Talmidav Shel Aharon
10-5769: Mitzvah N-46
March 15, 2009
Negative Mitzvah 45 – This is a negative commandment: Do not curse your father or your mother
Hafetz Hayim: This prohibition is derived from the verse, “And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). If one cursed his father by the Divine name, he would deserve death by stoning, and this even if he cursed his parents using the Divine name after their death. If he cursed them with a substitute Divine name, he should receive whiplashes. One should not impose an oath on his father that contains an imprecation; nor should he be the emissary of a religious court to excommunicate him. It is forbidden to disgrace them; for whoever disgraces his father or his mother, even by a hint, is accursed by the word of the Almighty, since Scripture says, “Cursed be he who dishonors his father or his mother” (Deut. 27:16). This applies in every place and time, for both man and woman.
I think the basic idea is clear, we are forbidden to say or do anything that will bring dishonor to our parents. We can’t curse them, with or without the Divine name. We can’t be sent by a court to serve them with a lawsuit, to bring them a judgment in a case or bring them a ruling of excommunication. We are not allowed to force our parents to take an oath using the Divine name nor can we do anything that would cause disgrace to our parents. I can imagine the guilt that a parent can put on a child for all the things he or she does that the parent claims is bringing disgrace to the “family” but I think in this case the law is referring to actions that will clearly cause personal disgrace or embarrassment to the parents.
I want to take some time to discuss what Judaism says should happen if a parent is abusive or evil. Can one repudiate their parent? Can one disassociate from a parent? Can one remove oneself from responsibility for an abusive parent? The short answer is no, a person can never be released from responsibility for a parent. There is no blessing to recite before honoring a parent because there is never a time when we are not obligated to honor our parents and not to curse or abuse them. The Talmud records a case where a Sage had a mother who would spit and curse him all day long. He never rebuked her but the one time she abused him in public, he said quietly and simply, “That’s enough Mother.”
I hasten to add that while we have responsibilities for our parents, the responsibility does not supersede our responsibility for our own health. If an abusive parent is destroying a child’s life, the child can turn the daily care of his parent over to a surrogate or hire a helper to insure that the parent is cared for and that he is removed from being the brunt of the parent’s perpetual anger and abuse. I think that the reason Jewish Law does not relieve us from responsibility for a parent is not for parent’s sake but for our own. Biting words, verbal abuse and physical abuse often do not end just because our parent has died. The pain and hurt can go on for the rest of our own lives. If we abandon our parent, then we will certainly feel the guilt and shame that we were not able to fulfill our responsibilities for their care and sustenance. That guilt can be as debilitating as the abusive parent and has the capacity to go on for the rest of our life. If, on the other hand, we fulfill our duties as best we can, even if we put another person in the middle to buffer us from their direct attacks, at least, when the end comes, we can say that we did do all we could. There is a sense of comfort and relief that can be healing after the abusive parent is gone if we know that we did what we could.
Our parents gave us life. It is a great gift. We are given a mandate from the Torah to do all we can for them as long as we and they are alive. We can’t repay them for the gift they gave us, so we honor them and refrain from cursing them as a constant way to thank them for our most precious gift, our very lives.