Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Q: Rabbi, am I permitted to demand that my sons and daughters help me with the housework, even though I am actually able to put in more effort and do everything on my own? One time I asked my children to help clean the house, and they refused, each with a different pretext – one wanted to read, the other wanted to go visit friends. I argued with them that they are not observing the mitzvah of honoring a mother, and they replied that the duty of honoring parents is to help the parents when they cannot take care of themselves, as our Sages said (Kiddushin 31b): “What is considered honor? He gives his father food and drink, dresses and covers him, and brings him in and takes him out for all his household needs,” and only ailing parents need to be fed and dressed and covered. And that’s our mitzvah – to help you in case you can’t manage on your own. But, thank God, you are healthy and strong, and with God’s help, you will be able to clean the house until you are a hundred and twenty, and right now, we don’t have to help you.

Are my children right in their claim?

A: Our Sages said that derech eretz preceded the Torah, and consequently, the world had to pass through twenty-six generations before the Torah was given (Tanna Debei Eliyahu 1; Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). This is because it is impossible to understand the Torah properly without the concepts of ‘derech eretz‘ being clear. Noah’s legacy is the legacy of derech eretz.

Therefore, everything that a decent person must do according to the rules of derech eretz, children must also do towards their parents as part of the mitzvot of honoring parents. The novelty that the Torah added is that even after a person has already started a family and is busy with his livelihood and raising his children, if his parents are in need of full-time help, then despite the great difficulty, in addition to his occupation with his livelihood and his family, he must also help and assist his parents in whatever they need.

In a similar way, if you agreed to host unrelated guests in your home for several months, it is obvious that from a moral point of view, they would have to help you with the housework. All the more so when it comes to your own children, the mitzvot of honoring parents requires them to bear the burden with you. Therefore, whenever parents ask their children to bear the burden of care at home, as is accepted according to the rules of derech eretz and the children refuse – they are nullifying the Torah commandment of honoring parents.

Because everything that is required on the part of derech eretz is included in the obligation of the mitzvot of honoring parents. Only in extreme cases, such as a case where the parents avoid housework and impose too many chores on their children, is there reason to say that the children are not obliged to cancel their activities, and do housework.

The Main Aspect of the Mitzvah is Aimed at a Situation of Problematic Parents

Rabbi Haim Palagi wrote (Tokhahot Hayyim on Parshat Toldot), that the main aspect of the mitzvot of honoring parents is directed towards troublesome parents whose morals are bad. But if a father or mother are ordinary people, apparently there is no need to command this, since every decent person understands that children should honor their parents. The main novelty of the mitzvah is that even when parents do not deserve honor, it is a mitzvah to honor them.

Relations between an Adopted Son to His Adoptive Parents

Another example of the important place of ‘derech eretz’ in halakha is the relationship of an adopted son to his adoptive parents. True, the mitzvah of honoring parents from the Torah applies to his biological parents and not to adoptive parents (Sotah 49a), but from the moral obligation side, since the adoptive parents treated him as a son, he also has to treat them as one treats normal parents. And as our Sages said: “Anyone who raises an orphan boy or girl in his house, the verse ascribes him credit as if he gave birth to him” (Megillah 13a).

Moreover, the moral obligation of an adopted child is greater, since it is natural that parents take care of their children and raise them, but when spouses take in an orphaned or abandoned child and take care of him and raise him, their benevolence is greater, and consequently, the obligation to be grateful towards them is greater. And thus our Sages said (Ketubot 50a), that those who raise an orphan boy or an orphan girl in his house, takes care of them, and marries them off, is considered to be “performing charity at all times” (Psalms 106:3).

And it is further explained in the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 6) that God has treasures to reward the righteous, and within them, a special treasure to reward those who raise orphans in their homes.

If so, it is clear that an adopted son must behave towards his adoptive parents with reverence and honor, as a son should behave towards his biological parents, and even more so. If they need help, the adopted son must assist them as much as he possibly can. And if they are sick, he should accompany and feed them with whatever is needed, as children are obliged to do to their parents.

And after their death – it is a mitzvah for the adopted children to say Kaddish for them (Peninei Halakha Likutim: Mishpacha 1, 25). If the adopted child is a doctor or a nurse, and one of his adoptive parents needs an injection or an operation, he can help them with this without fearing that during the treatment, he will draw blood from them. But for a son who is not in the medical profession it is forbidden, because anyone who strikes his parents and draws a drop of blood from them is liable to death, as it is said (Exodus 21:15): “One who strikes one’s father or mother shall be put to death.” Therefore, our Sages forbade a son to perform medical treatment on his father, lest he draw blood from him (Sanhedrin 84b), and only when he has no choice, is it permissible (Peninei Halakha, ibid. 1, 24, 13).

In contrast, for an adopted son whose duty to honor his parents is from the aspect of morality and derech eretz, and not from the aspect of the legal obligation, there is no such restriction.

A Convert’s Relationship with his Parents

This is also the case with a convert’s relationship with his parents. As a general rule, a person who converts is considered born again, and therefore, from the legal aspect of the mitzvah of honoring parents, he is not obligated to honor his biological parents. But since the rules of derech eretz precede, and are binding, even if his parents become estranged from him, he must not insult them, and even more importantly, he must not hit or curse them. For it is unfeasible that while he was a non-Jew he was obliged to respect them, and now that he has converted and become a Jew, he would be exempt from the obligation of honor towards them (S.A. Y.D. 241:9).

Accordingly, it is his duty to respect them and help them with whatever they need, as the rules of derech eretz required him while he was still a non-Jew. Therefore, when they are sick, he should help them as is customary, and after their death, it is appropriate that he should say Kaddish Yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) for an uplifting of their souls.

Admittedly, sometimes a problem arises: on the one hand, the convert wants to behave properly towards his biological parents, and on the other hand, does not want his children to follow their religion and people. Therefore, the convert needs to find the middle road, such as reducing his visits to the extent that he will not be considered ungrateful towards them.

When righteous converts immigrate to Israel, and their parents remain abroad, everyone realizes that they cannot visit their parents that often, and the problem is almost non-existent. However, when the situation requires, and it is possible, it is appropriate to visit them, such as when one of his parents’ wishes to see his grandchildren before his death (Peninei Halakha Likutim: Mishpacha 1, 27).

It is also permissible for a convert to help his biological parents by performing medical treatment on them, that may draw blood from them.

Derech Eretz in the Laws of Blessings

There are two types of blessings on food: before eating the food, and afterwards. The blessing before eating is getting permission to take joy from God’s world. Reason requires this, to the point where our Sages said (Berachot 35a) that the Torah did not need to command this: “It is induced by reason: One is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without a blessing.” However, the blessing recited after eating is the innovation that the Torah established.

Presumably one might ask, why doesn’t the Torah command to bless before eating, and thereby strengthen the mitzvah? However, something that needs to be learned by reason is liable to be weakened if it is learned from a verse. As if it was necessary to remind oneself he has to be appreciative for all the good that God has given him.

This is the reason why one does not bless on a mitzvah between a person and his friend, since a person should help his friends out of his good heart, and if before helping him he blesses: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the world, who commanded us to help a friend”, a person’s natural goodness is liable to be weakened. As it were, he says to his friend: “I am not really interested in you yourself, but since God commanded me to help you, I am helping.”

The novelty of the commandments of the Torah is that we bless even after we eat and are satiated, so that we can perceive all the good that God has done for us and for all of Israel, and thank God and bless over it, as it is said (Deuteronomy 8:10): “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to your God for the good land given to you.” In other words, God granted us the mitzvah to bless him after the meal, so that through the blessing, we will be able to elevate the food we have already eaten, and be empowered to do good deeds, to settle the Land, and be partners with God in adding blessing to the world.

Usually, when a person is hungry, he knows he needs help and that there are shortcomings in the world, and he cries out to God. But when he is full and satisfied, he is liable to be satisfied with having fulfilled his desire, and forget God and the ideals standing before him, and the shortcomings that exist in the world. Therefore, we were commanded to bless Birkat Ha-mazone, and thereby grow in faith and be strengthened in our mission to reveal the Holy Presence in the good Land that God has given us.

Reciting a Blessing Out Loud and Derech Eretz

The person reciting the blessing should say the blessing out loud with his lips, so that at the very least, he will hear it himself. Optimally, it is best to say the blessing in a loud voice, because voice evokes intention, and by doing so, those around him will also merit to answer ‘Amen’. Someone who answers ‘Amen’ with intention has great virtue, and the gates of heaven are opened for him (Shabbat 119b), and “The reward of the one who answers ‘Amen’ is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing” (Berachot 53b). And life becomes indifferent as well for someone who is negligent in answering ‘Amen’, (see Berachot 47a).

Therefore, when refreshments are served it is appropriate to bless aloud, so that those present can hear, and will be able to answer ‘Amen’. However, it is imperative that this be done with derech eretz, and therefore, after those present have started a conversation, a person who blesses out loud, without knowing clearly that it is desirable for all those gathered, interrupts the conversation, and maybe even is disrespectful to the person speaking and cuts off his train of thought. By doing so, one does not gain a mitzvah, but perhaps, even commits a sin.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.