Question: May a child ever receive help from a parent?
Short Answer: Yes, a child may accept an offer for help from a mother or a non-“ben Torah” father. If the ben Torah father insists on helping, many hold that a child may accept the help. There is also room to be lenient if the father is just performing basic tasks for the child or is helping the child perform a mitzvah.
I. The Source
The Gemara (Kiddushin 31b) recounts how Rav Yaakov ben Avuhah would return home, and his father would offer him a chair and his mother would offer him a drink. Rav Yaakov, however, would only accept the drink from his mother and not the chair from his father. His father would be “weakened” (i.e., saddened) by performing chores for his son, and this was a problem, since his father was a “ben Torah.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 240:25) paskens like this Gemara and rules that a son may accept a father’s offer to serve him as long as the father is not a “ben Torah.”
II. Who Is a Ben Torah?
The Maharsha (ibid) understands the term “ben Torah” that is used to describe the father as someone who is a big talmid chacham and the rebbe of the son. Accordingly, if the father is just a regular frum Jew, the son would be allowed to accept the help/offer from the father, as well.
Indeed, the sefer L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha (siman 52) cites Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l as limiting the term ben Torah here to someone learning in a kollel.
However, the sefer Ateres Shmuel (siman 4) cites the Tosafos Ri HaZakein (ibid) as understanding the term as referring to any chacham or knowledgeable individual – even if that knowledge is in secular subjects or a business trade.
The Ateres Shmuel (ibid) likewise suggests that the simple explanation of this Gemara is that since a male is fundamentally a ben Torah since he is obligated to learn Torah, a son can never accept any help from a father.
III. The “Please, Please, Please” Exception
The Ran (ibid), however, rules that if the father very badly wants to serve the child and begs the child to let him do so, the child should accept the help/offer from his father. The Ran cites a Gemara Yerushalmi (Pei’ah) as proof. The Yerushalmi states that the mother of Rabbi Yishmael insisted on drinking the water used to wash his feet, and the Chachamim urged Rabbi Yishmael to accept it, because it was so important to her, and thus to allow her to serve/honor him was essentially an honor to her. The Ran notes that this applies to a father the same way as a mother.
The sefer L’maan Yaarichun Yamecha (ibid) cites the Meiri as similarly ruling that a child should make a judgment call. If he thinks the parent – even a father who is a ben Torah – would prefer that the child accept the offer, then the child should accept the help/offer from the parent.
Nevertheless, the Birkei Yosef (240:25) cites the Pri Chadash as disagreeing with the Ran (although he doesn’t mention the Ran by name). Even if a father insists that a child accept his offer to help, the child should still refuse, because invariably the father will be saddened by having to help his son. The Birkei Yosef would likely understand the Yerushalmi cited by the Ran as limited to a mother (see sefer Yosher Hori, siman 6).
Yet, the Yosher Hori subsequently defends the Ran’s proof from the Yerushalmi. Since Rabbi Yishmael was ordered by the Chachamim to accept an honor from his mother despite the fact that it was embarrassing to her (drinking water of his feet!), we see that even degrading acts of parents are allowed, if that is what the parent truly desires. So, too, by a father who is a ben Torah – if he truly wishes to serve his son, we allow him to do so, even if that will cause him to become “saddened.”
IV. Practically Speaking
Rav Nissim Karelitz zt”l (Chut HaShani, Kibud Av VaEim, p. 315) queries what to do where a father who is a ben Torah commands his son to take the drink he is offering him. Should the son listen and “sadden” his father, but at the same time, listen to his command? He does not answer his query and leaves it “tzarich iyun.”
The sefer V’Darashta V’Chakarta (4:37) cites a ruling of the Chazon Ish to his nephew, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, that Rav Chaim should never accept tea made by his father, the Steipler (the Chazon Ish’s brother-in-law) based on our above discussion. Rav Chaim (Derech Sichah, Parshas Yisro) notes though that if a father offers the son a drink despite that it will sadden him, he is not truly a “ben Torah” and likely doesn’t know the Gemara, so the son can accept the drink from him.
Moreover, the Yosher Hori (ibid) cites Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita as ruling that a child may accept help from a father who is a ben Torah for simple tasks such as preparing breakfast or to get him dressed, as this is not “service” by the parent. A similar ruling is found in the Ateres Shmuel, but he brings other Acharonim who disagree and rule that a child should never directly tell a parent to help him, but should rather note what he needs help with (i.e., “I can’t button my shirt”) and the parent will know to help.
Finally, the Avnei Derech (8:554) notes that where the child needs the parent’s help to perform a mitzvah, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita has ruled that a child may ask even a father ben Torah for help. On the other hand, he cites the Torah Lishmah who disagrees and says there is no difference between help for mundane items or for mitzvos.