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 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:
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 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.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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