor her husband. The same principle applies to a widow as well, as she is permitted to marry another man.
  2. In our case, there is a relative stringency to listen to the mother more than in the case of a divorcee. This is because the Shulchan Aruch rules that a son may choose which parent takes precedence when they are divorced, as both of them are still alive, but in the case where one parent has died, it is clear that the obligation to honor the living parent takes precedence over the dead parent, as we apply the rule that “the honor of a live person takes precedence over the honor of the dead” (כבוד חי עדיף מכבוד מת).
  3. The principle that the honor of a live parent takes precedence over that of a deceased parent can be proven from two sugyot in the Gemara.
  4. The Gemara in Kiddushin (31b) relates that Rav Asi traveled to welcome his mother who was in the middle of her way to Eretz Yisrael, even though he needed to leave Eretz Yisrael to do so. When he heard that she had already died and only her body was being brought, he said that had he known, he would not have departed Eretz Yisrael to greet her. Evidently, the obligation of kibbud av v’eim in this context (of leaving Eretz Yisrael) is greater while the parent is still alive.
  5. Rabbi Yehoshua’s response to the orphan (in the sugya mentioned earlier) proves that the orphan always honors the living parent over the dead parent. This is the reason why Rabbi Yehoshua answered him sarcastically, for even if the deceased parent had commanded him to do something against the living parent, there is no question that the living parent’s request would take precedence.

In light of this, the Noda B’yehuda concluded that the daughter must listen to her mother and marry her uncle, and need not fear that she is not upholding her father’s wishes.[18]

Rav Akiva Eiger claims[19] though that the Noda B’Yehuda contradicts the Beit Yosef, for when dealing with the issue of a son reciting Kaddish for his mother against the will of his living father, the Beit Yosef quoted the Tashbetz that the father’s honor precedes the mother’s honor, but did not raise the distinction that the honor of a live parent precedes the honor of a dead parent.[20]

Another issue that requires analysis concerning the opinion of the Noda B’Yehuda is his claim that the obligation to honor one’s deceased parent is not as strong as the obligation to honor them while they are alive. The question is whether this is just a lower level of obligation (in which case one would have to explain why there is a difference) or whether it is a different obligation altogether.[21] The question is sharpened in light of the opinion of the Divrei Malkiel[22] who proves that according to most Rishonim and Acharonim, the mitzvah to honor one’s parents after their death remains a mitzvah deoraita and does not become derabanan. If so, what is the reason to distinguish between the two types of honor towards one’s parents if both are deoraita?

Rav Asher Weiss[23] explains that the difference between the two types of honor is as follows: It does not pertain to the fact that one is alive while the other is dead; rather, it is connected to the essence of the fulfillment of the mitzvah of kibbud horim. The main purpose of honoring one’s parents is to fulfill their physical needs, ensuring that they are fed and do not lack basic requirements. Even actions that focus on giving the parent honor or not making them feel bad are also related to looking after their welfare, albeit their emotional welfare, something that only applies while they are alive.

As the dead parent no longer needs these basic requirements any more, the only obligation remaining after his/her death is to perform acts that honor him/her, and these are not the main essence of the mitzvah.

If so, it is clear why the Noda B’Yehuda gives precedence to honoring the living parent, as this is the main essence of kibbud horim, which one cannot fulfill for the parent who has died, and all one can do is honor their memory.

[1] Masechet Kiddushin 31b

[2] s.v. hareini kaparat mishkavo

[3] There is some difficulty with Rashi’s opinion, as the Torah states explicitly: בנים לא יומתו על אבות, איש בחטאו יומתו, meaning that He does not punish sons for their fathers’ sins. Why, then, would a son ask to receive his father’s punishment? In Responsa  B’tzel HaChochma (6:20), Rav Betzalel Stern writes in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein that the son’s request is not a practical one, but just “a language of honor,” i.e., “in his honor and wishes, that the suffering that should come to the father should come to him instead.”

[4] Yoreh Deah 240: 9.

[5] Masechet Kiddushin 30b

[6] Yoreh Deah, siman 240

[7] Masechet Kiddushin 31a

[8] The halacha that the mother is obligated in honoring the father is derived in the Gemara (Yevamot 5b) from the pasuk “איש אמו ואביו תיראו ואת שבתותי תשמורו”, from which Chazal learned that if the father tells the son to be mechallel Shabbat, he must not listen to his father, because his father is also obligated in kavod shamayim. The Gemara employs the same principle regarding the honoring of one’s father taking precedence. See the Chida (Responsa Chaim Sha’al 27) whether the mother’s obligation to honor her husband is deoraita or derabanan.

[9] Yoreh Deah 240:14.

[10] Yoreh Deah 376

[11] Written by Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch.

[12] Yoreh Deah 240

[13] Rav Shimon bar Tzemach Duran

[14] Yoreh De’ah 376:4

[15] Rav Yechezkel Segal Landau (1713-1793), rabbi of Prague and author of Tziyon L’nefesh Chaya (Tzlach) on the Talmud and Dagul Merevava commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. His Responsa Noda B’yehuda is often used as a strong basis for many later halachic rulings in all areas of Jewish law. He is considered one of the greatest rabbis throughout the generations in Jewish tradition, and there is almost no halachic discussion in which he expresses an opinion where it is not given significant consideration.

[16] Yoreh Deah 240

[17] Noda B’yehuda, Mahadura Tanyana, Even Ha’ezer 45.

[18] The Noda B’yehuda adds some other considerations to his conclusion as well. First, this case deals with a question concerning marriage, where there is less of an obligation to listen to one’s parents. Furthermore, the father did not order his daughter to do anything, and he also did not order his wife not to allow the daughter to marry, but rather that his wife should not marry her off to her uncle.

[19] Responsa of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Mahadura Kamma, siman 68.

[20] It should be noted again that as mentioned above, the Beit Yosef himself states elsewhere (as pointed out here by the Darkei Moshe) that nevertheless, the minhag is for a son to recite Kaddish for his mother, and the father cannot stop him. This indeed is the ruling given by the Rema. It seems that Rav Akiva Eiger did not have that statement of the Beit Yosef in his version of the text.

[21] It seems that proof of this can be found in Rashi’s commentary (to Ketubot 91b). The Mishna discusses if the monetary obligations of the deceased are passed on to the heirs and rules that “the orphans are obligated to pay off their father’s debt.”  Rashi explains that orphans have a “מצווה בעלמא דרבנן” due to the obligation to honor their father, i.e., so that people should not talk about the father that he borrowed money and did not pay it back.

[22] Rabbi Malkiel Zvi Halevi Tannenbaum, Divrei Malkiel 2:137.

[23] This explanation was delivered in an oral shiur.

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