Jewish Core Value
Honor of parents, called kibud av va’em (“honor of father and mother”)
Old Testament Basis
The commandment to honor* one’s parents is found in both versions of the Ten Commandments, where it comes attached to a promise from God. (*Some translations say “fear” or “be in awe of.”)
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 5:16).
Leviticus 19:3 shows that there is a close connection between parental authority, especially where children are concerned, and God’s authority.
Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:3).
The same Hebrew word yareh, used here of respecting parents, is also used of “fearing” God in Leviticus 19:14 and “revering” God in Leviticus 19:32. Gordon Wenham, a Bible scholar, perceptively remarks, “As far as a child is concerned, his parents are in the place of God: through them he can learn what God is like and what he requires. It is therefore fitting that in his younger years a child should honor and fear his parents, as in later years he will fear God.”1
The Book of Proverbs reiterates this in a different way:
My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck (Proverbs 1:8-9).
Proverbs also links honoring one’s parents with wisdom and its benefits. The child who heeds the parents is wise—and by implication will receive the rewards of wisdom—but a child’s wisdom also brings happiness to the parents, just as a child’s foolishness would bring grief (see Proverbs 10:1 and 15:20).
New Testament Teaching
The clearest reiteration of the commandment to honor one’s parents is found in Ephesians 6:1-4:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
While Paul is clear on this matter, some find Jesus’ teaching to be problematic. What are we to do with the following passages that seem at first sight to repudiate the commandments to honor one’s parents?
“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53; see also Matthew 10:34-36).
In fact, Jesus was quoting from the Jewish prophet Micah:
Do not trust in a friend; do not put your confidence in a companion; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom. For son dishonors father, daughter rises against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household (Micah 7:5-6).
Jesus is not saying that this is desirable. He is saying that social unraveling will occur prior to the Messianic age, as sin stands out in sharp relief. People will need to choose for Jesus or not.
But what about this verse?
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).
Jesus is not saying that parents are not worthy of love and honor; He wants those who would follow Him to know that the relationship with God (which comes through Jesus) takes priority over every other relationship. (For more on these challenging verses, see www.jewsforjesus.org/answers/jesus/family.)
While Jesus stresses honor of God over any other relationship, He clearly upheld the commandment to honor parents:
He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition (Matthew 15:3-6; see also Mark 7:9-13).
Moreover, Jesus includes the commandment to honor parents in his response to “a certain ruler” in Luke 18:18-20, see also Mark 10:19.
Nowhere is Jesus’ affirmation of the commandment to honor one’s parents better seen than in the provisions he made for his own mother after his death (see John 19:26-27).
In Traditional Jewish Life
“According to the rabbis,” writes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “‘awe’ means deep, abiding respect; for example, as in not sitting in one’s father’s place at the table, or not siding with a parent’s adversary during a dispute.” It also includes providing food, clothing, shelter and the basic necessities of life. It does not, however, include obeying parents if that involves breaking God’s commandments, nor in the matter of choosing a marriage partner. After all, if someone marries someone they don’t love, they will end up hating that person, which would violate the law to love one’s neighbor as oneself!2
A story is told to illustrate that we should honor our parents in the spirit of the commandment, not just in its letter:
A man approached Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk with a question. His father was ill in another city far away. Since there is a machlokes (difference of opinion regarding Jewish law) as to whether one must spend money in order to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, he wanted to know whether he was obligated to spend the large sum necessary to take the train to visit his father.
“You are not obligated to spend the money to visit your father,” the Rav answered him. “You can walk!”5
Examples of this core value in Contemporary Jewish Culture
Perhaps the most visible example of honor to parents is the widespread network of Jewish retirement communities. According to the Association of Jewish Aging Services, there are some 100 non-profit Jewish senior organizations and 130 communities in the United States,6 most of which generally welcome non-Jews as well.
For recent news articles on honoring parents, see:
“Honor your parents — and believe in them”
Conversations with Jewish Friends
If you have a Jewish friend with an elderly parent or parents, ask after their welfare. Perhaps it would even be appropriate to visit them if they live in your area. You might also share how your faith has shaped your approach to honoring your own aging parents.
Sometimes Jewish people who have heard the gospel also raise objections that they have heard or read elsewhere. The material above will help if an objection has to do with Jesus’ “hard sayings” about following him over following family.
Finally, it’s helpful to realize that many Jewish people will not allow themselves to consider Jesus on the basis that embracing Him as Messiah and Savior would cause pain to their parents. Be sensitive to your friends’ concerns, but don’t be afraid to gently point out that the same God who told us to honor our parents expects us to put Him first. Most people’s parents want them to care about what’s true. Even if belief in Jesus causes parents initial dismay, in principle we honor our parents by seeking truth.
Online extras: If you missed the first three installments of “Jewish Core Values, Jesus and You,” check out the teachings on:
1 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 265.
2 Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991), pp. 527–28 3compilation of Jewish legal discussions put in writing from the 3rd-6th centuries AD
4 Kiddushin 30b.
5 As told in a brochure by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Kibud Av’V’eim (NCSY Torah on One Foot Series; New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth, n.d.). Available as a PDF. This brochure contains many examples of honor of parents in Jewish tradition and teaching.