Talmidav Shel Aharon
8-5769: Mitzvah N-44
January 17, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 44 – This is a negative commandment: Do not strike your father or mother.
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “And he that strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15) The admonition against it derives from the verse “he may not add more.”(Deut. 25:3) as indicated in our last mitzvah. If a person inflicted a wound on his father or his mother and there were witnesses and a prior warning, his execution should be by strangulation. If he struck a parent on the ear and deafened, he would deserve death, since it is impossible that a drop of blood was not shed within. If he struck him without inflicting a wound, he is punishable as for striking any other Jew. If someone struck his father or his mother after their death, he is free of penalty. It is forbidden to do bloodletting for reasons of health on one’s own father or mother (and so, of course, surgery). If there is no other physician there, he is to do as they order him. This applies in every place and time, for both man and woman.
Respect and Honor of parents is part of the Ten Commandments and this is just the negative side of that commandment. Parents are handled differently than all other Jews regarding damage done to their bodies. We have to understand that this is not referring to a small child who strikes a parent in anger or frustration. A person does not come under the punishment for this violation until he or she reaches legal age in Judaism, which is 13 for boys and 12 ½ for girls. The real issue is when a child grows to be bigger and/or stronger than the parent. Note that there is no age limit given to this law. It therefore also applies to parents when they may become frail and elderly.
I have referred to the limits of capital punishment before but I want to mention it again since this is such a good example. The Sages were very uncomfortable with the death penalty and worked very hard to limit it. This was difficult since there are so many sins in the Torah that require the death penalty. Since the Torah could not be changed, the Sages tried to limit when the punishment could be invoked. There had to be witnesses who actually saw the crime committed. If a witness saw a man chase his father into a barn and when the witness followed him in, the father was injured, the witness did not see the crime and cannot testify how the father became injured. In addition, if witnesses were present (there have to be at least two witnesses) they are also required to warn the man that hurting his parent is a capital offense and they will have to testify at the trial. If any of these were not performed, the death penalty could not be applied.
Short of wounding a parent, if there were no damages to the parent’s body, then the rules of damages to others apply and there could be compensation for public embarrassment, loss of wages, etc. One cannot hurt or embarrass the dead so there can be no penalty for striking the dead body of a parent.
I pause here to mention that even if a parent is abusive, one is not allowed to strike a parent. One should put as much space between themselves and an abusing parent and should fulfill whatever duties a child needs to perform for a parent through proxies. While there is no limit on honoring a parent, one need not risk physical or emotional pain to fulfill this mitzvah. One should do what is necessary through others.
Because the Torah does not place any restrictions on this law, a doctor could not perform surgery of any kind on his or her parent without falling under this ban. Other doctors should be brought in so that the child will not have to “wound” their own parent. I know that doctors do not routinely operate on their close family members because they have too much emotional connection to the family. Here the reason is the prohibition of wounding the parent.
If the doctor is the only one nearby who can save the parent, he or she is to do as commanded. It really does not matter whether the doctor is being commanded by his or her parent or by others in the community; by following the command of others, the doctor is no longer responsible alone for “wounding” the parent and is allowed to do the surgery. In fact, if the parent tells him to operate, to refuse would be a violation of the command to honor one’s parents.