Question: Is a son ever obligated to stop learning Torah to perform kibud av va’eim?
Short Answer: Yes, depending on the situation, a son must sometimes stop learning Torah in order to perform kibud av va’eim, especially if the task will only take a few minutes.
I. The Lesson of Yaakov Avinu
The Gemara in Megillah (16b) notes that Yaakov Avinu was not punished for his lack of kibud av va’eim during the 14 years that he learned in the yeshivas Sheim v’Eiver. The Gemara learns from here that learning Torah is “greater” than the mitzvah of kibud av va’eim. This Gemara is codified in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 240:13).
The Gemara in Moed Katan (9b), however, explains that while learning Torah takes precedence to a mitzvah that can be performed by other people, a person must stop learning Torah to perform a mitzvah that cannot be performed by other people. This Gemara is codified in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 240:18).
Thus, when read together, these two sources in the Gemara present a problem. Why does the Gemara need to teach us that learning Torah is “greater” than kibud av va’eim? If others can perform the act of kibud av va’eim instead of the child learning Torah (e.g., ask if someone else can get the parent a drink), then of course learning Torah overrides kibud av va’eim. On the other hand, if others cannot perform the act of kibud av va’eim instead of the child learning Torah, then must the child stop learning and perform the kibud av va’eim, seemingly making kibud av va’eim “greater” than learning Torah?
II. Suggestions to Answer
The sefer Yosher Hori (siman 10) suggests that perhaps the Gemara in Megillah means that learning Torah has a “greater” reward than kibud av va’eim. In other words, of course a child must stop learning Torah to perform kibud av va’eim where no one else can perform the mitzvah, but his reward would be greater had he still been able to learn Torah and found someone else to perform the kibud av va’eim. [The Yosher Hori, however, ultimately rejects this explanation].
The Pischei T’shuvah (Yoreh Dei’ah 240:8) answers that it depends on the location of the child. If the child lives in the same city as the parent, then of course the child must stop learning Torah to perform kibud av va’eim where no one else can perform the mitzvah. However, a child learning Torah in a different city as his parents does not need to move to his parents’ city to perform kibud av va’eim, just as Yaakov Avinu did not leave yeshivas Sheim v’Eiver to return to his parents’ city. The Aruch HaShulchan (240:36) similarly explains that the Gemara in Megillah is to be understood as teaching that learning Torah is greater than kibud av va’eim in the sense that a child does not need his parents’ permission before going to learn Torah in a different city.
III. Practical Applications
Based on the above answer of the Pischei T’shuvah, Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita (T’shuvos V’Hanhagos 3:274) rules that the practical guideline for the child is whether the kibud av va’eim is a short-term disruption of his learning, in which case the child must perform the kibud av va’eim, or whether it is a long-term disruption, in which the child does not need to listen to the parent. Notably, the T’shuvos V’Hanhagos adds that if the parent is ill and needs special physical care from the child, then the child must disrupt his Torah learning regardless of the length of the disruption.
Similarly, the sefer Imrei Paz (p. 253) cites a ruling from Rav Elyashiv zt”l that where a parent requests that a child stop learning to visit the parent, the child must listen. However, this only applies where the child is in the same city as the parent. If the child is learning out of town, then he is not obligated to stop learning to visit the parents. However, he is required to phone home. [The Imrei Paz also explains that if the parent is ill, then even a child learning out of town must stop learning and come visit, if the parent requests, based on a ruling of the Sefer Chasidim].
However, the sefer P’sakim U’T’shuvos (240:40) cites the Chazon Ish as ruling that a child should preferably choose an in-town yeshivah (if a suitable option is available) in order to be able to properly perform kibud av va’eim.
IV. Query of Rav Zilberstein
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita (Chashukei Chemed, Y’vamos 5a) queries whether a son who has a set shiur from a magid shiur (from whom he very much enjoys learning and from whom he benefits greatly) is required to miss the shiur in order to take his wheelchair-bound father to shul to daven. Rav Zilberstein cites the Makneh who notes that learning Torah is only greater than kibud av va’eim where the father doesn’t explicitly request the child stop learning to help him. Here, however, the father specifically requested the child miss his shiur to take care of him, making it a case of “awe” (mora) which a child may be obligated to forgo his special shiur to perform. Yet, Rav Zilberstein concludes that he is unsure of the proper halachah in this situation.
V. The Important Exception
Many poskim note that this whole discussion only pertains to a case where the parents request an act of kibud av va’eim for themselves. However, if a parent requests that a child stop learning Torah to attend a cousin’s wedding or another family gathering, the child is permitted to politely decline. See L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha (siman 35), citing the ruling of Rav Elyashiv zt”l.
VI. To Sleep or Not to Sleep?
Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz shlita asked Rav Reuven Shlomo Schlesinger (Gam Ani Od’cha 31) whether a son can tell his parents that he cannot perform kibud av va’eim because he needs to sleep in order to learn Torah better the next day. Rav Reuven Shlomo responded that it depends on whether others can perform the kibud av va’eim. If others are available, then the son can push off the mitzvah of kibud av va’eim simply for sleep, as long as the sleep is for the betterment of his Torah learning.
Next Week’s Topic: May a child place an elderly parent in a nursing home instead of caring for the parent in his own home? If yes, who pays for the nursing home?