Do Parents Have Any Obligations to Their Children According to Judaism?

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Dear Jew in the City-

Judaism requires children to have certain obligations towards their parents with honoring one’s mother and father. Do parents have any obligations to their children?

Thanks,

RR

Dear RR-

Thanks very much for your question. While it seems rather straightforward, I suspect from your juxtaposition to the obligation of honoring parents that you may mean something analogous, such as do parents have an obligation to emotionally validate their children. Such is not the case. While parents absolutely have obligations towards their children, they tend to be more physical than emotional.

Honestly, this makes sense to me. Just look at the pendulum swings that parenting methods took throughout the 20th century:

  • In the 1920s, Sir Frederick Truby King was the parenting guru. His method was called “enforcement parenting” and it emphasized discipline and detachment. The Truby King method was to feed babies every four hours by day and never at night, ignoring the baby’s demands in between. Truby King also imposed a 10-minute daily cap on cuddling since parenting was about routine and discipline rather than bonding;
  • From the 1940s through the 1960s, Dr. Benjamin Spock was the main voice in parenting. He encouraged a gentler approach to child-rearing and told parents to trust their instincts. Dr. Spock babies enjoyed way more cuddling and pampering than Trudy King babies;
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, Penelope Leach rose to prominence with her child-centered parenting. The idea behind this was that if you had a baby, then the time has come for you to make sacrifices. Leach has since spoken against letting babies “cry it out,” which is a technique advocated by many other experts to establish routine.

New terms are always coming to prominence, from “tiger moms” and “helicopter parents” to the dreaded and maligned “participation trophies.” All of this demonstrates how different parenting wisdom can be from decade to decade within the same culture, to say nothing of how much it can vary from one culture to another. When the Torah does say something that people think represents actual parenting advice, the first thing people do is complain that it doesn’t align with the modern experts! So I think it’s good that the Torah doesn’t micromanage our parenting styles, since these are going to change every 15 minutes or so anyway.

Now let’s look at what the Torah actually does require of parents.

First of all, the Torah requires that we have children. This is, in fact, the very first mitzvah in the Torah.

It may seem strange but only men are obligated in the mitzvah to procreate. Because of the pain and risk involved, the Torah does not require it of women (Yevamos 6:6). Historically, women have been extremely good sports about participating in this activity and they do indeed fulfill a mitzvah by having children even though they are not required to do so. So the first obligation your parents fulfilled towards you was ensuring that you exist!

The Talmud in Kiddushin (29a) lists the following obligations of a father towards his son:

A father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him, to teach him Torah, to marry him off to a woman and to teach him an occupation. Some add also to teach him to swim. Rabbi Yehuda says that any father who doesn’t teach his son an occupation teaches him to steal. (The Gemara immediately clarifies that this means it’s as if he teaches him to steal.)

Over the course of the next few pages, the Gemara discusses these obligations and it attaches each one to a Biblical source:

  • The obligation to circumcise a son is based on Genesis 21:4, “Avraham circumcised his son Yitzchak”;
  • The obligation to redeem a son is based on Exodus 34:20, “All your firstborn sons you shall redeem”;
  • The obligation to teach a son Torah is based on Deuteronomy 11:19, “You shall teach them to your sons”;
  • The obligation to marry a son off to a woman is based on Jeremiah 29:6, “Take wives for yourselves and have sons and daughter; take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands”;
  • The obligation to marry a son off to a woman is based on Koheles 9:9, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.”

The only thing on the list not tied to a Biblical verse is the addendum about teaching a child to swim. This is simply a practical, potentially life-saving skill that everyone should have.

The Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 19a) analyzes this same list of obligations and ties all of them to verses from the Torah (as differentiated from Jeremiah, which is in the Prophets, and Koheles, which is in the Writings). The practical difference between the two approaches is the possibility of presenting all of these responsibilities as overt Biblical obligations rather than merely ideas with Biblical support behind them. Not only that, the Yerushalmi ties teaching one’s son to swim to a Biblical verse, Deuteronomy 30:19: “so that you and your descendants shall live.”

You may notice that a father’s obligation to feed his children isn’t mentioned. That’s discussed elsewhere, in tractate Kesubos. On daf 49a, the Gemara discusses how feeding one’s children is a moral obligation but that the courts were not empowered to compel recalcitrant fathers to do so. Later, on daf 65b, Rabbi Ulla announced an enforceable obligation for fathers to feed their young children, defined as up to age 6. (This may seem like a laughably young cut-off point to us but remember that not every generation is like ours. Historically, children often went off to the army, to the coal mines, to the sweatshops, etc.)

We see from all this that parents absolutely have obligations towards their children. These obligations, however, are different from those of a child towards a parent simply because the relationship is not an even two-way street. Many relationships skew in one way or another, such as teacher-student, boss-employee and doctor-patient. What each party provides the other in such relationships is unique because each party’s role is unique.

Such is the case with parents and children. Children are meant to respect and defer to their parents (although there are parameters in which this is expected). Parents are meant to prepare their children for life with religious education, business training and other necessary skills. What the Torah doesn’t mandate is a parenting approach, which is fine. The overwhelming majority of parents will try their best to be good parents simply because of the natural human instinct to do so. For the rest, being commanded, “Be a good parent!” wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube


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  • Shelley says on January 26, 2021

    While not direct obligations by parents towards children, I did read the book “Run After the Right Kavod” by Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum that the general Mitzvot such as Onat Devarim, Lashon Horah, etc. still applies between Parent and Child.

    One painful memory I have was when I crossed the street, the walk signal was broken so I crossed assuming it was safe. My parents were on the other side. They were furious with me because from their perspective it was a “don’t walk” signal which worked but I could not see that because it was the direction I started from. I was grounded. I am prone to freezing so was unable to defend myself then. The someone calls my mother on the phone and asked how I was, my mother mocked me on the phone and said what bad thing I did. I was pained that it had to be revealed to an outsider. That was probably considered Loshon Hora and just because I was the child, does not make it right for the parent to say it.

    Also wondering about the “don’t contradict your parent” part. Because in Egypt while still slaves, Amram wanted to do an “Extinction Rebellion” and have all the married couples divorced to not bring any more children in the world due to the Egyptian ordinance to kill all the baby boys, so the Jews will eventually die out naturally. Miriam, his daughter gave her father arguments to not do this and he agreed and the couples all remarried. So if the child did not contradict the parent then there would be no Jews at all today.

    Reply
    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on January 27, 2021

      Okay, so two things. First, I agree with you that parents shouldn’t speak lashon hara about their children but parents do talk about parenting. “You wouldn’t believe what so-and-so did today” is a common method of venting to other parents. But when is it acceptable and when is it lashon hara? I think that if Susie, age 14, shoplifts a necklace from the mall, mom should not share that with her friends because of lashon hara. But what if Johnny, age 1, draws on the wall? I think you might agree that that’s okay to share in the parenting group. But what’s the cut-off? Is age 5 okay? Age 8 or 9? Bar or bas mitzvah? I don’t know of a halachic cut-off (though I’ve never looked into the question) and I assume people you ask will likely all have different opinions. But whatever one’s opinion, remember that the parent’s intention is to vent, not to disparage the child. The parent simply may not consider the possibility that a younger child may feel embarrassed the same way that an older person would.

      As far as Miriam and Amram, remember that that story isn’t in the Torah. It’s a Midrash so one isn’t obligated to believe that it ever actually happened. It could just be a story with a moral lesson.

      Even if you want to assume that it happened as written, remember that it was before matan Torah. Kibud av isn’t one of the sheva mitzvos b’nei Noach, so the Jews weren’t obligated in it before matan Torah.

      Even if you wanted to say that Miriam kept the mitzvos before matan Torah – not that such is our tradition – check out that article I link to at the end. Sometimes children have to contradict their parents. (If your parent suddenly starting saying that Shabetai Zvi was the moshiach, would you let that slide? I suspect you’d correct it!) Miriam certainly had a need to correct Amram. The issue is that when we correct our parents, we must do so gently and politely.

      And yes, I get that Miriam’s response as recorded isn’t particularly gentle or polite but even if this story ever happened, were those her actual words? Of course not. They’re words placed in her mouth centuries later by Chazal when they committed the oral story to writing. (Which brings us full circle to “Midrashim need not be taken literally!”)

      I hope this helps!

      Reply

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