What are the parameters of the mitzva of kibbud av va’aim? Assuming our parents do not ask us to sin, must we listen to any parental requests, no matter what type of requests they are? The gemara in Masechet Kiddushin (31b) provides examples of the obligations of “kibbud” and “mora” towards our parents. All of the examples of “kibbud,” literally meaning honor, like providing food and drink and helping parents get dressed and entering and exiting places, involve providing a physical benefit to a parent. All of the examples of “mora,” literally meaning reverence, like not standing or sitting in a parent’s place or not contradicting the parent, involve not acting in a disrespectful manner towards a parent. What emerges from this Talmudic passage is that according to the strict definition of kibbud and mora, there may not be an obligation to listen to a parent who wants the child to do something for the child’s benefit when there is no physical benefit to the parent. For example, a child may not need to listen to a parent about choices that the child makes, like a car or home purchase, a vacation, a spouse or a job, even if the child’s choice very much upsets the parent.
Indeed, in the 15th century, Rabbi Yosef Colon provided this rationale as one of the reasons why a child need not listen to a parent who doesn’t want him to marry the woman that he desired. Since the parent receives no tangible physical benefit for his son’s decision about his marriage partner, the son need not listen to the parent’s request. The Rema (Yoreh De-ah 240:25) rules in accordance with Rabbi Colon.
However, some acharonim disagree with this assessment. In his commentary to Masechet Kiddushin entitled Ha-miknah, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz writes that if you do not listen to a parent’s request when there is no loss to you in doing so, then you violate the obligation of “mora” towards your parent. After all, one of the examples of “mora” in the gemara is contradicting his words, and you are effectively doing that when you don’t listen to his request. The Chazon Ish (Yoreh De-ah 149:8) writes that if a child may not contradict a parent, then certainly he may not refuse a parental request if this refusal will cause his parent anguish. According to both Rabbi Horowitz and the Chazon Ish, the reason why a son need not listen to a father regarding the choice of a spouse is that this is an unreasonable request. Rabbi Horowitz does not require a child to listen to a parent’s request if the request will cause a loss to a child and the Chazon Ish writes that just like a son is not required to give his father all of his belongings just because the father covets them, a son need not listen to his father regarding the son’s choice of whom he wishes to marry. Indeed, Rabbi Colon provided a number of reasons why a son need not listen to his father in this instance and both Rabbi Horowitz and the Chazon Ish do not believe that we can extrapolate from marriage to other cases. Marriage is the exception to the rule because a life choice like a marriage partner poses a major imposition on the child and is beyond the scope of what is reasonable for the child to do for a parent.
Rabbi Asher Weiss formulates this position a bit differently. While Rabbi Horowitz and the Chazon Ish seem to argue that listening to reasonable requests by a parent constitutes a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “mora,” Rabbi Weiss believes that this act is not a mitzvah, but it is “ratzon Hashem,” or the will of God. In Minchat Asher, Breishit (21:4), he explains that we must observe the will of God even with respect to those matters that are not counted among the 613 mitzvot because they were not said in the language of an explicit command. He provides a number of examples of this concept. One of the examples is listening to requests of a parent that do not fit into the strict definition of “kibud” or “mora” as stated in the gemara when the child will suffer no financial loss or pain when doing so.
Where does that leave us? To what extent must we listen to parental requests when they don’t directly impact the physical well-being of our parents? Listening to a request may be a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “mora,” especially if not doing so will cause a parent pain, and it may be a fulfillment of “ratzon Hashem.” However, as is the case with many halachot, we must balance the difficulty of listening to the request and how much pain the parent will suffer if we don’t listen to the request. In practice, we hope that parents and children can find a compromise position in many of these instances. We hope that they understand the breadth of the mitzvah of kibud and mora from a halachic and hashkafic perspective, as well as the limitations of this mitzvah, especially the reasonableness of the request and the potential loss than listening to the request may pose to the child. Certainly, it would seem that important life choices that a child makes in his lifetime (job, where to live, whom to marry, etc.) should not fall under the category of kibbud or mora, either because it does not fit under the strict definition of the halachic category or because it is an unreasonable request of a parent to make on a child. In these instances, it still may be prudent to seriously consider the opinion of a parent because of the parent’s wisdom and experience. Furthermore, a child must consider the negative impact that failure to listen to a parental request may have on the parent-child relationship. However, at the end of the day, halacha recognizes that a child’s important life choices ultimately are his or her own to make.