Honoring Parents – From A Distance


My parents are both very elderly, bli ayin hora. They live in England and I have not seen them for 2.5 years. My father is in a wheelchair and lives in the special medical wing of an old people's home and my mother lives on her own. Neither of them is physically able to visit us in Israel.

My question is this: What is my duty regarding taking my family and going to visit them in England? If I had the funds to pay for the flights and kosher hotel accommodation (staying with my mother would be too problematic for a host of reasons) I would be happy to go, but that is not the case. My wife feels very strongly that I should not borrow the money. I lack even the funds to go on my own and I cannot expect my parents to help pay since they live off their pension of approximately $80 a week, half of which goes for my father's medical care.

I read a story about a man who asked a rav whether he was obliged to borrow money to buy a train ticket to visit his father. The rav replied that he was not obliged to borrow the money – he could walk! I realize walking to England is not on the cards but the point remains that I am unsure what G-d expects me to do in these circumstances to fulfill my obligations to my parents.


Your sincere efforts to do the right thing to fulfill your obligation of kibbud av ve'aim inspire me to offer a comprehensive answer.

Visiting one's parent (mother or father) is surely a fulfillment of the mitzva to show respect to parents. See Yoma 77b and O.C. 613:5 and 554:12, where we learn that one is permitted to enter a body of water on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av in order to greet (visit) one's parent, and even return by the same route, since it is considered a trip l'dvar mitzva. Sha'ar Hatziun 301:12 states explicitly that the mitzva one performs when visiting a parent is kibbud av ve'aim.[1]

There is no chiyuv to visit one's parents if neither parent requested a visit. If at least one parent asked a child to visit, then there is a potential chiyuv to visit – if the necessary conditions, soon to be explained, are met.[2]

If, however, the parent asks the child to do something that does not benefit the parent in any way, the mitzva of kibbud av ve'aim does not require a son or daughter to comply.[3] In order to be chayav in the mitzva of kibbud av ve'aim, the child must be asked to do something for the parent's benefit. Otherwise, there is a kiyum mitzva but not a chiyuv mitzva.[4] This is the nature of the dvar mitzva to greet one's parents mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch. It seems that the visit itself is a mitzvah (lehakbil pnei oviv), even if the child did not serve the parent in any way.[5]

If a parent asks a child to visit, then the child has a chiyuv to visit.[6] The Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 240:5 limits this obligation to a situation in which the parents are providing the funds. The child does not have to pay anything to feed, clothe, or visit his parents or to do as his parents request if his parents could afford it. Kibbud av is a mitzva that one fulfills with one's body, not one's wallet. If the parent who made the request has the money, the parent foots the bill.

If the parent does not have the money but the child has sufficient funds, the child has to pay for the service requested up to the amount a person with his assets would be expected to give to tzedaka.[7]

If the child can afford to help his parents with their needs without using tzedaka money, he should avoid using tzedaka money for that purpose. Even if his parents will never know where the money came from, it is considered disrespectful to care for one's parent with tzedaka money.[8]

If the parent made a request but does not have assets to draw on and the son or daughter does not have enough money to live on for the next 30 days, the child does not have to assist the parent. He is not required to spend his money on his parent's needs and ask for tzedaka for himself.[9] Nor is he required to borrow money to meet a parent's need.

The principle behind all this is that the mitzva of kibbud av has to do with behavior and actions, not finances. Therefore, should a situation arise in which the son or daughter would have to spend time but no money at all to care for his/her parent and would miss work as a result, then the child is required to give of his/her time. This is true if the child has enough money for that day's food and shelter and does not expect to lose his/her job when the mitzva is finished.[10]

Generally it is not advisable to learn halacha from stories, even authentic stories about gedolim, but in this instance there is a solid halachic principle behind the story you heard. Most probably the story you heard was about the Brisker Rav, who made the point that when one is asked to visit a parent, there is a chiyuv mishel ha'av (from the parent's assets); however, if the person wants to travel by train to make his life easier but could go on foot, then the train fare is his responsibility. The train fare only becomes the parent's burden when there is no feasible way to arrive in a reasonable length of time without the train. If the child can make the trip without incurring any expenses and can thus meet the parent's needs, then he is obligated to do so, provided he has food and shelter for the trip.[11]

To summarize and apply these halachos to your situation, since your parents did not ask you to come, you have no obligation to do so. Even if they asked you to come, they would have to pay if they could afford it. If they don't have the money and you do, you would have to spend the amount a person of your means should give to tzedaka.[12] If you have the money available, you should not use tzedaka money unless you have no choice.

If you do not have the money, you are patur unless it is feasible to reach your destination in the expected period without spending any money. You also don't have to jeopardize a job for this mitzva (i.e., you don't have to do it unless you are guaranteed your job back when you return), and you only have to go if you have enough money saved to cover your family's needs during the time you will be away. You are never required to borrow money or ask for tzedaka in order to fulfill your chiyuv.

All this being said regarding the obligation of kibbud av, there is always the kiyum mitzva of kibbud av that a person fulfills when he manages to extend himself and makes the effort to show appreciation to his parents for everything they have done for him.[13]

BookID: 2 Chapter: 240

[1]M.B. 301:10 therefore rules that a married woman can visit her parents only with her husband's permission, since a married woman has a responsibility of kibbud av ve'aim only insofar as it does not conflict with her responsibilities towards her husband. See Y.D. 240:17.

Iggros Moshe (Y.D. vol. 1 siman 155) deduces from the Shach that not only when a wife's kibbud av conflicts with her responsibilities to her husband, but even if her kibbud av were to conflict with the interests of her husband, her husband's interests should take precedence when the husband will not compromise his position. Accordingly, he rules that a wife who is in the 12-month mourning period for a parent should attend a banquet with her husband, if her husband would be embarrassed to attend alone and it would strain their relationship if she refused to go. (Rav Feinstein maintains that the laws associated with the 12-month mourning period for a parent are based on kibbud av ve'aim.)

[2]Chazon Ish Y.D. 149:8 and Gra Y.D. 240:36 explain that the mitzva covers all requests that will benefit the parent.

According to the Gra's interpretation of the Rashba, the types of actions mentioned in the Gemara (Yevamos 6), like feeding and dressing, have a special status. Since that is the ikar mitzva, it has the power to be docheh a lav. The Chazon Ish maintains that even the Gra would agree that there is a chiyuv de'oraisa to fulfill any request that benefits a parent or would spare the parent suffering, although those types are not docheh a lav.

[3]The opinion of Rav Pinchas Halevi Horowitz in his Sefer HaMikna on Kiddushin 31b is that although there is no chiyuv of kibbud av ve'aim when the parent receives no benefit, nonetheless, the son or daughter must comply with the request due to the chiyuv of mora. Ignoring a parent's request, even if what is being requested does not benefit the parent in any way, is akin to contradicting a parent's statement, which is a clear violation of mora av ve'aim. Rav Horowitz qualifies his chiddush by saying that it applies only when the son or daughter will not suffer any loss. If the child would suffer a loss, he is not considered to be acting disrespectfully towards his parent by refusing. The logic is that if the parent makes a request that the son or daughter can fulfill without incurring a loss (monetary loss, pain, difficulty, embarrassment or discomfort) and the child refuses to do so, failure to comply for no reason indicates a lack of reverence. If the child has a personal reason to refuse, then the refusal is not to be viewed as defiant behavior, and the veneration of the parent is not diminished.

As an illustration of these principles, consider the following example: Should a father insist that his son return to the family custom of using a German, Lithuanian or any Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew instead of the Israeli-Sephardic style of pronunciation that the son adopted when he joined an Israeli community, the son would not be required to obey his father. Although it is inappropriate for a son to abandon his family tradition for another tradition (ve'al titosh Toras imecha), once he has done so he is not required to heed his father's demand that he give up his new custom. Since the father gains nothing personally, there can be no chiyuv of kavod. According to Rav Horowitz, there is potentially a chiyuv of mora. In this case, however, since the son would suffer the loss of association with his chosen community, there is no chiyuv of mora either.

In the context of a parent's request to visit, there would generally be no chiyuv of mora, since the son would potentially have many valid reasons for not wanting to go. Therefore, it would not be considered a zilzul of one's parent to refuse, provided the child has some reason for not wanting to make the trip.

I have explained thus far that, in your situation, even according to the Sefer HaMikna you would not have to travel to visit your parents. I will now proceed to show that his opinion is probably wrong.

Rav Horowitz's novel opinion is derived from his own answers to a question he presented. His thesis is based on his question on Kiddushin 31b: Since the Gemara (Megilla 16b) teaches that Talmud Torah is greater than kibbud av, why did Avimi trouble himself to assist his father, Rav Avahu, when Avimi could have asked his son to substitute for him, thereby allowing Avimi to study Torah uninterrupted? – His answer is that Torah study is greater than kibbud av but not greater than mora av, and when Rav Avahu, his father, asked for assistance there was a chiyuv of mora that had to be addressed. The two chiddushim derived from this question are that there is a chiyuv of mora when a parent makes a request and that this chiyuv is greater than that of kavod. Torah study takes precedence over kavod but not over mora. Hence Avimi's Torah study is less important than his responsibility for mora av and he could not ask his son to serve Rav Avahu in his stead.

There are a number of weaknesses in this chiddush.

First, an alternative answer to Rav Horowitz's question makes all of his conclusions baseless. The Gemara can be understood on the basis of the chiyuv of kavod alone.

When presented with a mitzva chiyuvis of kibbud av that cannot be performed by someone else, one does not have the option to choose Talmud Torah instead. Just as the Gemara (Megilla 16b) says that Talmud Torah is greater than saving lives but when a life is in danger one cannot opt for Torah study instead and forsake a Jewish life, so too with kibbud av ve'aim, once a clear chiyuv is established, one must perform that mitzva first.

The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 246:18) teaches that one should not interrupt Torah study to perform another mitzva unless others cannot perform the mitzva. If no one else can do the mitzva, then the study of Torah is waived in deference to the mitzva. The Pischei Teshuva (240:8) rules that despite the fact that Torah study is more important than kibbud av, nonetheless, when a son is in the vicinity of his father, he should temporarily stop his Torah study to fulfill his father's needs and requests since the chiyuv mitzva cannot be completed by anyone else in the same way. The Pischei teshuva offers this information as an explanation of the Gemara regarding Avimi and therefore rejects the chiddushim of the Sefer HaMikna. Apparently the Pischei Teshuva means to suggest that only Avimi would have assisted his father in a fashion that his father would have liked. Hence, he could not have had anyone substitute for him so that he could study Torah instead.

The maxim that Torah study is greater than kibbud av ve'aim (found in Megilla 16b) is to be understood as advocating Torah study over kibbud av ve'aim when the needs of the parent could be satisfied in another way. Then, the question is which is a more worthwhile endeavor. The parent will not suffer in any case, but the child can choose between one mitzva and the other. Given these options the Gemara recommends choosing Torah study. 

Furthermore, the chiddush of Sefer HaMikna that Torah study does not take precedence over the new category of mora av created by Rav Horowitz (fulfilling a request) is contradicted by the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 240:25). The Shulchan Aruch discusses a case in which a young man wants to leave his father to attend a distant yeshiva located in a dangerous area and the father insists that his son stay nearby because the father will otherwise endure emotional suffering worrying about his son's safety. The father's request that his son stay should entail a chiyuv of mora that takes precedence over Torah study, according to the Sefer HaMikna. In fact, however, the Shulchan Aruch allows the son to travel for the sake of Torah study. The source of the halacha is found in Terumas Hadeshen (siman 40), which explicitly states that just as kibbud av ve'aim is superseded by Torah study, so too mora av ve'aim is superseded by Torah study.

(Pischei Teshuva 240:22 allows a son to ignore his father's request to refrain from traveling due to possible danger to the son, even if the son may be successful in his studies. The law does not insist that the son be sure that he will be successful, the logic being that Torah study is not equal to kibbud av, but greater than it).

To be fair, the halacha just mentioned (240:25) does present a difficulty with the answer attributed to the Pischei Teshuva (240:8). If every chiyuv of kibbud av that cannot be performed by others supersedes even Torah study, why is the young man allowed to leave home to study Torah? Isn't that action causing his father suffering that only the son himself can alleviate by staying? This is a powerful question.

Perhaps the Pischei Teshuva would answer that someone other than the son, namely, the father himself, could resolve the father's anxiety. The father's anxiety is a result of his fears and personality. Obviously, the son doesn't share the same anxiety. The father can modify his attitude and view his son's plans in a way that would reduce his anxiety. He might emphasize the protective powers of Torah study and be relieved. From this perspective, the pain that the father may suffer can be alleviated by another means, allowing the son to choose Torah study over kibbud av, since it now is a mitzva that can be performed by others. This seems to be the most plausible explanation to explain Mechaber 240:25 in light of Pischei Teshuva 240:8.

With Sefer HaMikna's thesis disproved, it is easy to explain the faulty logic. Sefer HaMikna assumed that any refusal to comply with a parent's request is tantamount to contradicting his words. A clear distinction could be drawn, however, between contradicting a parent's statement, which shows insufficient veneration of the father or mother by placing the parent and child on the same level and not fulfilling a parent's wishes, which is not indicative of a lack of reverence. A silent refusal to fulfill a parent's request does not necessarily indicate that the child views himself and his parent as equals.

Accordingly, when a parent asks for something that would not benefit the parent in any way, there is no chiyuv of kavod or mora that would require the child to comply.

[4]The fact that there is a kiyum mitzva is also helpful when one considers the issur of leaving Eretz Yisrael. Leaving Eretz Yisrael is not always allowed. The Gemara explains that Rav Asi was permitted to leave to visit his mother (Kiddushin 31b). Binas Adam (Mishpetei Eretz 11:3) suggests this was allowed only because he was planning to return to Eretz Yisrael and he went for the devar mitzva of kibbud aim.

Although the Binas Adam seems to require the mitzva of kibbud av ve'aim, implying that other mitzvos do not warrant permission to leave Eretz Yisrael, the Mogen Avrohom (531:7) extends the concept of devar mitzva to include a visit to a friend or a business trip. The Mechaber specifically prohibits a pleasure trip (yotzei letayel). Summing up the opinions of the Mogen Avrohom and the Mechaber, the Mishna Berura (531:14) permits traveling by boat within three days before Shabbos (see Mogen Avrohom ad loc.) for any devar mitzva (as defined in Hilchos Shabbos [248]) but prohibits pleasure trips.

The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 5:9) indicates that it is permissible to leave Eretz Yisrael for a devar mitzva or business only if the traveler is planning to return to Eretz Yisrael (see Shiltei Hagibborim,third perek of Shevuos).

Since the Rambam mentions business trips (sechora) and the Mogen Avrohom and Mishna Berura consider visiting friends to be a devar mitzva, one can rely on the lenient, more inclusive opinion-particularly since the Iggros Moshe (Even Ho'ezer, vol. 1, end of siman 102) proves that the prohibition on leaving Eretz Yisrael is miderabbonan.

Even according to the broad definition of a devar mitzva, my rebbi, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, wonders how people justify traveling from Eretz Yisrael to chutz la'aretz to visit the graves of tzaddikim. Rav Goldberg regards touring graves in order to daven at kivrei tzaddikim as letayel, which is prohibited by the Mechaber. Probably conflicting with my rebbi's ruling is the opinion of Rav Wosner (Shevet Halevi, vol. 5, 173), according to which a short trip to Eilat (which is not in Eretz Yisrael, in his opinion) to view the wonders of nature is a trip ledvar mitzva.

[5]Consequently, if a person says, for example, "I am going to visit my mother next week" and did not add bli neder, he must go or be matir neder, since he has made a neder ledvar mitzva.

Therefore, if your parents did not ask you to visit them, you are not obligated to do so, but if you do go, you will have fulfilled a mitzva.

[6]According to astory related in Sefer Chut Hameshulash, the Chasam Sofer's mother asked her son to travel from Pressburg to Frankfurt so that she could see him before she died. The Chasam Sofer asked the Beis Din of Pressburg to pasken this she'aila. They ruled that he should not go since the Torah learning of the entire community would be compromised.

[7]The Rema writes this in the name of yesh omrim, but the Gra 240:11, Taz #10 and other acharonim explain that there really is no dispute on the matter between the Mechaber and the Rema.

[8]See Rema 240:5 and Chochmas Adam.

[9]Shach 240:5

[10]Y.D. 240:5

[11]This chiddush is found in Teshuvos Har Zvi Y.D. 197.

[12]According to the Gra's letter to his family, that could never exceed 10% of one's assets.

[13]See Iggros Moshe (Y.D. vol. 2, #130), regarding a convert's responsibility to visit her sick gentile mother. He shows that the purpose of the mitzva of kibbud av ve'aim and acting respectfully towards a parent is to show appreciation. To ignore a parent's needs and requests would be a grave, universally recognized sin of ingratitude. Therefore, the Rambam (Mamrim 5:11) rules that a gentile is also expected to act respectfully to a parent. According to Rav Feinstein, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 241 at the end) concurs.

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